Send Them, & Go With Them
by Jill Mattingly, DHSc, PA-C
Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2017
In July 2012, I was lying in an emergency department in Destin, Florida, wondering how a little gallbladder could cause me so much pain. I prayed for the pain to stop, and thankfully it did. The problem, however, did not go away. And as I headed home from the beach the next day, I grew more and more anxious about the upcoming healthcare mission trip to Haiti I was scheduled to go on in just two weeks with CMDA’s Global Health Outreach (GHO). Great disappointment came over me as I cancelled my involvement due to my medical condition. I felt much better physically, but I did not want to risk a repeat attack while I was in Haiti.
This was the first trip with CMDA I had ever considered going on, and I was secretly relieved that I had to cancel. Actually, I was scared to death. I am not the type of person who launches easily into unknown adventures, and the thought of my first healthcare mission trip as a physician assistant was nerve wracking. On top of that, I was supposed to go with 10 physician assistant students from the PA program at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia. As their professor, they would be looking to me for leadership, medical expertise and spiritual guidance. I was not ready. Thankfully, the Lord knew I was not ready and allowed those gallstones to pile up at just the right moment.
At that time, I was the Academic Coordinator for Mercer’s PA program. Mercer University attracts compassionate students of all faiths and creeds. They all have an incredible passion to help the underserved and are willing to do anything to share their gifts with others.
I think back to my motive for wanting to go on the GHO trip, my reason for signing up, and I remember it was not about a call to minister or a passion to serve. It was more in line with not wanting to disappoint the students encouraging me to go. I mean, who else would play the guitar for them during devotions?
Then something happened. I’m not sure exactly when, but during the next few years the smoldering coals of my Christian walk started to glow hotter and burn brighter. I started experiencing an insatiable appetite for Scripture and study. The deeper things of God were wooing me irresistibly. I began going to Bible studies, doing prayer walks in the woods, practicing repentance and developing an attitude of surrender. I began surrendering to the unknown adventure that serving Him brings. As I look back, there was no fear. I was driven by love—love for my amazing Savior, and love for the people He wanted to love through me.
I started throwing myself into every service opportunity available for healthcare professionals in our local community in Atlanta, and, like an energetic mom, I dragged every willing student along with me. Former Atlanta Area Director Bill Reichart (who now serves as CMDA’s Vice President of Campus & Community Ministries) was instrumental in helping me participate in all of these opportunities with my students. I pestered him incessantly to keep me in the loop of what God was doing through CMDA in Atlanta, and Bill did not disappoint.
Then it happened. Bill came to Mercer’s campus and began recruiting students for a fall GHO trip he was leading to Nicaragua. I did not hesitate at all, and several months later I found myself stepping off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua along with seven of my students. The feeling was nothing short of electric, and even an eight-hour bus ride through the mountains felt exhilarating.
“I’ve always thought that it’s really important as a healthcare professional to give back to my community. This trip reinforced that belief and showed me that it’s not just about giving back, it’s about living a Christ-centered life and serving others. It showed me to not be afraid to incorporate my faith in my own practice, because healing the spirit is much more important than healing the flesh in the long run.”
The students on this trip were from all different backgrounds and beliefs. They were all types of personalities: brainy and bashful, clever and brash. But all of them had one thing in common—I had no idea who they really were.
PA school is an extremely tough 28 months. The old adage of “drinking from a wide open fire hydrant” is not far off from the truth. So I can’t imagine spending a small chunk of money and using a precious week of vacation during PA school to volunteer for a healthcare mission trip. They knew it would be a week of guaranteed exhaustion, long sweaty days and emotional peaks and valleys. As I thought about their sacrifice, I started respecting them in an entirely new way.
As a volunteer healthcare professional at the Good Samaritan Health Center of Gwinnett, I spend time each week precepting my students as they care for uninsured patients. I am used to students watching me interact with patients in a fully functioning medical clinic. Nothing, however, prepared me for what caring for patients in the third world would be like. I was faced with using my raw skills, history taking and physical exam to secure a diagnosis. This was back to the basics with few tools other than a stethoscope and otoscope. The students’ skills blossomed in this environment, and as their professor, I was able to witness their exponential growth. As an educator, I cannot begin to tell you how inspiring it is to see students operating on all levels of skill, communication and compassion. I was able to come behind the experiences they were having and instill confidence in their abilities and further guide their learning by using their patient experiences. I was inspired. I became a better teacher, healthcare professional and person while watching all of this transpire.
