Why health is more than medical care

Why is health more than just medical care?  Here are some reasons:

  1. Medical care tends to address matters of the body but not of the spirit. As medical professionals we are trained to diagnose, treat and manage medical conditions. We seek to apply scientific evidence to our craft.  And yet health is something more than science, scopes and surgery.  The best doctors and nurses treat the person, not just the disease.  Illness is not just chemistry and biology; it includes the non-material aspects of existence, such as meaning, dignity and reconciliation.
  2. Health is an outcome of many complex factors, not just medicine. These include things like nurture, nutrition, good housing, healthy relationships.  The reduction in deaths from infectious diseases in the West, for example, was mostly due to non-medical factors, not antibiotics.  Again, the evidence is that the best correlation with worldwide infant mortality is the educational level of the mother. Those who want to improve health of populations must think beyond individual care to the social and enviornmental determinants of disease.  Health is more than just medical care.
  3. Ultimately health is not ‘controlled’ by any one discipline or profession. As health professionals we have a fairly narrow focus – to treat or manage conditions in individual patients.  But health — since is is more than the absence of disease but the well-being of people — results from more than our medical tools.  Smoking, gun violence, human traffiking, poverty, inadequate vitamin A in the soil, deforestation, natural disaster — all contribute to human suffering and poor health!
  4. Health is about dignity, not just treatment. While excellent medical treatment is essential, not all conditions are curable, and some remain fatal. Even when we can’t cure or treat, our work must sill say, “You are a person. You are made in the image of God!” Restoring dignity must be part our motivation.  We are not treating machines, but human beings. Too often in our bio-psycho-social disease model we think mostly about physical treatment.
  5. Ultimately, health is a blessing of God, who created the body and also gave it tremendous powers of healing.  The tagline at a mission hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand reads, “We treat. Jesus heals.”  We have the privilege to serve in medicine in humble ways to alleviate suffering; but in the end it is our Lord and Creator who gets the glory.

I welcome hearing about your reasons for thinking beyond medical care to health.

A new era in Roman healthcare

We take for granted that compassion is a natural response to the suffering of those who are ill. But compassion was not well-developed as a virtue in Roman culture.  Rome had not developed a culture of compassion; “mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society.” Family members may come to one’s aid, and the wealthy could afford physicians, but “the common folk were often left to rely on folk healers and sellers of herbs, amulets and quack remedies.” *

“If a father decided that the family couldn’t afford another child, that child would be abandoned to the steps of a temple or in the public square. Female infants were exposed much more often than males.” These attitudes and practices are still with us today.  In India and China the practice of aborting female offspring is distressingly common.  In many parts of the world the handicapped are treated with disdain or neglect.

“The classic world possessed no religious or philosophical basis for the concept of the divine dignity of human persons, and without such support, the right to live was granted or withheld by family or society almost at a whim.”

What made the difference between attitudes then and now?  At least in many parts of the world today, human rights and dignity are considered absolutely fundamental (and they are!). Where then did these more ‘progressive’ beliefs come from?  The new ‘era’ in Roman healthcare came from the least likely place: from a new, small and persecuted culture which penetrated the classic Roman world: the culture of the Christians.

Despite a series of ten devastating persecutions, beginning with Nero in AD 64, Christians “carried on an active ministry of philanthropy which included the care of the sick. Far from the stereotype of shriveled ascetics who hated the body, early Christians valued the body and the medical arts necessary to heal it as good gifts from God.”

“James defines “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” in part as caring for ‘orphans and widows’ (James 1:27) — biblical shorthand for all those without protectors and in need. Christian theology thus birthed a personal and corporate charity which surpassing any previously known. Church leadership encouraged all Christians to visit the sick and help the poor, and each congregation also established an organized ministry of mercy.”

How different this is from our practices today!  How often we are concerned about ourselves without hearing the Lord’s commands to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves.

“A devastating epidemic began in 250 AD and spread across northern Africa to the Western Empire.  It lasted 15 to 20 years, and at one point in Rome 5,000 people died in one day. Beyond offering supplications to the gods for relief, public officials did nothing to prevent the spread of the disease, treat the sick, or bury the dead. This is not surprising, since the pagans believed that nothing effective could be done in a time of plague other than appeasing the gods.”  However in places like Carthage, north Africa, where the plague swept in with force, the Bishop Cyprian  “encouraged Christians to donate funds and volunteer their service for relief efforts, making no distinction between believers and pagans.”  They continued these organized emergency relief efforts for five years.

