Alaska mission teaches need to recognize spiritual disease
I penciled in a month-long rotation in my calendar for my fourth year of medical school. Two years later, I found myself on an eight-seat plane with Dr. Lawrence, flying to a small village in western Alaska. I had arrived in Nome a few weeks earlier to start my rotation in rural family medicine.
We would spend the next three days taking care of the 20 to 30 diabetic patients who lived in the village.
It would have been easy to label our first patient as “non-compliant.” His daily blood sugar levels, if he even checked them, were well above normal. I listened as Dr. Lawrence discussed the management of this chronic disease with him.
“Mr. Tobuk, do you remember the drawing I showed you last time? The one with the seawall?” he asked.
“I think so,” Mr. Tobuk replied.
Dr. Lawrence took out a sheet of paper and drew a picture of an ocean, a wall four blocks high and a village.
“This is diabetes,” he said, pointing to the ocean. “And this wall, made up of weight, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol, is what our bodies have to keep diabetes from eroding us away,” pointing to the wall and then the village.
“I haven’t been taking care of my wall,” Mr. Tobuk confessed. “I can’t check my blood sugar because I need my fingers. If I’m pricking my fingers every day, then I can’t do other things. It’s salmon season, and I need to catch and dry salmon for my sled dogs this winter.” A simple illustration and a short explanation solved our patient’s issue of “non-compliance.”
We showed Mr. Tobuk how to check his blood sugar, using a machine that didn’t require pricking his fingers. After a few minutes of instruction, he could use it on his own. “Thank you,” he said, smiling. “Now I think I can take better care of my wall.”
A few days later, as we were flying over the Bering Sea on our return to Nome, I thought about how my time with a physician like Dr. Lawrence was similar to the time the disciples spent with the Great Physician.
Our mission hadn’t been to cure hundreds or feed thousands. Yet, we had traveled to where people were to learn about their needs and to help meet their needs.
I doubted that the Samaritan woman would have had her need for a Savior fulfilled unless Jesus had met her at the well and realized that a glass of fresh water wasn’t the only thing for which she thirsted.
Likewise, I doubted that Mr. Tobuk would have committed to better diabetes management had we not met him in his village, discussed his problem and shown him a better way to check his blood sugar.
I thought about the “non-compliant” diabetic patients I had seen in Tennessee as a medical student and wondered how many of them had a story similar to Mr. Tobuk’s. But could there not also exist spiritual Mr. Tobuks, people whose spiritual disease was silently eating away at them?
How many of my neighbors had needed someone to teach them how to overcome spiritual diseases? Instead, I had offered them a general “Come to church” invitation to my spiritual hospital, the church building, instead of meeting them at the spiritual clinic, our neighborhood?
As I looked across the clouds covering the Arctic water below, I realized that it didn’t matter if I called my time in Alaska a mission trip or not. Every opportunity God would give me to help someone to be physically and/or spiritually healthier would be a mission for me. That might be outside a clinic in Alaska, a house in Honduras or my own apartment in Tennessee.
Jesus’ call is to “go unto all the world,” and I realized that the world is right outside my door.
MICHELE GOURLEY graduates this month with Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health degrees from the Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn. The Smyrna, Tenn., church is her home congregation.