I was awoken from a dead sleep by a phone call: “Dokta, mipela nidim yu long A ward. Pikinini i no pulim win.” Translated: “Doctor, we need you in Pediatric ward. A child has stopped breathing.”
It was a Saturday morning at 2 a.m. during my third month at Kudjip. I was the only medical doctor on call for the hospital that day and night and I was exhausted. I had been working in our Nursery and Obstetrical ward during the week and at least one child had died every day for the past week. Seven days in a row. I could not take another death. Nevertheless, I got up, hurried to A ward, and went through a routine that had now become second nature.
The two-year-old child had been admitted for severe pneumonia just hours before. We had initially stabilized the child, but he suddenly worsened. The child now lay limp, pulseless, and not breathing. We started CPR, gave IV fluids, IV medication and assisted breaths through a tube which I placed. The entire ward was now awake, thirty children with their parents watching every move. But two eyes, belonging to the child’s mother, watched us with desperation as her hope slowly faded.
The hardest part was yet to come. After our care had become futile, we stopped. No words were necessary. The mom knew that her child was dead. It didn’t take long for the familiar scream to come—the gut-wrenching scream of another Papua New Guinea mother losing her child.
There has been much death and suffering since this night. There has also been much joy and recovery. At times I have been tempted to become apathetic and even jaded. I have been tempted to stop caring. Thoughts such as, “If only I didn’t care, then maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much when the result is death,” have entered my mind.
These children will always live in my mind. Each one of their pale faces, devoid of life, will not and cannot be forgotten. Not only their faces, but their mothers’ wails are etched in my mind and on my heart.
Soon after this night, my mentor at Kudjip, Dr. Bill McCoy, taught me a lesson I will not forget. When asked, “How have you dealt with all the death and suffering you have seen at Kudjip over the past 25 years? How has Christ helped you cope and given you hope in the midst of all the tragedies?”
I have many times felt overwhelmed by suffering and death. However, feeling overwhelmed is not the same as being overwhelmed. If I were to count the cost of waging war on suffering and death, and my ledger was the sum total of my gifts, my strengths, my courage, and whatever other resources I might possess in myself, the result would be catastrophic. Death wins by a landslide. But that is not my fight, not my war. Christ Jesus faced Suffering and Death and overcame them. They still spit and fume, but they shall not have the last word. The last word belongs to Christ, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
“We have this hope as an anchor for our soul.” (Hebrews 6:19). Our response to Suffering and Death, that very real and formidable enemy, is the test of everything as Christ followers hold to be true. There can be no such thing as “gospel” or “good news” unless that news addresses death. Thankfully, it does. And therefore, so must I.”
These words from my mentor (of course gleaned from the Bible) have helped me to not fear and shy away from death. But we do not just see suffering and death at Kudjip. We also see divine interventions; miracles which can only be explained by God’s power. These experiences are so overwhelming that they also must be attributed to God.
For example, G is a 9-year-old boy who came to Kudjip this month after accidentally hanging himself while playing with friends. He was admitted by my colleague (Dr. Erin) after he came to the ER unresponsive and seizing. When I examined him on the Pediatric Ward the next morning, the medications had stopped his seizures, but he was still unresponsive, suggesting a severe anoxic injury to his brain. In other words, his brain was dead due to a lack of blood supply from the hanging. I prayed with his parents and told them his poor prognosis.
While making rounds the next day, I looked down to the end of the row of 16 beds and saw G sitting up and talking! I ran to his bed and discovered that he had almost completely improved overnight. After he was discharged, I saw him in the Outpatient Department a week later. He was completely back to his normal self!
During my time in residency, there were several patients I took care of who had hung themselves. All of them died. I had expected the same tragic result with G. There is no logical or medical explanation for his recovery. I told G and his Mom two things: He should not play with ropes and God must have a plan for him because he should be dead.
I’m often tempted to think it is my knowledge and expertise that make the difference in these cases, but I am well-trained enough to know my limitations as a medical doctor. On many occasions, I do think God allows the use of medicines and surgeries to be a part of His plan, but G’s recovery was truly miraculous. Not to us, but to Him be the glory.
So, whether I face tragedies that cause me to weep, or whether I see God’s triumph in seemingly hopeless medical cases, I’m slowly learning to bring everything to Jesus, whether in prayer or praise. During my nearly two years in PNG, these Bible verses have become utterly central to my life:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that His life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”
– 2 Corinthians 4:7-11