Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Memory of Sebastian... And All The Others Like Him

While I was living in The Republic of Congo (ROC) I visited Baby Crèche Orphanage. 
I had waited to go, because I knew what would happen when I did.

The first time I went I spent the whole time with a baby boy named Sebastian. He was withdrawn, somber and weak.  He had long, skinny legs, just skin and bones, sad eyes, and a disproportionately large, round stomach. 

I’m a sucker for the ones who you have to work to get a smile out of – I take it as a personal challenge. And with Sebastian, it was sure a challenge.

I went back to the ship, and what I had feared would happen took place. After a few days of thinking about and praying for Sebastian, I began to research the adoption process for Republic of Congo. Several weeks of emails to anyone and everyone I could find who knew anything about international adoption in ROC eventually led me to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible for me to pursue adopting little Sebastian at this point.

The Republic of Congo doesn’t allow single adoptive parents under age 35, and even then only allows same gender adoptions for single parents. It would cost over $7000 just to put together the paperwork to even ASK a judge to make exceptions to both these rules. Not only that, but being in the country with him actually made it harder, if not impossible to start the process. I’m pretty sure the US government wouldn’t accept a home study of my 6-berth cabin.

I visited Sebastian and the other babies at the Baby Creche orphanage a few more times before I left. As we were leaving, some of the other Mercy Shippers would say things like, “Doesn’t it just make your day to hold those babies?”

“No”, I would think to myself, “it absolutely ruined my day.”

How can I go about my day normally - where there’s no question in my mind about whether or not I’ll have supper, or if something happens if I’ll have someone there to support me - when I’ve had this fresh reminder of all those without their basic needs met and without anyone to look out for them?

Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor
 and the oppressed.
Psalm 82:3

Today I found out that Sebastian passed away this past Friday. Malnourished, abandoned, and with no one to make his problems their problems, he slipped out of this life.

Grief, guilt, and sorrow coalesce somewhere in the depths of my heart. You all will tell me not to blame myself, and really, I know it's true.

But I can’t help but wonder how many kids just like Sebastian died today.
And I can’t help but wonder if there’s something I could have done about it.

According to the World Food Programme, "poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five - 3.1 million children each year." 

Let me do the math for you - that’s 8,493 a day.


There is no getting around the sheer injustice of this. 

How many of us, had we sacrificed something that we “need” or want, could have made a difference in the lives of one or more of these helpless children? When I compare the value of spending $28,000 on the new car I'm looking at versus putting my resources towards LITERALLY SAVING LIVES, the car doesn't seem like as much of a necessity. 

“Christ has no body on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out;
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
And yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”
-Saint Teresa of Avila

I've seen it. 

I've seen lives transformed by the generosity of people willing to put other's needs above their own comfort. 

I've seen lives saved by surgery on a big white ship funded by donors and staffed by volunteers. 

I've seen orphans become sons and daughters of men and women who understand Christ's love so deeply that they're willing to do for others what he did for us. 

“'He defended the cause of the poor and needy, 
and so all went well. 
Is that not what it means to know me?’ 
declares the LORD.” 
Jeremiah 22:16

Far too often the hugeness of the need for justice in this world paralyzes us, stopping us from doing the things that we can do to make a difference. Relief organizations like Compassion International, Mercy ShipsThe Hunger Site, Charity: Water, and so many others save and transform lives. Development programs like Plant With A Purpose and Trade As One create sustainable resources in a community, break cycles of poverty, and lead to lasting change.

It starts with denying ourselves more excess (or reevaluating what we perceive as needs), so that others in the world, like Sebastian, can have their basic needs met. 

“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor,
 he too will cry out and not be answered.” 
Proverbs 21:13

 Let's make a difference, friends. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ramblings On Living With Purpose

First off, let me apologize for my lack of consistency in blogging. 

I promise I've had good intentions, even several partially written posts, but have clearly lacked the follow through to actually post them. 

As I prepared to leave the Africa Mercy, I wrote the following in my journal, which helps to summarize my time on board.

