Ever since I read Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, I’ve tried to practice looking at my everyday experiences through a different lens. Instead of just going through the motions and being sucked into our agenda-driven society, I want to be able to slow down and thank God for the little blessings as well as the big. With this goal in mind, I began writing 5 “gifts” that I'd noticed from the day in a journal each night. Looking back through it months later, they’ve included everything from “5. sun, beaming through fall leaves and bouncing off shiny horses’ coats" to “483. Hilarious family dinners.” Pretty random, I know, but this exercise has helped me shift my thinking and truly enjoy each day.
Well, this past week at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya, I was faced with a challenge. How could I possibly find things to be thankful for in a place filled with pain and death? How am I supposed to find beauty in suffering? Is there only good in the medical success stories, or is there a gift in the sad endings too? Because I shadowed a respiratory therapist, this was a particularly challenging question that I had to face. I realized part way through the week why it seemed like almost all the patients we saw died. Any patients who begin to get better are transferred out of ICU, Casualty (their ER) and HDU (high dependency unit), and we don’t typically see or treat them again. Respiratory therapists only care for the patients who aren’t able to breathe well, so to put it frankly, I saw a lot of death.
Here is a window into what my days were like… I wrote these notes in my journal one evening. "I hold the hand of an elderly man who reaches out looking into my eyes longingly, only to find out the next morning that he had died. We walk outside. Sitting in the sun is a patient who attempted suicide over 6 weeks ago and had all medical odds against him, but is going home today with his caring family. “We Treat, Jesus Heals,” I think to myself. Next stop, HDU. At bed 1, I cringe as I hold the swollen, crinkly head of an unconscious 5 year old child with a broken skull who has hit by a motorcycle while walking home from school. Annette re-tapes the tube going down his throat. In the nearby ward, I perform CPR on a woman with AIDS... no heartbeat, it’s been too long. Time for lunch break. We eat, then head back up the hill to see how things have progressed. A woman in ICU with severe epiglottitis finally gets extubated, and is able to talk again. The first thing she says? "Praise the Lord!" “I've just gotta hold on to victories like this," I think to myself. We walk to Casualty. On bed 6 is a young man, my age, who has just arrived following a car accident. The staff member who is bagging (breathing for him) is paged. I offer to take over and he agrees. Several minutes later, it is decided that his brain damage is too severe. We need to let him go. Walking out of the room, I meet the gaze of his anxious, questioning brother and try my best not to let my face give away the devastating outcome. Back in ICU, the possibility of survival for the small boy with pneumonia is looking grim, the doctors and staff circle up and pray for the Lord’s healing."
Exhausted by the emotional roller coaster yet? I know, it doesn’t take long. Yet this is what these doctors and nurses deal with all day, every day. I admire their work. I wonder, how do they process it all?
I listen to the horrifying screams of an 8 year old girl suffering from the painful spasms that tetanus brings and find myself at a loss for what such a precious, fading life could reveal about God. What is there to be thankful for in such places of sadness and pain? Surely there is more to be learned than the consequences of pain and death that occur because of the depravity of mankind.
There is a sense of raw humanity in this place. Pain and death unite the young, the old, the rich and the poor. They have the ability to bring us all to our knees, crying out for relief…and when everything is stripped away, all that remains is Christ. It is a depth of pain and sadness that I don’t claim to have experienced personally. I don’t know their grief, but I feel like I’m just beginning to envision the depth of peace and comfort that the Holy Spirit provides when a child of God is at the end of everything he knows to do.
There’s nothing I can say to take away these people’s suffering. There is nothing to do but sit and cry with them… but I know that in the midst of the pain and the loss, when we're brought to our knees, we are held by our Maker.
As for my question of what the gift could be…there is no simple answer. I can’t simplify it to a line in my journal as number 987... but I know it’s there. It’s there because I’ve heard the testimonies of those who have been brought lower than they ever could have imagined. I know because of the way that God speaks to and comforts me when I’m merely watching it.
Sometimes after a day in the hospital I like to take a little walk down the dirt road to the sewing ministry. It’s refreshing to see healthy children happily skipping down the road...to remind myself that God gives joy and health, and to hug dear sisters in Christ.
The contrast of my time in Tenwek’s community and at the hospital has really echoed a quote I recently read in the book, When Helping Hurts. The author explains, "Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us” (79). The raw humanity I saw in the hospital stripped away any remaining dividers I saw between myself and the people of Kenya. Physically AND spiritually, we’re all broken to the point of no repair. We are left with nothing but to cry “Abba, Father!” begging Him to rescue us from our state of despair. Our only response can be one of awe. Awe of our need and His redemption. This is what unites us.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15
"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the old things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new."" Revelation 21:4