As I rushed into the emergency room, I faced a chaotic scene. The center bed held the lifeless body of the middle-aged man the nurse had asked me to see. He was the only patient in the ER, but the room was bursting with people and buzzing with noise. The multitude of visitors stretched out the door onto the sidewalk and even along the street. There were people everywhere. I pushed my way through the crowd to attend to the lone patient, a prominent businessman from a nearby community. His brother informed me that he had suddenly collapsed and subsequently stopped breathing as people struggled to get him into a car and across the rough roads to the hospital. That was over an hour earlier. After a quick examination, I said the words everyone knew were coming, “Em i dai pinis” (He is dead). The packed ER exploded with drama—crying, fainting, and ripping of clothes as people from our expressive culture grieved for this man. I later learned the cries could be heard all the way down to my house over a quarter mile away, as my wife asked me at lunch, “What happened this morning? What was all that crying?”
Several days later, I faced a much different scene in the ER. This time the nurse asked me to see an infant. Again, the ER was packed, but this time it was overflowing with dozens of sick people. After getting lost in the tangle of patients, I finally got to an emaciated, malnourished, 8-month old boy with his young mother. She told me they came from the Jimi Valley. The Jimi, like many parts of Papua New Guinea, is arguably one of the most remote places in the world and is included in our hospital’s catchment area. In one final act of desperation and love for her only child, this young mother had carried the child for two days through the bush to get to a road. From there, she paid 40 Kina (~12USD, probably everything she had) for transportation on a rickety 12-seat bus for over 10 hours to get to Kudjip, the nearest hospital. When I initially looked at the child, I thought he was dead. He lay motionless as a nurse put in an IV and started oxygen. Ultimately, our medical treatment was futile. The child died several hours later. Once again, I had to say, “Em i dai pinis.” But this time there was no public drama. No mob of mourners. No crowd of admirers for an influential businessman. Just a lone woman, a poor, young, heartbroken mama from the bush. I prayed with her, then she took her dead child and left.
As I reflect on these two contrasting stories, I feel a great weight on Kudjip’s, and thus on my own, shoulders. The truth is, there are few who know, and even less who care, about the plight of the poor and marginalized in rural Papua New Guinea. This mother and her baby are not only forgotten people; they are completely unrecognized people. But then there are thousands upon thousands who can’t get to Kudjip or access any medical care. (See my previous blog: Bana Health Center). These people are so unrecognized, that they aren’t even a statistic. There is no way to estimate infant mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy, etc. Even my first story about the businessman speaks of injustice as I think about what the result could have been with an EMS system, a better road, and more advanced medical capabilities.
The weight comes on me as I think about this question: Who cares?
Does the outside world care that this child died when there are so many other forgotten people deserving attention? Does the PNG government, often riddled with corruption and chaos, care? Who then is left? While I know that we at Kudjip are not the only ones who care, it certainly feels that way sometimes. At times this weight threatens to crush me.
True peace and hope come only when I realize that outside aid is not the answer. Tackling governmental corruption is not the answer. Even Kudjip is not the answer. And of course, I am certainly not the answer. Who then is the answer? Jesus Christ is the answer.
I can sometimes resonate with Moses as God calls him from a burning bush to do something seemingly too much to bear. His fear could only be overcome by the fact that the God of the universe both cared for him and cared for those he was called to serve. “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So, I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians.’” (Exodus 3:7-8a). God was not aloof or uninvolved. He was aware and then He engaged. However, it was only through the incarnation, God becoming flesh, that the salvation of humanity could be fully realized. As a result of God taking on our flesh in Jesus, we believe that if you are a millionaire in the United States, or a poor infant from the Jimi valley, you have value because God cares for you. God died for you. Even if no one else in the world knows you exist. Even if you are unrecognized, God knows and cares for you. This fact should not only relieve and transform, but it should also inspire us to become involved in what this amazing God is doing.
“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.”
– Isaiah 41:17