Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Uniqueness of Medical Missions

Thinking about ministry is much like thinking about a person: each ministry is unique in its own right, with its own set of blessings and challenges that set it apart from other ministries.  No two are the same, and they are constantly growing, adapting, and transforming over time.

With that said, some generalities can be made.  This post is about that: generalities.  Even within the relatively small medical missions world there are vastly different scenarios depending on context.  So let it be noted that this is only about generalities.

The various aspects of medical missions sometimes garner the envy of other ministries, and sometimes garner sympathy.  To understand why, here is what's generally unique about medical missions.

People come to you.
When a health professional shows up to hang his shingle, as it were, word travels fast and people suddenly start showing up at your door.  Medical missionaries rarely ever have to spend time and energy looking for people to minister to and who want their help.  People are sick all over the world, and many people have been sick for a long time without answers and without help.  So when a doctor or nurse or anyone with any ability to help with their physical needs shows up, people start flocking.  It's an incredible blessing to have the people you've come to help willingly come to your door.

You see lots of suffering and death.
The people at your door, however, are often deathly sick.  And I mean deathly.  One of the most unique and hardest aspects of medical missions is the incredible amount of suffering and death you see.  Heartbreak and tragedy are daily experiences.  Simple conditions like strep throat and serious diseases like tetanus, meningitis, and typhoid all lead to death without proper and timely intervention.  People die.  A lot.  Way more than you want to imagine and way more than you care to see.  And you see it.  You witness it with your own eyes.  It's especially hard to watch so many children die.  Mothers still die in childbirth, as do their babies, and young children still die at alarming rates from all kinds of conditions, most of which are preventable.  Medical missionaries must learn how to emotionally process all the death they see.  They must also become experienced at telling grieving family members that a loved one has died.  And sometimes grieving people wail at the top of their lungs for the entire hospital compound to hear - an ongoing reminder of the presence of death.  For all the good outcomes and healing success stories, of which there are many, the amount of suffering and death remains a shocking and sobering part of daily life for a medical missionary.

Opportunities to share the Gospel are plentiful.
Not only are people coming to find you, but many of them are eager to hear good news.  Being sick, especially if the sickness is serious, is a vulnerable place to be.  People want hope.  They want good news.  And what better news is there than the Good News?  A medical ministry offers incredible opportunities to share the love of Jesus and the hope of heaven with the sick and the dying.  Physical healing and spiritual healing often go hand in hand.  And in some places, like where we currently serve, there are few obstacles to sharing our religious convictions with patients in the hospital.

You must be careful not to forego the spiritual needs of patients.
Even though the opportunities to share the Gospel are plentiful, it's all too easy to get wrapped up in meeting the physical needs of the people around you, because the needs are glaring and abundant.  When you are faced with immediate physical needs, you tend to go into "doctor mode" and do the doctoring required to figure out what the patient needs to make them well again.  That's what you were trained to do.  Sometimes it's hard to remember the spiritual needs of someone who's lying on a bed in front of you with an arrow sticking out of his face.

Your professional training is ongoing.
We were expected to meet certain educational requirements before heading overseas as missionaries, and Eli was obviously required to have a medical license in order to practice medicine.  That medical license was obtained after seven years of medical training in America.  Family doctors in America are taught basic adult medicine and pediatrics, learning things such as helping patients with weight management and well-child checks and the occasional serious condition.  Family doctors in Africa need to know how to manage everything from malaria to cholera to worms to machete wounds.  Upon moving to Africa, Eli was required to further his medical training in order to treat diseases he'd never treated before.  For example, the very first patient Eli saw in Kenya needed to be treated for uncontrolled HIV and tuberculosis meningitis.  And that's not uncommon.  Eli has undergone extensive and ongoing medical training since moving to Africa, little of which was taught through his professional training in America.

There are days when we feel incredibly blessed to be doing what we're doing, and there are days when we envy what non-medical missionaries get to do.  I suppose that's human nature and par for the course.  Because every area of ministry has plusses and minuses, blissful benefits and dreadful downsides.

These particular aspects of medical missions are what make it unique.