A day in the life of a mission doctor

After an early morning pickup by my chauffeur/pilot, a quick spark plug change on the runway, and a 90 minute flight, I’ve landed at a small West African airport to see Faye waiting on the runway with their Toyota.

By now, it’s 11:30 and we are eager to head to the hospital 45 minutes away. We are delayed though – chocolate chips were part of our cargo and we need to sort out who they belong to. It’s little creature comforts like these that are gold – I suspect it would be easier to leave without me than without the chips. Alas, they are for someone else.

Faye and I catch up as we drive to the hospital, where it’s planned I will follow Mark in his work. As we go, I witness all sorts of transportation wonders, such as cyclists with several 50L petrol containers strapped to the back of their bikes. My favourites, though, are the mattress truckers – 6 single mattresses stacked and strapped to the backseat of a motorcycle.

I find Mark in the middle of his daily rounds. After a warm greeting, he tells me this hospital has been around for over 50 years and focuses on wound care, leprosy and fistula repair. Mark’s team is visiting each patient in the ward and cleaning infections. The team is doing most of the work – he only steps in when asked. I’m not used to seeing infections as extensive as these – for many, the pink, healing skin covers an entire limb. The patients are quite stoic and act like they feel no pain. Yet, I know it is painful – they wouldn’t leave their homes and farms if they had another option. The hospital chaplain is part of Mark’s team doing rounds. As the doctors and nurses inspect healing and change dressings, the chaplain talks with the other patients. It’s inspiring to see care for physical and spiritual needs being addressed by the same team.

Mark’s day is always full so we waste no time once rounds are complete. As we walk back to his office, he introduces me to patients in the leprosy ward. These are his patients. Even with a language barrier, the warmth of their greeting and welcome is felt as we pass through and say hi.

“Leprosy is a disease of poverty and very treatable,” Mark comments. Throughout my visit, I meet a number of people who have healed from leprosy and still serve at this hospital.

At his office Mark sees two of the patients waiting for him. His office is a humble corner space through a metal door with a desk and a few chairs. In one corner is a bundle of bagged water (the common way to distribute clean water). He squeezes in appointments through the day in between other needs of the hospital. It’s evident to me observing that Mark treasures the people of this country. His care is gentle as he responds to their needs. One is a young girl with malaria. As Mark makes notes in her blue medical book, she grabs a water bag, opens the corner, and has a good long drink.

After a quick lunch (egg sandwich, honey sandwich, banana and apple), we’re off to see more patients – a young man with tuberculosis, another with a serious heart condition, and then a quick consult with another doctor for one of his patients. I’m almost running to keep pace with Mark, yet somehow he is able to seem relaxed.

From here, we go into surgery. There are three procedures scheduled that afternoon to clean serious wounds. Again, Mark is standing back and the local medical team is doing the heavy lifting. The person cleaning the wounds is a nurse who Mark says is quite skilled with these procedures. The first requires a tourniquet to staunch the blood flow as a leg wound is cleaned. The second is a foot wound. The third requires anaesthesia to debride an infected hand and arm.

Mark says that these infections often start with something minor (one today started with just a thorn). It’s easy to assume these wounds have become serious because of negligence but that is rarely the issue here. These wounds are serious because, when facing poverty, decisions for care aren’t easy. Some are first treated using village practices; for others, the hospital visit is a last resort because the wound has become bad enough to keep them from their livelihood. I realise we take medical care for granted when our livelihood isn’t threatened by going to the hospital. It’s sobering to think that people need to sacrifice day-to-day wellbeing for their family if they need hospital care.

I’m already exhausted but Mark still has office visits to work through so he suggests I head back to the guest house and he will meet me for dinner. At 8pm I hear a knock on my door. It was a busy day and he’s just finished with patients (a normal day goes until 7pm or so).

This is just the first day of my time with Mark. I saw someone serving in their element and ministering practically to the people in the communities around the hospital. I was able to witness the testimony that this has. When you ask people in the villages surrounding the hospital “what are Christians?” they respond, “They are the people who help us” — a significant testimony for a country where 99% of the country is not Christian. I was blessed to see how two of our mission partners live out their purpose in this corner of the world. The biggest blessing, though, was seeing the living testimony of how God is working through this hospital and how their team is joining in his work.

Three days later, I leave on the same plane that brought me there. But I leave a part of me there as well. I didn’t expect the hospital to make such an impression and I look forward to whenever it is I can visit next (maybe a bit more conversant in French for the next time). I feel like I had 4 days on holy ground. It’s awesome to see faith in action as I did on this visit.
Rob Reynolds