Nurse on a Mission Trip

I left for Belize on a Saturday after running around getting ready to be gone for a week, I almost plopped into my airplane seat, grateful for a few minutes of respite when I began to wonder, “What have I gotten myself in to?” Going was my daughter-in-law’s idea. As a PA, she had been wanting to go serve as part of a medical mission. My husband, a family doctor, and I readily agreed to join a team that gradually grew to 28 to serve for a week in the inland part of the Central American country of Belize.

Long a part of the British Commonwealth, the country has English as its official language but with a total population of under 350,000 it remains needy with many parts of it underserved medically. Our team went to work in a compound that housed a medical and dental clinic where foreign doctors came 4-5 times a year. We were there to volunteer doing everything from family medicine and dentistry to screenings, hearing assessments with fitting for solar powered hearing aids and giving out of basic “reader” eyeglasses.

The first day we went to church in the morning and then saw 50 people that afternoon. Overwhelmed by the numbers of people and the long lines, we immediately began to work to prioritize, triage and figure out how many people we could realistically serve a day so that we would not end up having people wait all day only to be turned away. We did our very best to work with compassion and efficiency but there were still people we could not get to.

As a nurse and a sort of coordinator for the team, it was my job to help match volunteers with jobs they were suited for and to watch over the general work of the clinic, intervening where there might be problems. Together with other nurse volunteers, including a local nurse who helped with translations when people were not fluent in English (Belizians speak a mix of English, Spanish, Creole, and some Mayan languages), we checked vitals, weights, blood sugars, occasional hematocrits and lots of urine samples for infection and pregnancy. Our team had access to on-site X-rays, some ultrasound and EKG. The dental clinic also had X-ray and was fully functional to do most extractions and some restorative work. Some of the patients moved between dental and medical and even on to eye checks and hearing tests to get the full benefit of all the services provided.

Modern medicine and cell phones made it possible for our doctors to work with physicians back in the US to assess and offer expertise on cases. One young man, age 15, came in with a bullet lodged in his lower brain. The images were sent to a neurosurgeon stateside and also to a radiologist and a pediatrician. Together they concurred that surgery might do more harm than good and that he should not have it removed because of the risks involved with surgery. When seen, he was 2 weeks out from his injury and walking with minor assistance. The educated opinion of the experts, rendered from far away, were a great help to a family that did not know which way to turn.

The most difficult cases we saw were the ones where we felt our hands were tied by circumstances beyond our control. The breast mass, the severe heart murmur in a younger man, the colon cancer, the “spells” that remained undiagnosed—all caused the team anguish as we conferred, prayed, and tried to find a way forward. In a place where few have insurance and the medical system is cash based, not having money for a procedure simply means that it will not happen. In the end, we tried to give some assistance to the hardest cases we faced, but all were daunting as radiation and chemo and surgery are scarce and mostly unavailable. Extended treatments often require travel abroad, something that involves another set of hurdles, including the necessary paperwork and large amounts of cash.

After a busy week of seeing hundreds of patients, I was left with one predominant emotion: gratitude. Gratitude for what we were able to do, gratitude for the appreciative response of those we reached out to and those we worked with, and gratitude for all that we have here at home. In spite of the difficulties involved, overseas medical missions is productive in that it refocuses us on things that really matter: relationships, compassion, and the unity of all humanity as we occupy one fragile planet together. Yes, we are different but my goodness, we have so much in common. Whatever nation we are from, our bodies work in much the same way and malfunction in similar ways; our passion for helping our loved ones is undiminished by deprivation and scarcity of resources and our desire to be treated with dignity is uniform.

My hope is that we did a world of good in our week in Belize. Realistically, I know that the impact was relatively small. Some would argue that the resources spent in taking so many people was not worth the benefit. However, I would argue the opposite. The seeds of love and care sown will continue to bear fruit for years to come and more than that, our team was changed. We all came back with a bigger vision of our place in the world and our greater responsibility for our neighbors, both here and beyond.