“There’s such a sense of purpose, passion and love here. I can’t express how much it bubbles up in my heart even writing this. Face after face flashes through my mind, each one bringing with it a surge of joy, grief, compassion, laughter, heartbreak or even regret.

We’ve experienced a whole range of stories – stories of hope and victory, tragedy and loss, commitment and love, hard work and triumph.

We’ve fought for the lives of children with aggressive malignancy that the ship doesn’t have the capability to treat; we’ve grieved together with their families when they’ve passed.

We’ve prayed and prayed for wounds to heal, grafts to take and infections to clear.

We’ve rejoiced when we’ve seen God faithfully answer our prayers, and shed tears when it seems he hasn’t.

We’ve bonded with patients who have been in the ward for months – and felt the tearing of celebration and loss when they’ve finally been well enough for discharge. 

The Africa Mercy is not perfect. Where people are, there is messiness. 400 people from 35 different countries living on one ship makes for a decent amount of mess. But when we remember why we’re here – the girl fighting for her life just a few decks below, the mama bringing her son in for his follow up appointment, the boy sitting in the screening tent who never thought he’d be able to go to school again because of the gaping hole in his face, the man who was lead up the gangway yesterday and today leaves with his sight restored – it puts everything into perspective.

It makes tight living quarters, 2-minute showers, being a 30+ hour trip away from home, having little choice and variety in what you eat, sharing everything – it makes it worth it. Beyond worth it. “

As I look to the future, to life after Mercy Ships, it’s that sense of defined, tangible purpose that seems the biggest loss. Even on the days when I would wake up discouraged or unmotivated, all I had to do was walk 50 feet down the hallway to the hospital, and my spirit was revived with a renewed sense of “yes, this is why I’m here.”

In the west, we view healthcare as a right, not a privilege. Because of how our healthcare system has evolved, as healthcare professionals we often find ourselves more focused on avoiding being sued or fired, rather than being completely focused on fighting for the wholeness of our patients.

The things that we’re putting so much effort and resources into advocating for - building hospitals with only private rooms or buying wifi IV pumps to monitor each button a nurse presses - seem trival compared to the massive yet basic problems facing those in the developing world.

A Congolese friend, as I was asking about the hospitals in Congo, told me “If you don’t have money, even if you are dying, you might as well leave the hospital. No one there will help you.”

The thought of going back to working in an environment where abundance is taken for granted makes me feel empty and tired.

But then I remember the reason why we don’t remove giant tumors from people’s faces and repair decade old burn contractures to restore movement and function in the U.S.  It’s because those tumors are removed when they are tiny, and those burns are treated immediately after they occur, preventing contractures. The preventative medicine we’ve developed in the West keeps us from having to deal with the extreme cases we see in the developing world. 

I believe that healthcare should be a right for every person in the world. What I desire for my patients on the Africa Mercy is what my patients in the states have – but to the point of excess.

So, the ever present and paralyzing question: What can we do? 

We can live lives of purpose where we are. We can remember the poor and suffering by doing what we do well, and by giving sacrificially in our daily lives and seemingly menial decisions. For those of us who know Jesus, we must continually ask ourselves, are we willing to let Him interrupt any and every area of our lives? It doesn’t mean He will, but if he asks, will we hear Him, and will we respond? 

As my plane was circling Pointe-Noire with an unlocked aft cabin door, the pilot's nervous voice once again came over the intercom, “ok folks, we’ve had a bit more difficulty, I’m going to try to make one more circle to burn off fuel and then we’ll make the emergency landing.” I had a little “am-I-ready-to-meet-Jesus” moment. Maybe I was being dramatic, maybe I was over emotional (not maybe, I was), but I honestly sat, praying, contemplating if I was ready.

I would have plenty of regrets if I hadn't made it through that flight. But the one thing I’d never regret would be giving myself and anything I have away. I’m not the most generous, not the most sacrificial person, but more and more I’m convinced that I want to be.