“The ministry of medical care in early Christianity began as a church-based diaconal, not a professional, ministry.  It was provided by unskilled, ordinary people with no medical training. Yet the church created in the first two centuries of its existence the only organization in the Roman world that systematically cared for its destitute sick.”

This is not a secret we want to keep from believers around the world today.  From Syria to Thailand, believers are caring for those who are marginalized and ill.  But sometimes I fear we forget our history, and we forget God’s command to love our neighbor.  Medical missions are a wonderful calling and ministry. But as we go about it we must not ‘overly professionalize’ ministry to those who are sick and brokenhearted. Unskilled believers ushered in a new era of healthcare in the Roman empire.  We have the opportunity to do the same among multiplied countries around the world, demonstrating goodness and grace of God, and the dignity of men and women created in His image.  This can be done only as professionals work together with non-medical professionals to care for the needs around them, especially those who are least able to help themselves.

Despite the cost, let’s help usher in a new era of healthcare around the world.

*Quotations are from “Christian History, Healthcare and Hospitals in the mission of the church,” Issue 101, pages 6-12

HOPE for AIDS

It is encouraging to see Hope for AIDS mature over the last 16 years. This initiative began with the aim of building capacity among churches and non-governmental Christian organizations to respond to those suffering with AIDS, not just meeting the needs ourselves. In this way many of the projects and programs have become sustainable. Local believers have taken leadership, learning how to minister to the brokenhearted with both the words and the compassion of Jesus.

HOPE for AIDS

HOPE for AIDS is an international family of more than 40 projects spanning 12 countries in Africa and Asia. The majority of the work in these projects is done through the time and commitment of the nearly 2,000 local volunteers drawn from our partner organisations. Our vision is to build capacity in the local community to enable them to deal with the AIDS pandemic in the most effective way in each culture. Partners often include local churches and community groups that benefit from periodic networking, shared training, and relevant support among themselves. A shared goal of sustainability is vital to maintaining ongoing transformative care with minimal dependence on outside supporters. In this, ongoing efforts to build local strengths and internal supports make it possible for local partners to continue relevant long term engagement with the community.

HOPE for AIDS engages and supports local partners in an effective, holistic and compassionate…

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A cheerful heart is good medicine

In medical school I learned that the death of a spouse is a risk factor for one’s death, and many times the surviving spouse dies near an anniversary of the sad event. The connection between our soul and body is closer than we can imagine. The book of Proverbs says it this way: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22).

Increasingly science is recognizing the intimate connections between the heart and the body. A crushed spirit dries up the bones. Brokeness can be emotional, relational or spiritual; whatever the cause, it impacts the body. It can a factor resulting in high blood pressure, anxiety, cardiovasular disease, autoimmune disorders, cancer, etc.  All of these things have multiple causes (genetic, environmental, and so on) but the condition of the spirit is a vital factor.

Modern medicine has brought us some marvelous physical interventions, from drugs to CT scans. And while we are grateful for these, we must not overlook the effect the heart can play.  All of us in general practice have seen cheerful hearts which bring healing, and crushed spirits that dry up bones.

I’ve seen nurses literally bring patients back to health by the care they demonstrated to the sick. On the other hand I have witnessed others who see their role as a job more than a service of love. Love becomes a powerful medium for healing. “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news brings health to the bones.” (Prov 15:30).  What a privilege to see health professionals who give not just technical help, but sacrificial love.

Where does one get such a cheerful heart? Ultimately the source is not in ourselves, but in knowing the sacrifice which God has made for us in history. The objective fact is that Jesus Christ came to earth to give His life for our sin and rebellion, rising to offer hope and new life.  This Easter week we are celebrating not just the idea of resurrection, but the historical fact of the resurrection of the Son of God.

That kind of cheer just doesn’t go away.