Throwing Stones Naturally

Throwing Stones Naturally

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” John 8:10

I reached over to pick up my squealing 1 year old granddaughter, Malia, and tried to calm her piercing, high-pitched squeals, “No, no! That hurts Nana’s ears! No squealing.” I put on my sternest face and tried to communicate with her. She waved her chubby arms and squealed again, setting my ears on edge. I put her down and mumbled, “I’m going to have to put you in time out.” My two year old granddaughter, Olivia, immediately perked up, “Time out? She’s too little!”

“No, she is not going into time out,” I explained. “She is too little. You are right. Nana is just trying to figure out what to do to help her understand.”

As the evening continued, Malia screamed over and over, communicating her frustration and fatigue in the only way she knew how. Each time, Olivia would ask (rather gleefully, I might add…) “Is she going in time out now?” I had to chuckle and told her over and over, “No, she’s too little,” kicking myself for mumbling something I didn’t mean in front of an attentive 2 year old.

Judgement, righteousness, rules, boundaries, the difference between right and wrong—it’s where it all starts. We begin to learn this from Day 1 with our parents and grandparents and others cooing over our successes and—hopefully—setting appropriate boundaries to guide us.

The flip side of the coin of life is mercy, compassion and unconditional love. These attributes do not come to reside in us unbidden. We must invite them into our hearts each day. Our natural tendency is toward gleeful enforcement of the law: I’m right, you are wrong; I’m good, you are bad; I’m going to heaven, you will cook in hell.

Jesus came to teach us a new way, not to abolish right and wrong and not to deny that God is a Just God, but to complete the picture, to fill in some of the details that were not fully presented in the picture of the Old Testament God. As a whole Book, the Bible starts with “In the beginning” and ends with “I am the Alpha and Omega,” and in between paints a multi-faceted picture of a God who loves humanity, who created us for relationship with him, who longs to restore us to a life of wholeness; he is a God who suffers when we stray and who stands waiting, with open arms for us to come home, come home, “ye who are weary, come home.”

It’s easy to point our fingers, to shout with glee when others get what they deserve. I’m so glad God doesn’t treat me as my sins deserve. I’m so glad I have found in Jesus the God who forgives my sins even as he hangs on a cross, suffering, this God of mercy looks over at the murderer and speaks words of tenderness, “Even today.” Because of his love I can only hope to try to treat others with the same compassion and tenderness.

But it is not something that grows naturally in the Garden of my Heart. There the twin trees of Judgement and Righteousness grow and thrive. The plantings of Love and Mercy struggle along, frequently overshadowed and shaded by the other two. Love and Mercy require daily tending, gentle pruning, weeding out the strident tentacles the other two boisterously put forth. In great humility, I see that only with Jesus’ tender hands guiding mine can I hope to cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness and Self-control—these beautiful fruit will grow in abundance with daily attention—but if I skip a day or two, suddenly Judgement and Righteousness reach over and cast a shadow. When that happens, I am still planted in God’s garden, but my beauty is small, my ability to spread the fragrant odor from the beautiful Fruit of the Spirit is stifled and choked.

Richard Rohr talks about living well in the second half of life. “As we move into the second half of life, …we are very often at odds with our natural family and the ‘dominant consciousness’ of our cultures…Many people are kept from mature religion because of the pious, immature, or rigid expectations of their first-half-of-life family.” (Falling Upward, pp 82-83). Whether our family is biological, church-related, adopted, social—we can either be encouraged to tend the tender parts of our garden of the Spirit or to simply default to the stuff that grows easily there.

Yes, Olivia, your little sister deserves time-out. She is not perfect. But I will not treat her as her screeches deserve; because my heart is full of compassion and mercy for her, so I will keep training and directing and guiding her with love and kindness, following the direction of the Spirit who lives in my heart. I will not throw stones. The stones that so readily fill my hands, I will give to the Master.

Joy Eastridge