Medical missions is hard. One could say that, if it isn’t hard, it isn’t medical missions. As Christians, we are indisputably called to walk into the dark places of God’s creation and proclaim his glory and his love. Our hands get dirty, and our hearts get beat up.
A few months ago, at my hospital in Burundi, things were especially difficult. Electricity was out. The hematology machine was broken, as was the x-ray. I had a slew of patients who didn’t necessarily seem incurable at their arrival, but despite all our efforts, they continued to worsen. That's a particular challenge, since it feels like their being in the hospital is associated with them getting worse, instead of better. With death, instead of life. Every day I did rounds with a very green group of Burundian medical students, who had never been this entwined with caring for people this sick before.
How do we bring hope? For that matter, where is the hope? How do I encourage my students to endure? How do I beat off my own cynicism? To avoid a premature resolution of this tension, let me be clear: We believe in the free, eternal grace of God through Jesus. We believe in eternal life, and we work to integrate evangelism into all that we do at our hospital. However, neither my head nor my heart accepts that this annuls the awfulness of a young person dying of a preventable disease. No one knows this better than Jesus, weeping at the tomb of his friend.
Over the last several years, I have discussed these questions many times, with students or with visiting doctors, and each time I'm of course talking to myself as well. There are as many answers as there are challenges, but I’ll share three things that have been an encouragement to me.
First, if I want to be here when I can help, I also have to be here when I can't. Every time my patient unexpectedly dies, or the test comes back positive for the non-treatable possibility, or my last therapeutic option just isn't working, part of me wants to abandon ship, to run away from all that I can't do. I know that won't help my patients, but I guess I want to pretend that such situations don't exist, at least not in such a common and stark form.
We can't know ahead of time whom we can help. Sometimes we can make a great medical impact. Other times, we can't. The two are inextricably linked. Part of what we love in medical missions is the chance to dramatically alter someone's life for the better. Yet there is another side to that coin, because the magnitude and frequency of the tragedies go up, in a seemingly proportional manner. This must be endured, but not just endured. We have a calling here as well, for this is another place where we have to learn to trust God and find some way to bless and comfort these patients with the blessings and comfort that God has given us (2 Cor 1:3-4).
Second, as Paul writes: Fight the good fight (1 Tim 6:12). It feels like a fight. It is a fight. But it's a good fight. So, let's keep fighting it.
Third, though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). This is just as incredibly true for me as it is for my patients. For though we are missionaries with a message to proclaim, part of our target audience is ourselves. Part of where the kingdom needs to come is inside our own hearts. So this hard road is God’s road of sanctification for us. Thus, the doctor is the patient, and we all alike need the hope of the gospel that proclaims that suffering will be redeemed, that all things will be made new, and that our God is the God who, out of death, brings resurrection and eternal life.