Reflections on Medical Missions
Let me reflect on some common queries regarding Medical Missions in the minds of Christian medical students and on ways forward:
- Who is a missionary? I found this definition from Wikipedia (3) quite comprehensive, “A missionary is a member of a religious group sent into an area to do evangelism or ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, health care and economic development. The word “mission” originates from 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad, derived from the Latin missionem (nom. missio), meaning “act of sending” or mittere, meaning “to send”. The word was used in light of its biblical usage; in the Latin translation of the Bible, Christ uses the word when sending the disciples to preach in his name. The term is most commonly used for Christian missions, but can be used for any creed or ideology.” A Christian medical missionary would therefore be someone sent to provide health care on behalf of a Christian church or group and Christian medical missions would be the work done collectively by a group of such people.
- What are some of the characteristics of medical missionary work? I think that medical missionaries (like all other missionaries) need to be sent out to areas where they are relatively out of their comfort zone (vulnerable) and to help people who are poor and marginalized. They must excel in their professional work as well as serve in the Spirit of Christ, so that others may see Christ in and through their work. This would enable other Christian services to be offered through the activities of the mission compound.
- Does Medical Mission work have to be only in remote rural areas? Many of the present locations of mission hospitals in India were once rural – towns have developed around the mission compounds! However, after Indian independence, there has been a significant movement of people to urban areas and many live in slums. These people are also poor and marginalized – they do not have access to high quality medical care at affordable cost and this is an opportunity for mission hospitals in urban areas. Mission hospitals have great potential as they are among the few entities which focus on people whom nobody else is interested in.
- Are there opportunities for pioneering new Medical Mission work in India? Yes, Arunachal Pradesh is at present the only state in India without a Christian mission hospital. (Tripura too did not have one until we started a hospital there in 2005). There are large tracts of land in forgotten corners of our country where new hospitals are needed and can be started. However, due to local land and entry laws, it is not easy for outsiders.States such as Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland require an Inner Line Permit – similar to a visa – for non-locals to enter and several states have restrictions on non-locals purchasing land). Similarly, great opportunities for transformation exist in other needy parts of the world where few want to go.
- Can Medical Mission work be done in hostile areas? When Makunda started the work in Tripura, Dhalai district was the most affected by militancy with murder and abduction being common and all public transportation possible only through armed convoys. However, the work at the hospital was never affected as it was seen as a humanitarian service to the poor. I had the privilege to visit Africa last year – mission hospitals are the only long-term health facilities that work well in conflict areas because of the commitment of staff. Other NGOs (like Red Cross and MSF) offer short-term medical support services. Warring groups usually do not target missionary services, recognising their humanitarian value and universal appeal.
- Is Medical Mission work a sacrifice? We are called to be ‘living sacrifices’ – meaning that we offer ourselves to a life of obedience to God. Medical mission work (especially in remote rural areas) is front-line work and not easy. However, in the light of the words of the Bible, I would say that the trials and difficulties are ‘temporary and trivial inconveniences’! We should not dwell on sacrifice as it makes people into ineffective self-styled martyrs! There is no sacrifice too great for a missionary – when we feel that we have been brought to life from death by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we should be ready to die for Him. When we look at missionary history, many missionaries (often unheard and unsung) gave their lives so that the church may be built in remote areas all over the world – truly the present Christian church in these areas has been built on their sweat and blood. In comparison, the problems we face today in India are indeed trivial.
- Can Medical Mission work be professionally challenging? I have heard many people say that mission hospitals (especially remote rural ones) treat only diarrhea and ear discharge! When I completed my M.Ch in Pediatric Surgery at CMC Vellore, there were people who even asked why I wasted a M.Ch seat which could have been given to someone who was more likely to use it! I would like to say that I have seen and operated on some of the most professionally challenging conditions at Makunda. Since CT scans, nuclear scans and the services of other experts are often unavailable in these locations, missionary doctors need to innovate to be able to treat patients cost effectively with what is available.. I have operated on a teratoma in the right middle lobe of the lung (middle lobectomy with composite resection of two overlying ribs), ectopia cordis (unfortunately, this patient died), 35 kg ovarian tumor, retrograde jejunogastric intussusception, intra-abdominal cocoon (several cases) and so on. There have also been challenging medical as well as other specialties’ cases. All these years, I was the only full-time pediatric surgeon in the states of Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur and southern Assam – so there are certainly a huge variety of patients who need treatment (and who cannot go elsewhere because they are poor), it is only logical to conclude that professionally, medical missionaries are in for exciting opportunities.
- Is it not difficult to be in a ‘vulnerable’ situation? Humanly speaking, it is. However, I would say that from a spiritual perspective, this is the greatest factor in favor of Medical Missions. Vulnerability is a blessing in disguise – how else will we see God at work? God specialises in helping us as we face circumstances beyond our control. Miracles do not happen when we are in control of situations. When all else fails and we totally depend on God, we see Him at work. It is an exciting experience to see God at work and see Him build up His kingdom and be partners in this great ministry.
