Rachel groaned and gingerly picked herself up off the floor. Her small frame ached from the physical exertion of the operation she had just preformed. Glancing at her watch, she could barely make out the time in the darkness of the house. It was 3:00 AM. That afternoon she had been in surgery, confident and self-assured that the operation would go smoothly. Now she felt like her coffee mug, which yesterday had smashed to pieces on the tiled floor.
Two months ago she had been in her element. A senior doctor in one of the best hospitals in Australia, she was respected and did her job quickly, efficiently, and very well. Now she was volunteering in this small, remote community in Papua New Guinea for six months, completely out of her depth. She felt utterly uncomfortable, constantly one step behind, and baffled by the culture, language, and lack of hygiene.
Rachel felt defeated. She wanted to curl up in bed, fall into a dreamless sleep, and wake up in her bedroom back home in Melbourne. Instead, she dragged herself to the bathroom. She needed a shower, a steaming-hot jet of water that would massage her back and help ease the tension. The water was lukewarm; it had rained all day and the solar water heater had not been able to do its job. The water became a trickle. Rachel almost screamed, remembering that she had forgotten to pump water up to the header tank in her rush to respond to the call from the hospital.
“Why is everything manual in this blinking country?” she exclaimed, utterly exasperated. It would have to do; she needed to clean up and get some rest.
Two days later, Rachel walked across the grass airstrip toward a tiny white house hidden behind two huge bougainvillaea trees covered in deep purple flowers. The sun was setting in front of her, and God had painted the sky different hues of orange.
Dr. Frances Gale had lived in the community for over 15 years, working in the hospital. She was a rather formidable figure, someone whom Rachel was only just beginning to appreciate for her depth of spiritual wisdom and cross-cultural understanding. Dr. Francie, as she was known, was not present on the night of the operation that had left Rachel reeling. She had been away at a medical conference and had only just returned that afternoon, being flown in on a small aircraft that frequented the tiny strip.
“Come in, Rachel,” the gentle voice called out in response to Rachel’s hesitant knock.
Dr. Francie’s generous curves were hidden under a bright, multi-colored, voluminous blouse, a style worn by many Papua New Guinean women. The top contrasted with her dark skin and the distinctive, Melanesian, tightly-ringleted hair which framed her round face.
“Would you like some water?” Dr Francie asked. It was the first question everyone in the community asked anyone walking through their front door.
“Yes, please,” Rachel replied.
The ceiling fans spun round, trying desperately to keep the heat at bay. Rachel gratefully sat down on one of Dr. Francie’s cane chairs.
“I heard you had a rough night on Friday,” Dr. Francie stated, sitting down opposite Rachel.
“Yes,” Rachel replied slowly, not wanting to show the depth of her emotions.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Rachel remembered her last desperate prayer. Oh God, help me, she had cried out silently, as her knife sunk into flesh. How many times had she prayed those words that day? She could still picture the young woman lying helpless on the operating table. Her labor had been too long.
“We’ll have to do a caesarean,” Rachel could hear herself say. “If we don’t, they’ll both die.”
She had been so confident everything would work out, sure that by now there would have been a proud mum and new baby on the maternity ward.
“I can’t help but think that if the woman had been treated in Australia, she would most likely still be alive,” Rachel said haltingly, not wanting to offend Dr. Francie. “I know that this was her only choice, and infinitely better than nothing at all.”
She continued picturing the hospital. When she had first seen it, she had thought it was a condemned building. Rachel thought of the ancient ultrasound machine, which stopped working that afternoon. She tried to quell her annoyance at the staff that seemed out of their depth so much of the time and the dispensary that was constantly out of stock. Her nose wrinkled as she recalled the smell of urine which permeated the air. All of this contrasted starkly with her workplace in Melbourne, a hospital with state-of-the-art equipment, numerous staff and specialists, endless supplies of medicine, and clean, shiny rooms that were air-conditioned.
Now the young woman was dead. The box of tissues that Dr. Francie had on the table was empty, and the wastebasket at Rachel’s feet was full.
“I don’t understand,” Rachel’s voice caught in her achingly tight throat. “I asked God to give me wisdom,” she whispered. “I was so sure after praying that whatever decision I would make would be the right one.”
Rachel wiped her tears with the drenched tissue in her hand. She could not get her head around the injustice of the situation. Maybe if she had operated sooner? No, she had asked for wisdom and made the decision to operate at that time. Now there were two new bodies in the morgue.
