It's not always easy to love others with the same love that Christ gives to me.
I’ve been back in the States and practising medicine in a traditional primary care outpatient clinic now for three months. One of the most common questions that I am asked, “What’s it like being a doctor in America again?”
I’m not sure my language skills can quite express the every-changing kaleidoscope of reactions that whirl through my brain each day. There’s a lot I like about working in the U.S. again; there are other aspects I quite dislike.
One of the biggest challenges has been to find the assurance that my work as a primary care physician in an affluent society is worthwhile.
“I’m still searching for meaning in my job,” I reply to my colleague who asks me how it’s going over a lunch meeting.
He nods and listens as I continue.
“When I read about my colleagues that are still in Africa; read their blog stories; or exchange internet messages about the frustrations and difficulties of practising in resource-poor setting like Cameroon, Chad, or Malawi, waves of nostalgia and inadequacy wash over me. I’m no longer the leader of the team. I’m no longer seeing 30 or 40 outpatients in a day PLUS managing a hospital and labour and delivery service. I feel so tiny when I think about the small number of people I see in clinic now and the minor ailments I attend to during the day.”
“For example, I saw a patient with insomnia and restless legs at night that had elevated blood pressure today. Compare that to a typical patient in Cameroon with severe anaemia and malaria that’s underweight with HIV and tuberculosis.”
“Give me some patients who are really sick,” I’ve said more than once in the past couple months.
At night I pray, “Lord, please help me not compare. Help me with my pride that tries to boost my inner ego by comparing herself to others and then gets discouraged when she perceives others are better and doing more important tasks.”
All around the world physicians are fighting against illness. Spiritual sickness. Emotional turmoil. Physical ailments. Mental distress. There is no comparison. Missionary doctors in Africa are under certain stressors like limited diagnostics, untrained staff, and organisational politics. Missionary doctors in America are under another set of stressors with paperwork, legal issues, and insurance limitations.
Ministering to the suffering is a challenge everywhere. I pray for my colleagues in Africa that God will give them patience in dealing with inadequate electrical power and corrupt political officials while at the same time I pray for my colleagues in America as they deal with twisted insurance prerequisites and drug addicts.
One young woman came to me last week. We’ll call her Veronica, although of course that’s not her real name. She had a festering wound on her buttock that she’d just been seen for two days prior.
“Have you been taking the antibiotic that was prescribed?” I inquired as I looked over at Veronica, shifting uncomfortably on the exam table, dressed in a gown with a sheet over her lap.
She grimaced and I noticed little sweat beads across her forehead. Her blood pressure was a bit high too. “Yes, Doctor, but I’m not any better.” She shook her head for emphasis. “The pain is unbearable. I can’t sleep at night.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she spoke of the suffering. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
I bent over to examine the infected area on her body.
“Ouch!” she jerked away involuntarily as I touched the sore, red, spot on her skin. “Sorry,” she apologised and braced herself as I took another try at examining the infection. She winced but managed to hold still the second time.
The skin was red and inflamed and acutely painful. Without proper treatment of the infection, it could spread to the rest of her body, potentially landing her in the hospital on IV treatment if things weren’t taken care of today. I wondered why the original medications hadn’t seemed to help her. On reviewing her case, it appeared that appropriate measures had been taken. She should have been getting better by today.
“Given the fact that you’re still not improving even though you’re been taking what normally is the right medicine for this infection, I’m going to change the antibiotic,” I informed Veronica.
She nodded, grim-faced.
“I’m going to order an ultrasound exam to make sure the infection hasn’t formed a pocket of pus deep inside that might need draining too.”
Again, she nodded her understanding.
“And because I want to make sure this infection gets under control as quickly as possible, today I’m going to order for the antibiotic to be given as an injection.” I paused waiting for her response.
“Ok, doctor,” she nodded in agreement.
Satisfied that I was making the correct medical decision based on her symptoms, her exam, and the failure of her infection to respond to the initial first-line antibiotics prescribed a few days earlier, I went about typing in the orders into the computer.
“But, doctor, what about the pain?” she broke the monotone of my typing.
“Are you using ibuprofen and Tylenol?”
“Yes, but its not enough. I can’t sleep,” she winced again as she shifted her weight.
“OK, well,” I glanced at the last prescriptions given a couple days ago by the urgent care doctor, “I’ll refill the Vicodin (narcotic) pain killer that you were given before. Take it with the ibuprofen though,” I instructed.
“OK,” she relaxed.
“Now go do the ultrasound right now and get that first injection of the antibiotic,” I cautioned as she prepared to leave.
She shook my hand and thanked me.
I handed her the prescription for the Vicodin and the instructions for the ultrasound and injection.
That was the last I saw of her.
I waited for the ultrasound report. It never came. I looked her up in the computer system. She’d never gone for the test. I noticed that the Vicodin prescription had been picked up. The antibiotic prescriptions had not been filled.
I hate being snookered.
My first reaction was anger. It made me angry that Veronica would lie and manipulate me and the medical system just to get a few narcotic pain pills. Later, I felt rather sorry for her. She wanted those pain pills so badly that she was willing to put her own physical health at jeopardy by neglecting proper antibiotic treatment for a real infection.
Veronica was actually sicker than I’d originally assessed. It wasn’t an obvious illness amenable to a few tablets of antimalarials or antibiotics though, sadly. It was a deeper illness of the mind. Addiction.
Unfortunately, addicted and twisted minds wrapped up in a milieu of complicating psycho-social factors are not easily ‘fixed’. It takes more than a primary care doctor and a 10-minute clinic appointment to help heal the underlying suffering. Perhaps that’s why there is so little personal job satisfaction in these situations. It’s easier to prescribe a cream for the scabies rash or a worm tablet for the tummy ache or a course of Coartem (antimalarial) for the malaria.
Broken people are all around. In Africa. In America.
Perhaps some different flavours of illness hit my radar here in America versus Africa. I am trying not to compare though. Illness comes in all colours, shapes and sizes. I am continually astounded by the magnitude of broken souls that I meet.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Africa or America, Asia or Australia. People come with deep, penetrating wounds – raw and festering – expunging shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, unfaithfulness, and violence.
The song “people need the Lord” seems rather appropriate. God is teaching me to avoid the comparison game that only brings discouragement to my heart. Instead He is telling me to simply go forward and treat each person, whether it’s one or one-hundred, with the same love and grace that He extends to me.
Isaiah 61: 1-4
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners, a
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour.