“Will your grace run out
if I let you down.
Because all I know
is how to run.”
Before moving to Papua New Guinea, I started writing blog posts as a way of communicating with those helping us to get here. After more than a year living amongst the highlanders of this island country, seeing their joys and griefs, I realize it's become something different. After a particularly difficult patient, I find that writing their story helps me to absorb who they are, or were – and how to cherish their life while moving forward in my work.
16 months ago we moved here and nearly every patient broke my heart. I came home at the end of call or a typical work day and spent time in prayer, searching for reasons behind the suffering I saw. I admit, after dealing with almost identical stories of abuse, disease, neglect and violence I developed a thick skin. Not every patient touched me. My calluses got thicker and the tenderness that I approached each day with started to wane.
This helps, actually. If I walked to the hospital every day, full of its struggles and loss with bare skin I think I would wear out and return home.
But every once in a while, I think God likes to carve an opening in my thick skin, and in brief moments, He reminds me of the needs of the people here as well as my reliance on Him in trying to help them.
Last week a young woman brought who I thought was her son into my clinic room. Manuel had been having cough and diarrhea for almost two weeks. He looked dehydrated and showed some early signs of malnutrition. I usually wonder, in a young child, if the mother is taking care of them or may have passed on HIV to the baby. I asked, “Is this your baby or did you adopt him?” And she replied “I adopted him last week. My sister, his mother, died two weeks ago in this hospital – you tried to help her but she died and now I take care of him.”
All my thick skin was useless.
As I looked at Manuel and remembered his mother, Ruth, the barbs of reality hit my heart.
I admitted Manuel and he seemed to do well. I went back to his mother's chart, remembering her distinctly but wanting to see if there was something I missed. I looked at her lab slips, an old Xray, her treatments. In it all I saw several things that I might have done differently – but probably not at the time. Of course, in the US things would have been very different, but for the resources we have here, I don't know that her care could have been better. In the physical, medical world I sought answers. But Ruth's story didn't end well, and all the medical answers in the world wouldn't bring me peace as I looked at Manuel, with sunken eyes and a slightly swollen belly.
I knew then and there that I would be writing their story down, but it took nearly a week for me to know how.
You see, I have this idea that I should try and do justice to someone's story or life if I choose to share it with others, particularly on the internet. Part of that represents my wanting to honor their memory, but part of that, I now realize, is selfish. I grew up on stories from the mission field and having followed in those footsteps I feel that I have to tell good stories to others.
As I struggled with Manuel and Ruth's story, I nearly decided to keep it, in fact nearly decided to stop sharing my patients' stories at all.
But this morning as I read, I realized that sharing the lives or stories of my fellow highlanders doesn't have to be long-winded, eloquent or inspiring. Their lives and stories are worth knowing and hearing, and I'm just the one privileged to experience them, even if it hurts at times.
“Open your mouth for the speechless,
In the cause of all sons of passing away.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
And plead the cause of the poor and needy.”
These words resonated with me. And I realized that with all this thick skin, it's been harder to find where Christ is. In the midst of the patients and babies we lose, the stories of abuse and battered women and a culture in great need of transformation, I've lost sight of the reason I came here. I've turned this opportunity into a job. And I learned, through Ruth and Manuel's stories, that every once in a while I need my thick skin to be broken and to feel brokenness. Because in those times, I don't have to look for Christ – He comes to me.
And those moments of comfort send me back to the hospital, praying that I'll be more sensitive and careful with the stories I get to take part in.
"You are a Savior -
You take brokenness aside
and make it beautiful"