I don’t want to count any area of my life too precious to be sacrificed for the sake of serving God and loving people.  There’s nothing more I desire in life than to bow before Jesus and know that I gave all that I could. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Screening with Hope

The screening team has one of the hardest jobs on the Africa Mercy (along with the people who have to clean out the sewage tanks when they get clogged). I’ve worked only a few days with them, outside on the dock in big tents, but I can tell you already it is a stressful and emotional environment. 

This week they were screening orthopedic patients. Dr. Frank, the ortho surgeon, is here for 6 weeks. Since he was not here for the big screening day at the beginning of the field of service, the patients that the ortho screening team thought might qualify for surgery had to come back once he got here to be seen by him, and given a final “yes” or “no.”

The “yes’” are exciting, even though we know that there is still much hard work and pain ahead, and there are many variables that we hope will work together for the best outcome for each patient. The “nos” are the hard part. For the most part, I don’t have to have those conversations, the surgeons or maybe the chaplaincy team will explain why they do not need or qualify for surgery.

This afternoon, one of the last patients to be seen was a 12-year-old boy. I wasn’t a part of all the medical conversations that were had while his x-rays were being reviewed, but I do know that, for whatever reason, the bones forming his knee joint are not curved like they are supposed to be, instead they are flat, and as a result the knee is not able to bend. He walks around with one stiff leg all the time.

Dr. Frank explained this to him and his father, and said that he can do surgery to release the contracted muscle and remove the scar tissue that has formed, however, “we will pray very hard before we operate and after, because unless God heals, the leg will still be very stiff, and probably not be able to bend."

After the surgeon was finished I sat with a translator, the boy, and his father, to explain to him when to come back for surgery and what to expect. When we had finished describing the wards, what he would feel like after surgery, how long he might be with us, and many other things, I asked if they had any questions. Papa shook his head and said no. I looked at the boy, and placed my arm around him. “Do you have any questions?” I asked him through the translator. He looked up, then quickly back down to his hand folded in his lap and spoke words so quiet the translator had to ask him to repeat what he said. “Will I ever be able to bend my leg?”  Tears started welling up in his eyes.  His papa explained that his son longed to play football (soccer) with the other kids, and he had never been able to.

I wish I could’ve told him yes. Oh man, I wish I could’ve. God and I had a silent conversation that pretty much involved me saying, “Come on God, please heal his leg. I can’t bear to tell him no, he will probably never be able to play football. Every little boy should be able to play football.” 

Instead I rubbed the boys back, and told him that the surgery will help his leg some, but Dr. Frank is uncertain that it will help his knee to bend. However, God is able to do anything, so we will continue to pray that he heals his leg. 

The translator talked in a quiet voice to the boy for a few minutes before I broke in. “Would it be alright if we prayed for you?” Those big, tearful eyes looked up at me, filled mostly by sorrow, but with just a spark of hope. We bowed our heads and I asked God to comfort him, and to please, please let his knee be able to bend. It’s all we could do.

It’s moments like these that remind me how dependent we are on God. The reality is that even the things we think we can control we really can’t. There are no guarantees in life. God, in his graciousness, allows Mercy Ships to perform surgeries that have mostly good outcomes, that almost always change lives for the better. But we never know. 

This is the same in the west as it is in Africa - in the west we just have more things that give us the illusion of control. It takes us longer to reach the point of realizing there's no contingency plan. Even our "advanced" medicine can't heal everyone or make us live forever. 

So do we despair? Do we live in fear? 

I believe that we should continue to hope in the God of second chances, the God who can and does heal, though not always when we think he should. There is power in hope. I have no pat answers or easy explanation for when God seems to disappoint or leave prayers unanswered. What I do know is that I have seen that God is faithful. And while he may not heal every person that walks out of that screening tent, he has promised to be with us, to walk through the hardship and to continue to give us hope for tomorrow.

No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.
Psalm 25:3

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Romans 15:13

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gloire and the Plastics Girls

We’re now on the 4th week of surgery here on the Africa Mercy. Surgeons, nurses and patients have come and gone, and it finally feels like there's at least a little bit of a routine. 