Not the way it’s supposed to be

“The veins of sin interlace with most of the rest of what’s wrong with our lives — through birth disorders, disease, accident and nuisance. Thousands of Third World children die daily from largely preventable diseases: out of laziness or complacency, certain grownups fail to prevent them. Thousands of First World children are born drug addicts: their mothers have hooked them in the womb. Some people with sexually transmitted diseases knowingly put their partners at terrible risk. It happens every day. Many accidents are, in retrospect, both accidental and predictable: somebody who needed to concentrate on his job in order to protect others (a pilot for example, or a lifeguard, or a ship’s captain) got drunk instead, or careless, or wholely preoccupied. Often, a number of such factors combine in some lethal and intricate way to bring havoc to human well-being.”

Cornelius Plantinga helps us look at sin and how it affects, and corrupts, the beauty and design of God’s creation. Most of us do not hear as much in our churches about sin as our grandparents did. It is at the root of much pain and suffering in this world. “Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic.” He wants to “renew our memory of the integrity of creation and sharpen our eye for the beauty of grace.”

In looking at root causes (and possible prevention) of diseases in Ethiopia in the 1980s I was struck that the causes were not just ignorance but sin. Nowdays in the West we classify intolerance as sin, but there is so much more lurking in the background which we tend to ignore: promiscuity, cheating, corruption, power-grabbing, pride, lying, dishonoring of others.  Ultimately this comes from the dishonoring of God who created and designed us.

I said to a colleague at the time, “My community program would work just fine if it weren’t for sin!”

That is largely true, and shows us our need for the forgiveness of sin found only at the cross of Christ. Community health is a good work, but community change is most effective when founded on love.

“Sin distorts our character, a central feature of our very humanity. Sin corrupts powerful human capacities — thought, emotion, speech, and act — so that they become centers of attack on others or of defection or neglect…. Sin, moreover, lies at the root of such big miseries as loneliness, restlessness, estrangement, shame and meaninglessness… In fact sin typically both causes and results from misery.”

“Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony.”

“At the center of the Christian Bible, four Gospels describe the pains God has taken to defeat sin and its wages… Christians have always measured sin, in part, by the suffering needed to atone for it.  The ripping and writhing of a body on a cross, the bizarre metaphysical maneuver of using death to defeat death, the urgency of the summons to human beings to ally themselves with the events of Christ and with the person of those events, and then make that person the center of of their lives — those things tell us that the main human trouble is desperately difficult to fix, even for God, and that sin is the longest-running of human emergencies.”

So as we serve others with compassion, let us not ignore the longest-running of human emergencies.  Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Let’s make a full diagnosis of our human condition and receive God’s full remedy.

 

 

 

Taking it in steps?

A missionary doctor, nurse or health provider in his or her first term is all enthusiasm. After all, he or she may think, “After all that preparation, let’s get on with the real work!”

But those first few years show how much more there is to learn! First there is the adjustment to the new sights and sounds, then a new set of co-workers, then a new job, and of course there is langauge learning!  We want to provide excellent medical care but face the obstacles that often exist in resource-poor settings.

On top of these things, in those first years we may also be working on:

  • issues of marriage and singleness
  • growing a family
  • integrating spiritual and physical ministry into practice
  • understanding how our role fits with the vision and strategy of mission and church
  • doing things outside of his or her training, such as leading a team or projects
  • conflict and team formation
  • identity issues (“who am I really?”)

During this intense time of learning and growing, sometimes I am asked for advice on getting futher training: should I do an MPH degree?  get tropical medicine? learn more about management and leadership?

Looking back over my own 30 years with SIM in medical missions, I think I tried to do too much too early. So my suggestion is this: take a longer view and then break it up into steps.

The complexity of the task means that if we try too much too soon, we won’t do anything well. So in the early years it may be best to focus on the basics: our relationships, especially marriage/singleness/family; language learning; and practicing what we have been trained to do.

Then it will become clear what is needed for later stages.  Not everyone needs to go on and do a public health degree.  Not everyone needs to go to seminary.  Not everyone needs to become skilled in management.  But everyone should grow in their understading of their gifts and abilities, and over time, take on new challenges. Everyone should grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10).

The process of discovering those good works prepared for us by God is a journey.

Let’s take it one step at a time.

 

Too much to do? Time to re-examine our own assumptions!

