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.
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.