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Rest for Your Soul

by Emily Dalton, MD
Today's Christian Doctor
- Winter 2011

It was a heavy burden to bear and my soul was weary. I was accused of malpractice in the death of a three-year-old child I had cared for in the emergency room of our local rural hospital. Although I felt confident I had handled the patient as well as anyone could have, I had not communicated very well with the family. The parents spoke little English and I had no time to explain what even I did not understand as we performed invasive tests which culminated in a code and resuscitation. I arranged a life flight to the referral center and the family rushed off into the night on a six-hour drive to the tertiary care center. Tragically and unexpectedly, the toddler deteriorated and died from a rare disease.

The subpoena arrived months later, and the process of preparing for the lawsuit was painstakingly slow. My attorney and I met often to plan a defense strategy, review the expert’s analysis and pore over the records while I agonized over the tragic chain of events. The plaintiff’s lawyers were making horrible accusations against me, and their expert, a local physician I was acquainted with, said terrible things about me and the care I provided.

The trial was only a month away and I was dreading the days in court. In light of these events, it was a relief to go on my first medical missions trip and leave it all behind. Medical missions work had always tugged at my heart, but the timing had not been right until now. My kids were grown up and my husband encouraged me, so I signed up for a GHO trip to Honduras. Initially, I considered volunteering on a secular humanitarian trip, but I did not think I could work well in an environment that did not include strong spiritual support.

During the time before I left, I felt uncharacteristically tranquil. I have a great deal of practice getting worked up and anxious over little things, so I was surprised at the equanimity with which I handled the travel preparations. Puzzled by my lack of anxiety, I turned to Scripture. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

What is this thing, “rest for your soul?” Mission trips and other Christian work can be physically fatiguing and emotionally draining. How can this be called rest? The question was puzzling, but I seemed to be living the answer. I was experiencing a sense of tranquility and rest, sleeping well and not worrying, so the meaning of these verses was clear to me. Resisting God’s call creates a mental strain; when we accept His will, it relaxes our minds. He is in charge—not us—and that brings peace.

Honduras is a beautiful country. As we disembarked from the plane, the warm, humid breeze was a welcome change from the stale plane air. The Honduran people are friendly and down to earth. As I’m only 5 feet 2 inches tall, it’s the only place I’ve ever been where I felt tall. Cows rule the roads, and even the main thoroughfares can be dirt or gravel. Although malaria is endemic, I did not see a single mosquito the whole time. (That could have had something to do with the large amounts of insect repellent that I repeatedly applied.) People in Honduras are poor: the gross national income per capita is $1,820, compared to $45,640 in the U.S. Wages are low, and little industry exists to provide employment. Drugs and crime are rampant, and the social infrastructure to counter that influence is sorely lacking. Due to military rule, corruption, a huge wealth gap, crime and natural resources, Honduras is described as one of the least developed and least secure countries in Central America.

Vaccines and some preventative medicine are provided by governmental health workers, but many of our patients had never seen a doctor or had only had emergency care for dire illnesses. Most could not even afford acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches and pains. One woman showed up with an acute abdomen and $40 to her name. We found her a ride to the nearest hospital and effectively doubled her net worth by giving her $50 to pay medical bills.

The trip was a whirlwind of prayer time, travel, medical work and communal meals. Each day we rode on a rickety school bus to a remote village where we would set up clinics on the dirt floor of the local church. Most places had no electricity, so we worked by daylight or flashlight, and the dentists brought a generator to do extractions and other basic dental work. Long lines of people formed to see a doctor or dentist, and we spent many lengthy days seeing patients, trying to communicate across the linguistic and cultural barriers, praying with people and doing our best to act under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

While not blessed with the gift of tongues, I am fortunate to be blessed with the gift of languages and I was able to speak enough Spanish to communicate directly with the patients. In some villages, I still needed an interpreter—but not one who spoke English—just someone who could translate the local dialect into standard Spanish!

During a check up with a 15-year-old boy, I asked him how his mood was, and he said “sad.” He pointed to a black ribbon he had pinned to his sleeve and told me that two of his friends had recently been murdered. The aftermath of violence spares neither young nor old. We prayed for him, his friends and their families. Another young woman asked if I could help her get pregnant. She explained that her friends all had children, the years were passing and she wanted a baby. I asked her how old she was, and she replied “17.” Although I viewed her as a child, she clearly did not. I tried to be sensitive to her perception and, while the scope of what we could offer was limited, I gave her prenatal vitamins and we prayed together.

A 23-year-old woman came in for a consultation. She was only about 3.5 feet tall and had coarse features, but clearly did not have achondroplasia. I quickly ran my mind over the differential diagnosis of short stature, and tried to recall the associated medical complications. She sat down and I asked what was wrong. She replied that she had frequent headaches and back pain and would like something to relieve them. After addressing this, I asked if she knew why she was so short. She seemed surprised by the question and made it clear that her height had never really troubled her.

Over and over, I found that my preconceptions got in the way of understanding the concerns of my patients. I had to reel back some of my worldviews and try to find how I could be most helpful for each individual. Often prayer and emotional support were more helpful than any medical treatment or advice I could give.

It was great to be able to see patients with no insurance companies to bill, no malpractice to worry about and no restrictions imposed by health plans or government rules. I got back in touch with what made me go into medicine in the first place: helping people. The experience was rejuvenating, and the gratitude and appreciation from my patients left me feeling as though I received more than I gave. Working from a pure motivation with no strings attached made me realize how jaded I had become, and how freeing it was to do medicine prayerfully as a service to God just for the sake of helping others.

Towards the end of the trip, I received an email from my lawyer. The family had dropped the case. No reason given, they just dropped it. Previous requests to drop the case had been met with no success, and suddenly, out of the blue, it was over.

Receiving this news during the trip to Honduras definitely lifted a burden from my shoulders and I celebrated with my new friends. But the trip itself was what actually provided rest for my weary soul. The two events coinciding seemed to be a confirmation from God, and I felt truly blessed.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emily Dalton, MD, is a general pediatrician in Northern California. She is the medical director of the local Sexual Assault Response Program, and covers emergency calls for deliveries and pediatrics at the local hospital. She is a periodic participant in CMDA mission trips. She is married and has four adult children.