I can’t imagine this look inspires much confidence from my patients…
There’s nothing like being on a roll, then hitting a wall. A few months ago we hit that wall here in Togo. A fellow missionary, Todd DeKryger at our sister hospital in Mango got sick. After being he was evacuated to Europe for treatment, he died. He was young, healthy and the leader of the awesome outreach to the Muslim northern part of this country. About two weeks after Todd’s death, we learned that he had contracted Lassa fever, a cousin of Ebola that up until this past year had rarely caused fatalities. At nearly the same time we learned that this information, another missionary from our sister hospital, who provided care for Todd was critically ill with all the same symptoms and evacuated to the US.
I’ll go ahead and add the caveat that the burden we bore as a result of this was nothing compared to that of the families and friends of those affected. That being said, the aftermath for us was very difficult for us. Information was slow to reach us and our minds swirled with images from all the dramatizations of infectious disease outbreaks, not to mention the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. World Medical Mission did an amazing job supporting us through this entire episode. They sent out extra supplies of medications and equipment to help us prepare for any spread of the disease. We are so thankful to have the support of such an amazing organization.
The next week was the worst week (at least medically) of my life. Nearly every day I lost a long and emotional battle to keep a young person alive. I was devastated. I was scared for my family. I felt alone. Where was the God who answered prayers? Where was the Good Father, the one who gives good gifts to his children?
In some ways I’ve spent the last several months trying to figure out how to get out of the shadow of that period. I still have lots of questions, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned:
1) The real problem is sin in the world. Maybe that sounds obvious, but the last few months have really impressed that on me. From the obvious: unfaithful spouses spreading HIV, drunk motorcycle drivers crippling and killing little children; to the less obvious: the very presence of disease, systems that hold people in poverty and beliefs that push people to do ridiculous things in an effort to avoid offending their dead ancestors. The effects of sin are devastating.
I think America could probably be compared to a rich person who can afford a lawyer to
Peter Enjoying His First Cupcake on His Birthday
sneak them out of trouble. In the same way, money and other resources often help us avoid the immediate effects of sin. Here there is no buffer. If a dad becomes an alcoholic there is no social safety net. When somebody dies the funeral must be extravagant; otherwise that person might come back to haunt you. This routinely depletes savings and incurs debts, which means no money to pay for school, suitable housing or timely healthcare.
2) I’m not a big fan of sports analogies, but I’ll use one because I think it’s very relatable: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson. I’m embarrassed to look back and see how quickly I let go of so many good habits, which pulled me into an even darker place. My daily Bible reading and prayer times vanished. I stopped communicating with a lot of my friends. I was vulnerable to that happening because those habits were relatively new. I won’t make excuses for myself. I’ve been a Christian for over 10 years, but I’ve never been great at carving out a consistent time in my life to formally seek God. Fortunately, I have a super supportive wife and lots of great examples here in Togo who inspired me to regroup and move forward. Discipline isn’t an exciting word. Discipline without joy and inspiration can be ultimately destructive, but Paul uses his own sports analogy:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the price? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercise self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” – 1Corinthians9:24-27
Restarting those disciplines for me was prophetic, in that it pulled me back into prayer and Bible reading – back to truth. I’m learning to love discipline. I’m learning to use it like a springboard. Rather than a checklist, it’s more like studying in med school, you have to work hard every day to keep up so when test time comes you’re ready. Only in real life pretty much all the tests are unannounced.
3) The most important thing is The Gospel. I hate sickness and death. God does too, more than me. Because of sin we are all affected by both. Like I mentioned earlier, in the US we’re sheltered from this because we have so many ways to delay the consequences of sin. I believe that delay allows us to deny the cause and effect relationship. James 1:15 tells us: “…Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Especially in the developed world that process can take years and is hidden behind layers of rationalization and blame shifting. Here there is often no such luxury. Thankfully, as Peter wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading…” (1Peter1:4). Here it rings even truer. No disease or accident or corruption can take away the imperishable reward we have through Jesus. We share the Gospel with every patient and family that come through the doors. Thousands make a choice to follow Jesus every year. I’m so thankful that despite all the death I see so often, I can rest assured that we are giving a gift that never breaks.
I’ll compare two recent happy endings:
It’s midnight after a long day on call. A 3-year-old comes in comatose. Then he starts having uncontrollable seizures. We give him maximum doses of two medicines with no effect. He starts to have trouble breathing. This is a bad sign – most kids that present in this way die here. I want to go home. For some reason I get the sense that this will be different, so I quit whining in my head, pray for wisdom, then start pushing back. We intubated the child, who is still having seizures despite the addition of another powerful medicine. After another hour he finally starts to calm down. It’s two o’clock, and I’m really ready to go home. We pray again, and I leave. I check back in a few hours later, and thanks to the efforts of one of our Togolese anesthetists and our visiting respiratory therapist the seizures had stopped. A day later he was breathing normally without oxygen. The next day he walked out of the hospital. I wish this was more common, but I’m so thankful for this victory over death.
A few days ago I got a request from our clinic to remove fluid built up in a patient’s
She is 65 (65ish, after 40 you rarely see anything other than 0’s or 5’s at the end of an age) and has visited 4 other hospitals. She doesn’t have money to do more complicated or invasive tests, so she’s travelled very far to our hospital looking for help. The procedure goes well, but the results are not so great for her. We don’t have any way to confirm, but everything points to cancer. I inform her that while she will probably feel better for a little while the fluid will likely return, along with her symptoms. She comes back the next week, short of breath, just like before. We’re out of tests. She can’t afford to go anywhere else. We share the Gospel with everybody, and this time she professes a desire to follow Jesus. Again, thank you God! I’m bummed that I don’t have any medical tools to fix her cancer. We still prayed for her healing, but she received something much more precious and long lasting.
Back to the child with the miraculous recovery; I honestly do not know what happened with that family spiritually. But the physical healing he received is temporary. The spiritual healing the older woman received is eternal.
I want to extend a special Thank You to all the people who donate a few weeks or few months of their time to serve with us here. If not for that I would never have the time to write any of this stuff. I also want to thank all the people who make it financially possible for us to be out here as well as those who partner with us in prayer.
Thanks for reading!