"I learned the importance of leaning into His word while on such a spiritually demanding trip. I finally realized the obvious: Christ is the main thing we can offer anyone, even in our practices back home!”
One day during the trip, Bill chose several of us to perform home visits in the local area. We walked down the muddy roads of El Serrano led by the pastor who knew of seriously ill patients who could not come to our temporary clinic. Several students came with us, stocked with supplies and medicines, not knowing what we would find in the ramshackle houses.
Rashes, asthma, hypertension, back pain and reflux are the typical maladies we encountered. Diagnosing left lower lobe pneumonia with the help of tactile fremitus, bronchophony, egophony and whispered pectoriloquy is something I have not done very often in the U.S. House to house, we encountered people who needed our help, and we were welcomed warmly in every home. At one point, Bill and I sent two of the students, Megan and Magdalena, to the next house with the pastor and an interpreter to collect the history and start the physical exam. We headed to the house long after the students had left our group. As we came into the home, we were led to a back room where the sunlight coming in through the wall of uneven board slats was the only light in the room. On a wooden bench lay a man who reminded me of the terminally ill patients I have cared for in my career. He was under a layer of blankets, shivering and quiet. He was a 38-year-old man, surrounded by his children, wife and other family members. The family had brought him down from the mountains for care, but he worsened during the journey, so a compassionate family took these strangers in and allowed them to stay in their dirt-floored back room. They had no way to get him to a hospital, and they had no idea why he was deathly ill.
The looks on the faces of Megan and Magdalena struck me first. They told us the information they had gathered, and then they gave me vitals and results from their limited exam. I examined his cachectic frame and realized he could not survive much longer without being hospitalized. As I stood up, the students searched my face for hope and waited for orders to get something from the medicine pack. At that moment, I knew how I responded to this man and his family would impact my students for the rest of their lives. I gave Bill my little bottle of olive oil and we knelt down beside this man with our hands on him. Bill anointed him and prayed. It was a powerful moment as we acknowledged that sometimes we do not have anything to give but our faith.
We came back to the clinic and shared the story. In a matter of minutes, we had gathered enough money to get the man and his family immediate transportation down the mountain to the hospital several hours away. That was the miracle. In the face of the impossible, the impossible happened for this patient. I pray it saved his life. Later that evening, we attended a Wednesday night church service. Still in our muddy, sweat-stained scrubs, the worship music swirled around our heads. I sat with my students, and I felt a familiar tug in my spirit. In the darkened room, my tears began flowing.
Since this experience, I have encountered many more deeply impactful moments with my students during mission trips and volunteer opportunities. I developed an attitude that I will not expect my students to participate or volunteer for anything that I would not do myself. If there is an opportunity to love my neighbor, then count me in, and come with me.
The shared mission experience creates a new space for the teacher and the student, a place of mutual respect and a foundation where faith can anchor. If I had not gone to Nicaragua with the students, I would have missed all of this. I would have missed knowing them, really knowing them.
By revealing my heart to serve to my students, I found that they were willing to reveal their hearts as well. More open to believing where there was no belief, more open to hearing the words of life, more open to choosing to become disciples. Whether or not they follow the Lord after the experience is up to the Holy Spirit, but they will come away with a visual of what it means to love God and love people. A vision of how a disciple of Jesus lives, works and loves.
“Mission trips allow me to focus on how to be Christ-like with no pre-conceived ideas of who I am. It allows a fresh environment for me to focus on being the eyes, ears, hands and feet of Christ with none of the daily distractions I experience at home. When I get home I can carry that focus to change my daily life and those around me.”
—Physician assistant serving in the Ukraine
If you are an educator, I encourage you to experience service opportunities with your students. Even if it is not oversees, you can still participate in local and regional opportunities. We all want our students to grow, and growing together while serving together reaps huge benefits for all involved.
So if you can, send them, and go with them!