“Rachel, you asked for wisdom, and God did give it to you,” Dr. Francie said with conviction, her hand reaching out to grasp one of Rachel’s. “The Bible says when we ask God for wisdom He gives it to us. From talking with Dr. John and reading your report, you did everything right.”
Rachel nodded her head. She knew what she had done was medically correct, but when God and people where involved, things just did not seem to follow logical patterns.
“Now you have to trust, even though things didn’t work out the way you would have liked them to and maybe not how they would have worked out at your hospital in Australia, God will continue to work in and through you as long as you keep asking for help. Remember,” Dr. Francie’s voice lowered as if she was encouraging herself as well, “this life is just a breath to God; He has things worked out on a level which we can never understand. Our job is to do our very best for God, using the wisdom He gives when we ask and being lights pointing toward Him in this dark world.”
“It just seems so unfair!” Rachel exclaimed. “In Australia we have so much, and here, where there is so much need, there is so little.”
Dr Francie nodded. “I have been struggling with this very thing from the very first day that I got here. When I returned to PNG after completing my studies in Sydney, I was determined to make a difference in the level of healthcare. There is so much in the world that is unfair; we do what we can to tip the balance a little, eh?”
Rachel smiled ruefully; she had never before understood the incredible strength and perseverance as well as spiritual conviction it would take to work in a place where there were so many things stacked up against you. Nevertheless, the hospital continued to save lives, doing so much with the little they had to offer.
“The nurses at the hospital tell me the woman’s family are blaming her death on sorcery. Why would they do that?” Rachel could not understand their reasoning when she had already explained the cause of death.
“That is not unusual,” Dr. Francie responded.
Rachel groaned and felt the heaviness of responsibility resting on her shoulders again. She wished God had given her some miracle knowledge that would have preserved their lives. Now, instead of people rejoicing and giving thanks to God for a new baby, a family and whole village would be turning to the spirits to find out who had put a curse on the woman. What could God possibly do to redeem the situation?
“It is what many people do here,” Dr. Francie continued. “Traditionally in Papua New Guinean culture they believe that sickness or death has to do with some form of sorcery. Many times it has to do with revenge or payback. When I was a little girl, my grandfather was accused of sorcery. I haven’t seen him since then. At the hospital we try to teach people why sickness happens and how to prevent it, but it is hard to get around beliefs that have been thought of as truth for so long.”
Dr. Francie stopped and smiled at Rachel. “What you may not know is that the woman’s husband is standing up against her family’s wishes. Dr. John told me that the hospital chaplain has been visiting him quite often since they first came to the hospital. There is a struggle going on, one that you would do well to pray about. Doctoring the body is only part of what we do here.”
Rachel walked away from Dr. Francie’s house deep in thought. Praying for her patients—let alone family members of her patients—was something she rarely, if ever, did back home. This place was getting under her skin. She had never felt so uncomfortable with the world’s pecking order or so completely out of control in her own life. Even so, the lack of control was forcing her to reach out desperately to God.
A week later the woman and her child were laid to rest. The community gathered for the burial service, and Rachel was surprised at the number of people who had come. Death was such a huge part of every day life in PNG. From Rachel’s point of view it seemed to saturate and suffocate the culture, much like the high humidity that made it hard to breathe. She still had flashbacks about the operation, waking up in a cold sweat, her hands shaking. It would take a long time before she could think about the woman and her baby without regret, but now the questioning was beginning to abate.
During the service the pastor spoke of God’s timing and how it was only God who gave life and took it. He spoke of every person’s need for salvation and the assurance of life after death when one accepts Christ as their personal Saviour. There were many tears and shouts of “Amen.” Rachel wondered at the sincerity of many of the people there. Then she remembered her own brash declaration of faith, which had been tested when God had answered her prayer in a way she still could not fully comprehend.
The next morning Rachel sat on her veranda drinking coffee out of her plastic travel mug and enjoying the view of the river below as it snaked lazily past. The sun was blazing hot and the sky a gorgeous blue, streaked by thin white clouds. On the opposite bank someone’s banana trees were heavily-laden with green fruit. Rachel jumped as her radio squawked on the table, announcing an incoming call.
“Dr. Rachel, this is Special Care,” a voice with a distinct PNG accent transmitted.
“Go ahead,” Rachel responded, her heartbeat quickening.
“Dr. Francie needs you in the operating room right away.”
“Coming,” she said automatically into the radio while standing up and moving into the house.
She would have to hurry. Rachel found herself once again praying for wisdom and that she would trust God for the outcome of her prayer. Just before she rushed out the front door she firmly pressed the button for the water pump; this time there would be no lukewarm trickle to greet her when she returned.