The Heart of a Doctor: Mission worker recounts a day in the life of a Malawi hospital ministry
I wondered what the day would hold.
We had sent out an invitation to Chief Chitukula to ask all of his mothers with malnourished babies to come to Blessings Hospital on Saturday morning to receive vitamins and powdered milk. Whether we would have 10 or 3,000 show up was to be determined as the morning progressed.
By 8 am there were about 20 mothers with babies waiting for assistance, and then by 9 am the group had expanded to an estimated 100. But by 10 am we had closer to 500 mothers with about 700 babies and children in tow. It was, to say the least, a large turnout. Everyone was instructed to be seated by rows in the grassy area so we could get started with the vitamin and milk distribution.
Dr. Graham Loynd would be making rounds through the rows to quickly determine which infants and children needed to see a physician immediately. What an unpleasant task to have to do. How could anyone walk through so many and decide which few could be seen in a matter of a few hours? But being the big-hearted man that he is, he started through the crowd. He quickly realized that very few of them spoke any English so we provided a translator for him to assist in the communication between physician and parent.
While the doctor was making his rounds through the crowd, we began passing out both children’s as well as adult vitamins to the mothers. Each child received enough vitamins for one month and so did the mother. The thought here was that if the babies were still nursing and the mother was also receiving vitamins then the child would gain the added nutrients from both his own vitamins as well as that provided through his mother’s milk. Powdered milk was also distributed with each child receiving two 250-gram bags of powdered milk. Instructions were given as to how to take the vitamins and prepare the milk using boiled water. We were done with the distribution is about an hour.
After we were through with out distribution the village chiefs came and they received boxes of powdered milk as well as boxes of 200 packets of adult vitamins to take back to people that were not able to make the trip. Chitukula is almost a 40-minute walk from the hospital and there were other outlying villages that would have made the walk over an hour each way. That’s not an unusual walk for Malawians but for mothers with sick babies it can seem like an eternity. By 11:30 I realized that Dr. Loynd wasn’t anywhere in the distribution area and I headed for the hospital to see if he was there. When I rounded the corner of the building there were 30 mothers with babies patiently seated on the concrete under the portico waiting to see the doctor. When I entered the building they were lined on both sides of the 30-foot foyer as well as 20 feet down the hall. Dr. Loynd was going to be a busy man. As he would see a patient and a chair would empty, someone else would move up to take their place.
I went back to the distribution area to assist in the cleanup and then headed back to the mission house for a chance to sit down for a few minutes and rest. At 12:05 Dr. Loynd came in and sat down in a chair across from me. He said that they were breaking for lunch so he came up to rest for a little while. He looked very sad and stressed. I asked him how the morning had been up to this point, and he said, “In my career I have delivered almost 8000 babies, I’ve felt the loss of having a few die and had mother’s close to death, but not even on my mission trip to Peru did I see anything as tragic as what I’ve seen today.”
He sat there with tears in his eyes feeling so inadequate yet here was this man who came to this country on his own free will to do whatever he could for these people. With all of his expertise and years of training and experience he felt inadequate. I watched his face as he spoke of some of the children he had seen and the grief was growing with each story. He knew that if the same situation were in the United States, 2/3 of the children would have been immediately admitted to the hospital to try to save their lives. As it was, of the 30 children he had seen so far that morning, he knew there were at least 5 that probably wouldn’t be alive this time next month. There were a couple who probably wouldn’t see next week.
I didn’t know what to say to him. If he felt at a loss, what could I possibly say to him to ease his pain? We talked a little but mostly sat in silence for a while just letting the tragedy of the day settle before going out to endure the struggle within ourselves again. This day was supposed to be a happy day by being able to distribute much needed nutritional drugs and milk to needy mothers and babies but it was turning into a day full of remorse. Until we surveyed the situation up close and personal we had no idea just how desperate the situation really was. Children that were 18 months old were the size of a normal 3-month-old child. Infants 6 months old carried less weight than most newborns.
When the lunch break was over, Dr. Loynd quietly headed back for the hospital to finish the task at hand. I went back with him to lend a hand in any way that I could and when we rounded the corner of the building there were at least 30 more waiting to see him. By the end of the day, the doctor and hospital staff had seen 69 critical patients and given them prescribed drugs and instructions. It was a very full day for everyone.
When plans were being made for my mission trip to Malawi I spent many times during each day just praying to God for the guidance and knowledge to know and understand that in a country as desperately in need as Malawi is, it’s impossible to save the lives of every one. What we could do, however, is a make a difference in the lives of a few. It was by far the hardest lesson I had to learn this week but at the same time there was a sense that we were doing the work that God sent us here to do. We may not have all the answers and all the medicines to save every life, but we can give them hope and we can try. Someone very wise once told me, “There is no failure in trying. The only failure in life is in not trying”. I have told myself the same thing over and over again during the past few weeks when it seemed as though we weren’t doing enough.
Saturday was a day to remember and reflect upon but more importantly, for me, it was a day to gain more respect for a man who had tremendous shoes to fill. Not many doctors can look out over a field and realize that they have 700 possible patients waiting to be seen. Not every man has the ability or spiritual strength needed to endure the trials of the day. And not every man has a heart so big that the thought of not being able to save them all sent him to bed that night with visions of the day keeping him from getting much needed rest.
Before my trip to Africa I had never met Dr. Graham Loynd. Graham is a recently retired OB/GYN specialist from Washington State and has decided to work with medical missions and use his God given skills and talents where he feels they are needed the most. During the past 3 weeks I’ve had the opportunity to gain a lot of respect for the man and Saturday I had the opportunity to gain even more respect for the doctor. As I watched him walk through that field and check every baby and have to decide on a few that were bad enough to be seen immediately, my heart went out to him. We have another Mother and Baby day scheduled for Monday and he was given the opportunity to say that he didn’t want to see anymore children since that isn’t his specialty but his answer was simply, ” Well I think we should just do it the same as we did Saturday and do what we can”. And then he added, “We may not be able to save them all, but we can try to do what we can.”
I believe that’s all God really expects from us, is to “try”. We can try to be better Christians, we can try to be good examples, we can try to be more compassionate, and we can try to allow others to see God’s work through us. When I watch the gentle hands of a strong man work with children that may not have a chance, yet he tries to do what he can, I know God smiles on him and is pleased.