Monday was my first full day at Tenwek Hospital, and the lessons came as quickly as the work.
Apparently motor vehicle accidents, especially motorcycles, maim people everywhere. Even in Africa.
We were treating a patient with a femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) fractures sustained in a motorcycle accident. This man should do well. His prognosis is good. But I learned a truth about mission work.
It is really hard.
For the fractures we use a rod called a nail to stabilize the fracture and allow it to heal. I do not lack the experience of inserting the nails, at least not the ones we use in the United States.
At home the nails require the use of an intraoperative Xray machine as well as power tools for their insertion, 2 items much of the world lacks.
Here at Tenwek we use a different version. Based on his experience during the Vietnam War, Dr. Lewis Zirkle founded a company called SIGN (Surgical Implant Generation Network), and designed a nail specifically to be used without the use of Xrays or power.
I learned quickly that even though the nails are designed to be put in without Xray, they are hard to put in if you aren’t used to doing it without Xray. The skills I had acquired after hundreds of this same type of procedures did not completely translate.
What I thought would be a 1 1/2 procedure turned into 4 hours. I was tired. Hot. Sweaty. Thirsty. Frustrated.
I don’t like being any of those things whether in Kenya or in the United States. I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy. The work was hard and it didn’t make me feel like a hero. Instead I felt like an idiot.
When I finished the procedure, I had nothing left. I was exhausted. Out of energy and out of hope.
In times like this, easier days fill my frustrated mind. Why couldn’t I just use the better instruments I have at home? Why did this have to be so difficult? Why don’t they have air conditioning in the operating room?
Even worse, I was asking myself why bother? Why come here and do this work at all?
When the surgery was finished, the patient was awakened and was able to look up at me. He did not know me at all. To him, I was a funny looking man with a scraggly beard and incredibly white skin, who spoke a strange language.
I was a foreigner. A stranger.
But as he lifted his head, he gazed into my eyes and said “Thank you.”
He couldn’t say it, but I know he meant, thank you for coming here. Thank you for giving up time at home with your family. Thank you for giving up many of the comforts you enjoy at home. Thank you for taking care of my leg so that I might walk again.
Thank you for loving me.
His statement didn’t make my sore back feel any better, but the pain was overshadowed by the joy that came with providing him the medical care he desperately needed and I could give.
The answer to the question of “why” became obvious.
When we consider getting involved in missions, we are filled with romantic ideas of saving the world. We imagine victorious moments. Incredible feats of strength. The stuff of heroes.
The real work of missions is hard. We have to go places where nobody else is willing to go, and there are many good reasons people don’t go there. We have to find new ways of doing things that are much, much easier to do back home. We have to love people that can give us nothing in return.
It reminds me of Jesus. He gave up everything. He left his throne next to his father in heaven. He was the creator of all things, but he took on the limitations of a body.
And when it mattered most, he took on the pain of death, a death on the cross. All for us.
And if we could ask him why he would do all of this, his answer would be simple.
Jesus did all of this because he loves us.
If we are to follow him, we have to enter into the hard and difficult places. We have to say yes even when everything in us screams for us to say no.
We have to love and we have to do the hard work.
Jeremy Statton is an orthopedic surgeon and a writer. He is an avid blogger at JeremyStatton.com focusing on helping others live a better story. He is also the author of Grace Is: A Practical Guide to God’s Love. Follow him on Twitter @jeremystatton.
CC Image • WarzauWynn on Flickr