The ER was packed with people, but one stood out. She met my eyes right when I entered. Sitting on a corner bed, she was being supported by two women with her, both with smart phones (an uncommon sight in our part of the world). She was thin, wearing stylish clothes that seemed two sizes too big for her, a typical sign of unexpected weight loss. A blank stare on her face, she was desperate for hope.
All eleven beds in our small ER were occupied, with more people coming. I scanned the charts of 10 patients waiting for me to see them. The nurses had already sent all but the sickest to our outpatient department. The remaining patients included a baby actively seizing, an old man in respiratory distress, a boy with a leg filled with pus, and a young man chopped with a machete resulting in a partially amputated arm, among others. I looked after the more critically ill patients, and then I went over to Sarah, who was now wincing in pain.
Like many Papua New Guinea women, Sarah’s life had been difficult. She married young to an older New Zealand businessman which was a way out of poverty. In her early 20’s she birthed a daughter. Her husband did not treat her well and she turned to alcohol for comfort. He became involved with another woman and left Sarah and their daughter. About a year before I saw her, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had a hysterectomy – it helped, but it should have been followed by radiation, which is not available in PNG. The cancer came back with a vengeance and proliferated rapidly. Her health book, a small notebook patients carry with them, contained notes from at least five different hospitals around PNG. I could tell the other doctors she had seen knew her diagnosis but did not relay the harsh reality of her prognosis.
After a quick physical and ultrasound, I knew Sarah’s cancer was terminal. It was everywhere. The young man with the machete wound was confused and screaming, waking up from sedation. The child with the infected leg lay next to us. The smell of freshly expressed pus mixed with cheap deodorizer filled the air. A pesky fly buzzed around Sarah’s head. I told Sarah her prognosis as gently as I could, and I uttered a brief prayer. She stared blankly ahead. I ordered her some pain medicine, and she went home. At the end of the day, there were many things on my mind, but Sarah stood out. I wish I had spent more time with her. I wish my words had been more eloquent.
Jump forward two weeks. I am now working in the outpatient department. I call for the next patient, and in walks a young woman that seems familiar. She is smiling from ear to ear. I look at the health book, and it is Sarah! The same woman with the blank stare that could barely sit up by herself. I ask her how she is doing. She paces back and forth in my room speaking with strength and passion like a motivational speaker. I sit on my stool in awe at her energetic, powerful monologue. She recounts to me her story in full, including many of the details shared above. She then tells me that in the Kudjip Emergency Room she felt something different, she felt peace. When she got home, she gave up drinking alcohol, she went to church, and she was baptized. She told me she felt changed. She felt like a new person.
How could this happen? How could this feeling of strength, hope, and newness come to Sarah amidst these circumstances, among so much struggle, pain, and sickness in her life? How could peace come to her in that environment with so much distraction and commotion? It could only be God who could have worked in Sarah’s life in this way. God changed Sarah’s life. God made Sarah new.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up;
do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
~Isaiah 43:1b-2, 18-19