Each nurse is assigned a ward where he or she will work for the entire time they’re here. I am assigned to A Ward, which is where all the general surgery patients (hernia repairs, lipoma excisions, goiters etc) are, as well as all the overflow patients from the other units (this is all dependent on what surgeons are on board at any given time – sometimes A Ward becomes Maxillofacial when there are no general surgeons here).  B Ward is Plastics (for a few more weeks, then becomes ortho, then womens health), and D Ward is “Max Fax” (Maxillofacial).

The wonderful part of being here from the start of the field of service is that, because it takes days and weeks of surgery for the wards to fill up, I spent the first 2 weeks working in other wards, and have been able to see all the different kinds of surgeries. I’ve gotten to take care of babies who had cleft lip/palette repairs (and are ADORABLE), like Daniel

 (seriously, those eyes?!? and that heart shaped nasal bolster?!?)

men and women who have had large facial tumors removed, like Ebeneezer,

(before surgery)

(post op from his tumor removal)

(at the HOPE center, after being discharged, with Tori Hobson)

and children and adults who have had contracture repairs and skin grafts from burn wounds, like Sahara.

(Sahara was burned in a house fire when she was a little girl. Both her parents died in the fire, and she has been adopted by her aunt.  She does not know that her aunt is not her real mother, and that her parents were killed.)

 (Sahara, Graci and Jemina are some of our resident plastics girls - we love them!)

This last week I was finally on A Ward all week. Right now it’s about half general surgery patients (who are discharged 1-2 days after surgery, so we don't get to know them as well), and half plastics patients (who have been here 10-20 days, as their graft and donor sites need attentive care and rehabilitation).

I loved getting to know the patients and caregivers better last week - spending 6 days with them gave us a lot of time to play and laugh. 

One of those patients is Gloire, who I've now adopted as my Congolese little sister :).

Gloire ("glory" in english) is a 14 year old girl who had a release of contractures in both armpits 18 days ago.

I took care of her the day of surgery and the day after. I helped her sit up every time she needed to eat or take medication  (no automatic beds here!), turned her all the way around in bed so that she could watch the movie at movie time (she was on bedrest for 2 days), hung curtains from the ceiling with magnetic hooks around her bed so she could use the bedpan, and tried unsuccessfully to get a smile out of her. Not even my horrific french could get her to laugh.

Last week she was moved to A Ward, and I got to spend all week with her. There are 5 other girls who have had contractures released with skin grafts on Gloire’s side of the ward.  They and their moms all talk and laugh together, and take care of each other.

All of them except for Gloire.

She’s reserved and quiet, and it’s hard to get her to crack a smile.

At least I thought she was quiet.

Last Wednesday I took care of her, and made it my mission to get her to come out of her shell. I took her for a “marche” (walk) in the hospital corridor, and she pointed out photos of the nurses she knew as we walked back and forth.  We tried to communicate to each other with mixed success.

I pointed to one photo and then another to show her which crew are married, which she loved, and then she proceeded to “match make” couples in the photos, which was equally hilarious and awkward (some of them involved her pointing to me and then a photo of a married crew member).  I had to drag her back into the ward when we were finished. 

I've learned Gloire is a typical 14 year old. She's playful, difficult, moody, and loves to test boundaries. She tries to follow me into the hallway every time I leave.  One minute she's laughing and pulling my hair or doing something mischievous, the next she's ignoring me because I let one of the other girls paint my nails, or play a game with me. Then I have to sit with her for 15 minutes before I can finally get this smile out of her again...

Yesterday I was off, and I found myself wondering what Gloire was doing. I found myself wanting to go visit A ward just to see if she was ok, if she was smiling. 

Nursing on the Africa Mercy is a whole different world. While my job is to look after these patients physically, their emotional and spiritual health is just as important to everyone onboard. What a blessing it is to be free to practice nursing the way that I've always wanted to!

Please continue to pray for our patients.  Some of the girls (including Sahara and Graci) have developed infections in their skin grafts.  We are praying that they clear quickly, and are able to continue a smooth recovery. 

Love and joy from Congo,