Stress and burnout are recognized themes in medical missions.  One source of stress is the sheer magnitude of physical needs; one billion people in our world have no access to a trained health worker and healthcare workers often stand in the gap.

In the face of overwhelming need how do we maintain healthy margins?  Overextended, we lose our compassion, damage relationships, and often leave our fields of service early.  Yet, the pressure is there, since the patients show up, the children are literally dying, and there is often no alternative for those who are the most marginalized.  Wouldn’t Jesus have compassion on the sick and dying?

In the late 1980s I was in a similar situation in southern Ethiopia, where I was called to lead a small team to treat patients dying among the Mursi tribe; hundreds were dying around us from meningococcal meningitis.  While we had some effective antibiotics we couldn’t get ahead of the need – patients were dying faster than we could treat them.  In our case, the answer was not so difficult, as the Ethiopian ministry of health asked us to bring along their workers and meningitis vaccine; thus we were both able to save many who were ill, but also prevent new cases with vaccine.  Caring for the ill and prevention went hand in hand – with a team approach.

But what about a hospital or clinic where the people come each day and yet the facility and staff are still overwhelmed?

One approach has been to assign numbers to non-emergency patients to limit those who can be seen on a given day.  Other barriers have been erected, such as raising fees – although this limits care to those who are most vulnerable and thus tends to defeat our purpose.  Outpatient clinic hours can be trimmed.  Specialty clinics can be opened only certain days.  All these efforts are ways of establishing boundaries and limits.  Some are needed; some are painful.

Yet, our hearts as medical providers are driven by compassion; we want to see as many as possible.  Compassion is from the Lord, and our instincts may be noble. But unexamined assumptions may contribute to our own burnout and long term lack of fruitfulness.

As medical healthcare workers and missionaries, do we recognize our own limits and vulnerabilities?  Or are we driven by a “Savior” complex where we must be the answer to everyone’s need?  Do we allow the needs to constitute our call, or does Jesus Christ shape the call?  If we are called and empowered by Him (as the true vine) then we (as his branches) can only produce eternal fruit as we allow Him to work through us.  Yes, this kind of ministry can be overwhelming, even impossible.  Are we connected to Him as the vine well enough that the life-giving grace of God gives us wisdom and strength?  Or have we subtly become “the vine” ourselves in the midst of the needs?

We do want to give our lives for others.  Good.  But our own wisdom and strength quickly fades and we must come to Christ and His word.  We might have the desire to “burn out for Jesus” but taken to the extreme we will damage our family and other relationships.  Exhaustion and callousness on a chronic basis are not the ‘living stream of water’ that Jesus promised would come from our hearts!

What is our ultimate purpose in medical missions?  It is to glorify Jesus Christ.  We become like a seed which falls into the ground; it must die and spring up with new life.  My hospital, my program, my health teaching – these are all means God uses to show His character through suffering and healing, to make disciples, to enable others to connect to the vine – ultimately serving others by God’s grace.

We must reflect on this ‘Me-first’ mentality.  Do we assume that these health ministries are about us and our ability?  That’s a prescription for the prosperity gospel!  Let’s not promote a false gospel based on our works rather than grace.

The ultimate purpose is to establish God’s reign, God’s kingdom on earth – or some small signpost of the kingdom in a broken and twisted world. We can make a real difference. However it is not by our trying hard enough, but by abiding in the Vine. We don’t want to plant our program; we want to plant the mission of Jesus.

Health is not just about the physical needs of those who come to us, but about their social, economic and relational needs. I fear that too often we apply a Western mindset [think separation of physical from spiritual/non-physical reality].  One way of creating more helpful margins is to actually involve local staff and others from churches and community in the care of those who come to us – enabling them to connect with our programs as whole people, not just disease conditions.

This takes building leadership for healthcare missions, not just adding medical practitioners.

Eventually this means we work with local doctors, community, nurses, churches, believers – to build healing communities. Only through teamwork can we begin to meet the overwhelming needs of those around us in a deeper way.  And yet in this way – as we die to our own ambitions – we are enabling others to see and to know and to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the King and Savior and healer and He is building His kingdom. We get the privilege to be a small part of His work. He is worthy!