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Missionary doctor hopes to inspire lives of significance by stories borne from struggle

Susan Vitalis with a group of women and children in a village in Central African Republic. Special to The Forum1 / 4
Susan Vitalis with a group of children in India in 2012. Special to The Forum2 / 4
Susan Vitalis helps warm children outside the clinic in the Central African Republic in 2012. Special to The Forum3 / 4
Roxane Salonen, columnist4 / 4

From an early age, Susan Vitalis began grappling with God's purpose for her life.

She was only a sophomore when she gave a student chapel talk at Fargo's Oak Grove High School, where her father was the campus pastor, posing questions about life.

On Sunday, May 28, she'll return to her former school to give a commencement address to graduating seniors, sharing what she's learned since her own youthful time there.

"I want every one of them to know they can live a life of significance and make a difference," Vitalis says. "We're all unique, so it's about finding our strengths, and realizing God has a purpose for all of us."

These lessons have not always come easy. As a teen, Vitalis couldn't have imagined the suffering she'd experience to discover the truths she now holds deeply.

While working as a missionary physician in war-torn countries, Vitalis eventually ended up with a blown-out knee, at times a beleaguered mind and, ultimately, a life-altering traumatic brain injury.

But nothing could steer her from that initial fixation on God's will, says her older sister Kathy.

"She's had times of darkness when she's felt alone, but she's never asked, 'Why me?'" Kathy says. "Her faith has always been really connected to 'What is God calling me to do that's going to make a difference?'"

Even in hardship, Kathy says, her sister's faith has only strengthened, mainly by having been inspired by the people she's encountered and served along the way.

And in her new book, "she's discovered in a new way how God is calling her to be a witness and source of inspiration and hope for others."

Kathy says it includes a story about children in an orphanage in Rwanda who witnessed their own parents' murders. "Susan tells how at night, they all end up all sleeping together, because they just wanted and needed that human touch; the power of human connection is so strong."

Despite its heavy content, Anna McHargue, who edited the book, says it's filled with humor.

"She has some funny stories in there, or at least she tells them in such a way that you're laughing along with her. You almost can't believe everything that happens to her," McHargue says.

She also enjoyed being introduced to words like "uffda." "I found that charming," McHargue says. "It really grabbed me when I was reading along, how she's a real person."

McHargue also says she was "struck by how many horrible places (Vitalis) was willing to go at God's request."

"Like in the depths and death of Rwanda, where people had no limbs because they were all chopped off, but she was there to do God's will," she says. "I found that remarkable."

The book, organized in six inspirations chapters — or "concepts" as Vitalis calls them — is also peppered with references to Christian music and lyrics, which Vitalis says kept her going through the roughest times.

"This is totally God's book, and that's all I wanted," she says. "It's my experiences, but God writing through me."

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email