By Sarah E. Belensky ’13
As a young girl, even the thought of leaving home for a week of summer camp seemed too daunting to be comfortable for me. However, one of the blessings of Adventist education is the opportunity to participate in mission trips. Over the course of my schooling, despite my initial fears, I found joy in participating in short-term trips. I soon realized that I could be even more helpful and provide more meaningful influence and blessings through a longer trip.
After a year of student missionary work during college, I caught the dream to become a Loma Linda University Deferred Mission Appointee (DMA) and become a long-term missionary physician. This dream helped sustain me through the long hours and challenging experiences habitual for medical school and residency.
In January 2018, 10 years after my student missionary work, I finally landed in Chad, north-central Africa, to work at Bere Adventist Hospital. My time here has contained some of the most challenging experiences of my life but also some of the most rewarding. I chose family practice as my specialty with an extra year in surgical obstetrics. With this training background, I help run the pediatric, adult medicine, and obstetric wards.
Because of the outstanding work of the several DMAs who have gone before me, our rural hospital is known all throughout the country as being one of the best. Patients come from all over the country and even surrounding countries to receive care from our humble hospital located far off the paved roads. They know that we are an institution of professionals who sincerely try to give our patients the best care we can.
One of the joys in working for an Adventist hospital is the relative freedom we have to share Christ with our patients. We always pray for God’s guidance to know which patients are ready. One particular patient this summer reminded me that God may not always choose the ones I expect.
I didn’t expect to see him the following day. There he lay in bed, looking as if death was fast approaching and might be a better option for him than the way he was currently living. A few days prior, our long-time nurse surgeon repaired his gastric perforation. These repairs are notoriously difficult to recover from but especially here — the caustic nature of the stomach contents emptied into the abdominal cavity, the impossibility to maintain good nourishment with so many days of being NPO, etc.
Our hospital has not had a long-term residency-trained general surgeon in decades, though we have had several competent doctors do the work very well throughout the years. When there are no surgically competent doctors around, there is still our surgically competent 70-something-year-old nurse. His eyes and clinical judgment might not be what they once were, but he is still our best option when AHI doctors are on furlough and we can’t get anyone to fill in. Truly, we can almost never get anyone to fill in, so we are ever grateful for our nurse surgeon.
During the summertime, the other services are often a bit quieter, so the other family physician and I decided to take turns rounding on the surgery ward. Our surgeon nurse will always be more skilled in the OR than I could ever hope to be, but his care of postoperative patients slips down the totem pole of priorities. We were seeing a higher than normal number of postoperative infections. My goals as a family practitioner rounding on surgery were to catch infections and repeat perforations early, verify that the patients were actually still taking their antibiotics, and make sure dressing changes were done at least once, if not sometimes twice, per day. Modest goals.
This particular patient was emaciated and dyspneic. I could hear the crackles in his lungs with his every breath, even without a stethoscope. His long and wide abdominal incision had dehisced through the subcutaneous layer, but the fascia was still intact. Each day I expected his bed to be unoccupied or his body replaced by another. A feeling of helplessness hit me in the face each day as I changed his purulent dressing. I did not have the intensive care resources needed to adequately take care of him. This sense of knowing what more could be done to save a life but not having the resources available has haunted me and perhaps nearly every DMA who has gone before me. But God asks me to surrender these worries to Him each time they arise. Ultimately, it is He, the Great Physician, who brings the healing. He only asks that I be an instrument for Him to use.
Missionaries before me developed the habit of purchasing and giving out Godpods (mp3 audio Bibles) for patients who had a particularly difficult hospital course. I had already given out a few to the long-term folks on the ward who seemed to me to need extra encouragement. One morning, the gastric perforation patient asked me (through the nurse for translation) for “la Parole de Dieu” (the Word of God). I’ll admit I was slightly astonished as I had not previously thought to give him one. Why? He was a devout Muslim. But through my surprise, I joyfully responded, “Oui! Demain!” (Yes! Tomorrow!)
The next morning, he lay in his bed as usual but now with a huge grin on his face. I continued to visit him every day, and every day he would thrust out his hand to shake mine and greet me in Arabic. Somehow over the several weeks that followed, he was still alive for rounds every morning. And somehow every day, the pus in his wound diminished a little, the granulation tissue grew, and the wound began to shrink.
“So shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth: It shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
We may be a humble institution in rural Africa without the capabilities that would enable high levels of medical care, but God is using this place to bring healing of body, mind, and spirit even to those I might not expect.