Zachary, Deirdre, Mark and Benjamin Zimmerman in County Kerry, Ireland, 2016. (Photo: Courtesy of the Zimmerman family)

ATLANTA – Dr. Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman have spent most of their careers as United Methodist medical missionaries in Nepal, working in various assignments with several medical partners, including the United Mission to Nepal (UMN), a faith-based medical and health care partner founded in 1954 by organizations from 20 countries. Mark arrived in 1986 shortly after completing his medical training in internal medicine. Deirdre began work with UMN in 1997 as a nutritionist. They met at Patan Hospital in Nepal in 1998 and married a few years later. Today they have two sons in college in the U.S. who grew up in Nepal and consider it their home.

Last year, Mark and Deirdre decided to retire from missionary service and move to the U.S. to start new careers. For Mark, who grew up in Pennsylvania, this is a homecoming. For Deirdre, born and raised in Ireland, this is yet another country in which to make a new home.

“No idea what lay ahead”

In January 2023, Mark was asked to take a turn supervising senior students during their 4-month rural rotation. He traveled by jeep from Patan to Amp Pipal Hospital, 60 miles northwest of Kathmandu. He remembered a trip in the 1980s, when the only way to get there was to walk up the mountain, and he left his two porters to carry his suitcases while he pushed ahead to try reach the hospital before sunset. He writes:

Dr. Mark Zimmerman (back row) with Nepali medical students at Patan Hospital in Nepal, Patan Academy of Health Sciences, from 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the Zimmerman family

After about an hour of gentle climbing past banana trees and thatch-roofed stone houses, the first drops of rain bounce off the guitar case I’m carrying. I wonder where the rest of my porous pieces of luggage are now. I come upon three Nepali nurses who say they’re also walking to the hospital.

At first, I consider going ahead of them, but as steep became steeper, I grow to appreciate their methodical pace. They know when to stop and rest, when to be refreshed by tea, and they have a flashlight while mine is with my porters.

The forest thickens. There are no lights, no electricity, and no people. Who would be out walking on such a rainy night? Lightning flashes briefly illuminate the path. As we come around a hill, I’m startled by brightness a mile or so ahead. “The hospital,” one nurse murmurs.

That first time I walked up the hill to Amp Pipal, I had no idea what lay ahead. I’d come to Nepal the previous fall planning to do a several-month volunteer stint and, despite not being a committed Christian, had stumbled into an organization called the United Mission to Nepal. During the next year on that mountain, among total strangers – several of whom would be become lifelong friends – my life took a new direction: I became a Christian and discovered a calling, which meant spending my medical career in Nepal. Whenever people express surprise at our staying in Nepal this long, we usually admit it wasn’t our plan; we’ve just felt God nudging us on from one term into the next.

Leaving with intense activity and emotion

Deirdre says her career at Patan Hospital began and ended with a diabetic diet sheet. In 1998, Mark contacted UMN’s Nutrition Programme for help with dietary information for his diabetic patients. Deirdre continues:

I was thrilled to take on this task which drew on my primary training in and love for clinical dietetics. Leaving our homey offices near the heart of Kathmandu to venture into the hospital corridors for meetings with then-medical director, “Dr. Mark,” I had no idea of this project’s greater outcome. Two years later, 800 hospital staff and other friends joined us on a large school field to celebrate six months of our marriage with a repeat wedding ceremony and Nepali-style wedding feast.

While continuing to work as a nutritionist for UMN, my new identity as “Mrs. Mark” allowed me to work periodically with the kitchen staff at Patan Hospital on nutrition supplements for malnourished patients or those needing tube feeding. Without access to Ensure and similar Western products, we developed Paustik Sanjiwani (translation: “nutritional rejuvenation”), a sweet, vitamin-supplemented milk that was tasty to drink and easy to pass down a feeding tube in an unconscious patient. More than two decades on, Patan Hospital is still renowned for its Paustik Sanjiwani.

Dierdre Zimmerman, a missionary serving as a nutritionist at Patan Hospital in Nepal, from 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the Zimmerman family

Deirdre describes their final months in Nepal as a “gradually accelerating juggernaut.” Farewell dinner invitations, packing, setting up church visits in the states for one last round of itineration, more packing and goodbyes. She also managed to finalize one more project to help Nepalese children with type 1 diabetes and women who developed diabetes during their pregnancy.

Following God’s push into new adventures

Mark notes that as they considered moving to the U.S. to be closer to aging relatives, they thought, “What in the world are we going to do back there?”

As he thought about how much he’d miss the chance to preach in their Nepali church, he wondered about becoming a pastor. He soon realized he might be discerning a call, and Deirdre was supportive. Pastors are needed in many places in the U.S., particularly in New England. He decided to become a licensed local pastor.

Zachary, Deidre, Mark and Benjamin Zimmerman in Nepal, 2021. Photo: Courtesy of the Zimmerman family

Meanwhile, Deirdre was studying to pass her dietician certification and transfer her credentials from Ireland to the U.S. In mid-December, she passed the exam and is now ready for whatever God has in store for her career.

Lebanon UMC in New Hampshire

As Mark completed a course of study in Western Pennsylvania, his goal to become Pastor Mark drew closer. The New England Conference offered a pastorate in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and they moved to their new U.S. home.

Mark holds close the words of a dear friend who had been his supervisor at Patan Hospital 25 years ago. As he shared his doubts about his new career course, his friend, who had helped to found their church in Nepal, advised, “Of course you won’t be up to this job. But God is, and he’ll equip you.”

Mark notes: “For Deirdre and me, the sense of uncertainty, the adventure of this posting in Lebanon, feels something like going to Nepal for the first time. Wherever the call, it’s not about our capacity, but God’s.”

Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor with Global Ministries and UMCOR.