- Is Medical Mission work drudgery with few opportunities to relax? When I was in school, I was interested in tennis, rifle shooting and rowing. In college, I cultivated an interest in electronics. However, many of these activities were not possible at Makunda. I discovered that nature observation and photography are excellent for relaxation. My observations in and around Makunda have been posted and published in many sites. (4,5) If someone is looking for the nearest mall to relax in, he may be disappointed but there are other (and maybe greater) opportunities to compensate.
- Can work focused on the poor be self-sustaining? When we re-started Makunda, we were told that it was impossible to work primarily for the poor on a self-sustaining basis and that all successful mission hospitals subsidise treatment of the poor by treating the rich at higher rates. However, we decided to be a hospital primarily for the poor with no special facilities for the rich as a part of our ‘pro-poor’ branding strategy. All patients wait in the same queues irrespective of their social class or wealth and the same general wards are used to admit them. Charges are low and charity is liberal – the hospital is flooded with patients and high capacity utilisation leads to high efficiency and lowered costs. God has blessed the work and we have been able to invest in new equipment and buildings, start a new school, the branch in Tripura and nursing school without major grants (the external funding received each year was less than 1 percent of income for many years). When we treat the poor who cannot afford to pay, God pays their bills – often in ways that money cannot buy – by giving us satisfaction, contentment and wealth in heaven.
- Why is there a high attrition rate in mission hospitals? Work in mission hospitals is not easy and not for every one. There is peer-pressure from families and friends. People look for comforts and sometimes are unable to adjust to life in mission hospitals. Many are short-term and do not want to stay on to solve local problems. There is a high attrition rate in Medical Mission work all over the world – maybe <10 per cent of new staff stay on long-term. However, most staff leave after tasting God at work and often say that the best years of their lives were at the mission hospital!
- Are many mission hospitals today ‘beyond redemption’? Sadly, many mission hospitals are ‘sick’. This is due to inability to adapt to rapid changes, poor governance and the absence of committed long-term staff at a leadership level. Being at the cutting edge of mission work, I am sure there would also be an element of spiritual warfare. However, no hospital is beyond redemption. Major changes may need to be done to resolve problems but all of them can be revived. If a completely shut hospital (like Makunda) with severe local problems can be revived to become a thriving community, there is hope for all the other sick ones too! God is able to do great things. He just needs a few volunteers willing to submit to Him.
What should be done to revive and revitalize Medical Missions?
- I feel that Medical Mission hospitals require a transition to effective and efficient governance mechanisms, without losing the vision of the founding fathers. They may need repositioning due to changing contexts – laws have changed and the world has changed. For this to happen, highly committed people should be willing to stay till they see change. It is a call to persevere – changes may take years to happen. Objective stock-taking exercises, strategic planning and an excellent system of accountability, transparency and integrity based ‘checks and balances’ is essential.
- The church should ‘own’ and support medical mission work. When I was young, I never went to church, thinking it was a waste of time! Parents and people at church disapproved. Later, when I started going to church, everyone was happy. However, when I felt God’s call to remote rural missions, many felt I was going too far, becoming extremist! If every church encouraged medical members of its congregation to give a year or two of their lives to missions, there would be more than enough people to run the hospitals.
- Many young doctors and specialists going to mission hospitals today do not have the training and experience to manage administrative (legal, financial and other) work. They need to have some exposure, as they are often required to take leadership roles. Some years ago, Makunda offered a mission-training programme of 2 years duration where doctors who are keen to work in long-term missions could work as apprentices and finally learn to manage a small hospital (our branch at Tripura) on their own.
- There is a lot of Christian work in medical colleges in India – EMFI and UESI as well as other groups. However, such work should lead to changed lives. We need people to experience the life-changing power of the Gospel and then take decisions that will take them to the best plans God has for them. Important attitudes need to be cultivated too. (6)
- Excellence in studies is important. Obscure facts learnt in medical college serve to be life-saving information(7). Students interested in a career in medical missions should ensure that every day in college is well-spent and no opportunity to study is lost.
- The choice of who one marries has a very strong effect on which medical missionary stays on in Medical Missions and which one does not. (8)
- When young Christian medical professionals talk of working abroad, the conversation is almost always about the developed world – the western nations, Australia and even the wealthy ones in the Middle East. Why don’t we look at the ones that need help instead – Myanmar, African and South American nations, small island nations – for those with a greater adventurous spirit, these opportunities beckon!
- There is a ’rut’ placed in time at the end of MBBS or other medical professional qualification. If nothing is done at this point, all graduates tend to follow the tracks left by their peers – corporate work, government work or private practice. So, for those considering Medical Missions, important steps need to be taken much prior to graduation – sensitizing parents, and exploring varied options.
I would like to invite every committed Christian medical professional to consider a life-long career in mission hospitals, or at least a few years of their life. We spend a lot of effort in investing our money so that it gains the greatest value over time. I think Medical Mission work gives a Christian medical professional the greatest value over time – an exciting and fulfilling life in this world and a great reward in heaven.
Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel
Makunda Christian Leprosy and General Hospital.
This post is updated and adapted from the chapter, “A privileged call to Medical Missions” published in the book, “Wings of Dawn” – used here with permission from the author Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel. The book, which also contains chapters by several other authors is available in hard copy and Kindle versions on Amazon.
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