It's one thing to sail a hospital ship to a country in West Africa; it's another thing to find patients. It's a different matter altogether to find the right patients because we have such a small range of very specialized surgeries that we can do on board. Usually Mercy Ships solves this problem by having one or two large screening days, seeing 4,000-5,000 people in one day. This kind of large screening wasn't possible due to the elections in Togo, so we've tried a new process this year--screening multiple times a week, each time seeing only a couple hundred people.
I tried several times to go to one of the screenings, but each time something would come up to prevent my going. I finally had my chance two weeks ago (yes, I know, I'm behind on blogging!).
I am glad I wasn't the one actually screening the patients as I would not have known how to keep saying no to people. I did watch the screening nurses as they interacted with each person coming through the line, gently touching lumps and bumps, slowly moving burn-scarred arms and legs, peering inside mouths. Living on this continent with any kind of deformity or disability condemns you to a life of ridicule, scorn, and isolation. I couldn't help but wonder when some of the people coming through the line had last been asked to tell their story, last been touched, or last been truly seen as a person made in the image of a loving God rather than a shameful outcast.
People come with every thing imaginable: hernias, fungus over their whole body, goiters, neurological disorders, paralysis due to improperly done injections, burns, erectile dysfunction (yes, really), diabetes. Sometimes I'm pretty sure we can help, like the little boy who'd already had a surgery to have the tumor slowly creeping out of his mouth removed. Although the tumor was gone, somehow he was left with a slack jaw and floppy lips, unable to speak, eat solid foods, or even hold his mouth closed for very long. He got a card to come to the ship. So did the mama whose baby, mere days old, was born with a big gash in her lip, the cleft causing her to be unable to breastfeed properly. We can stitch that lip back together so she can eat and speak properly... so she can smile.
Sometimes we should be able to help but can't, like in the case of the little boy with severely bowed legs. This is the worst: we could straighten those legs out, but there's not any more room on the surgical schedule.
Sometimes we refer people to local doctors because we don't have the resources on the ship to treat cancer, or medical issues like fungus or diabetes.
And sometimes we can't help at all, which believe it or not isn't always a bad thing. It's a bad thing when you "only" have a little goiter no bigger than a walnut or a plum: we only have room for the watermelon-sized ones, the ones grown big enough to actually start compressing your windpipe and slowly strangulating you. Not being able to help is a good thing, though, in the case of a little girl who'd been badly burned. Her arm was covered in thick, scarred tissue... but her mother had worked hard to keep that arm flexible, so the little girl had full range of motion and therefore didn't even need surgery.
I watched people as they came through the line, the least and the lost, reduced to living lives of hiddenness, shame, and isolation. God knows each name, each tear cried, each insult flung their direction, each whisper about being cursed. God knew the exact moment the tumor began to push out the healthy tissue of the cheek, finally protruding out the mouth. God saw the baby forming in the womb and knew the baby's feet were clubbed. God saw the injection needle hit the sciatic nerve in the back of the leg, causing life-long paralysis.
I do not pretend to understand why God knows and sees all this and yet allows it to continue. I know deep in the innermost places of my heart that He grieves over His children's sufferings. I choose, although it is not easy, to trust in His promises: that He is always at work, that He will wipe away every tear, that He makes all things new.
Some people leave the screening area clutching a yellow card, their golden ticket to come to the ship and be assessed by the surgeon. Some leave with less than they came, their hopes laying broken at our feet.
Yet all leave having been touched, acknowledged, seen, sometimes for the first time in years. Those we turn away we pray with, cry with, hold. It doesn't seem enough.
We try to rest in the knowledge that God is sovereign, that somehow, some way, He has good purposes at work in all this despite what seems like insurmountable evidence to the contrary.
And we try to hold on to the names and faces of the ones that we say yes to, the ones that will come to the ship and become part of our lives for a time as we try to piece broken bodies back together.
We trust that God has indeed seen the plight of his people: the name that Hagar called God when He met her in the wilderness was the God who sees me. (See Genesis 16: 13-14)