What am I doing here? I don’t belong. Rachel sat alone, letting the dark thoughts tumble over each other; she felt suffocated by the weight of them. I keep messing up. They must think I am a complete idiot.
Ever since her conversation with Lena, Rachel could not shake the feeling that she should not even be here. Even though Lena had said she was wan bel, that it was all good, Rachel could not believe that their friendship was on solid ground. Her relationships with the other staff at the hospital seemed shaky at best. Her guilt was piling up, and Rachel felt like she was about to burst. She could not sleep; she did not feel comfortable at work, and her conversations with God seemed so one-sided that she had given up praying. To top it all off, she had missed her mother’s birthday last week! Sure, mum said it was fine. Nevertheless, it was just another thing to make Rachel feel that she was a failure.
“Hello, Rachel, are you there?” Dr. John’s voice boomed over the frequency of her small hand-held radio, which was her Papua New Guinea equivalent of a beeper.
Rachel reached for it, relieved for the distraction. Dr. John was the senior doctor at the hospital and Dr. Francie’s husband.
“Yes, hello,” Rachel responded half-heartedly.
“We have an urgent medivac. A guy has been bitten by an unidentified snake; we think it might have been a taipan.” He continued, “There is no health worker in the village and most likely no snakebite bandage. We need a doctor to accompany the pilot—the plane will be here in about twenty minutes to pick you up.”
Rachel’s breath quickened as her adrenaline kicked in. She had not gone on a medivac before, and this case was sounding serious.
“I’ll be right there,” Rachel said into the radio.
“You’ll want to take some water. It’s a pretty long flight.”
“Okay, will do,” Rachel responded, getting up to do as she was told. Her guilt would have to wait—she was busy.
The tiny six-seater aircraft was the smallest plane Rachel had ever been in. It smelt like leather, avgas, and body odor. She was thankful that she was not prone to airsickness as the plane bumped down the runway and lifted into the air. After running down her mental checklist of what would need to be done once she got to the patient, she turned to look outside. The scenery was just what she needed to keep her mind off the guilt that threatened to take over her thoughts. Snaking brown rivers and small villages broke up the endless green sea of trees below.
As time went on the flat green surface became dotted with small lakes, which turned into a patchwork of islands, some connected together by thin strips of land on an enormous body of water. Whole villages of wooden houses built on stilts jutted over the lake. She could see walkways running out over the water between the houses, and canoes gliding past people’s front doors. Rachel gasped in amazement at the bright splashes of pinks and purples that seemed to blanket the water. The pilot must have noticed her astonishment.
“Pretty amazing, the change that happens when you hit the wetlands,” he said, smiling at her in a fatherly way. “Those waterlilies are pretty special, eh?
He looked about her dad’s age, and Rachel wondered how long he had been flying in PNG. Her mind frantically scrambled for his name; she was sure Dr. John had called him Dave. He had been busy on the radio the whole hour they had been flying and had not until now said ten words to her. Rachel was about to comment on the scenery, but he was once again talking with someone, so she kept quiet and focused once again outside.
Half an hour later the airplane flew into a small village and landed on a grassy airstrip that looked like it had been hacked out of the bush not so long ago. As they rolled to a stop, Rachel could see a crowd of people standing on the edge of the strip. The pilot cut the engine, and Rachel waited for him to unfold his tall frame before she hopped out of the plane after him. Being small did have its advantages.
He had to physically force his way through the crowd, making room for her to follow. A man was lying on a makeshift stretcher, hardly conscious, his breathing coming in quick, shallow gasps, his skin incredibly pale. She checked his pulse and could just faintly feel it. She spoke to the man, asking him his name. The man groaned, turned his head, and tried to lift his arm. He was incredibly sick. She needed to get his airway clear so he could breathe more easily, put a snake bandage on his leg, and get anti-venom into his system. If she could have done it all at once she would have, but unfortunately she was only one person.
She began her work, placing a plastic device into the man’s mouth to clear the airway and hold his tongue down. He was still too conscious to tolerate it and tried to spit it out. She would have to wait a bit longer and try again later when he was not so alert. The pilot offered to handle the bandage, so Rachel reached for her kit and pulled out the anti-venom. She needed to get that into the patient quickly and then try to intubate him, as soon he would not be able to breathe on his own. The venom of a taipan works in such a way that the victim’s nervous system is steadily destroyed. Once in hospital the man would have to be on a breathing machine for at least a week until his nerves repaired themselves enough for him to breathe on his own again.
Rachel inserted the IV and waited nervously as the anti-venom dripped slowly into the tube. After this initial rush, she would have to wait thirty minutes to see if it was working. She now had time to wipe the sweat that was about to drip off her face; the already hot day was intensified by the lack of shade and the sun that was beating down mercilessly. Why hadn’t they thought to put this poor man under shelter? wondered Rachel incredulously.
Suddenly, Rachel noticed his skin becoming blotchy and his breathing changing to wheezing gasps. Her heart plummeted. This isn’t happening, she screamed to herself. The man was going into anaphylactic shock; he was having an allergic reaction to the anti-venom.
Her mind kicked into overdrive, going through the list of what she had to do. She reached for the emergency bag, grabbing the adrenaline. One shot, under the skin. Faster, faster! she willed herself. She then exchanged the anti-venom drip for IV fluids.
“Dave, I need you to squeeze this bag as hard as possible.” Rachel knew she sounded demanding and hoped he would understand. “We need to get the fluid into him fast.”
A shot of steroids came next, and then she bagged the victim, manually squeezing air into his lungs.
“I need everyone to get back!” Rachel shouted again to Dave and the crowd. People were standing so close to her, their strong body odours were starving her of oxygen. “He needs air.”
Half an hour later Dave gently pulled Rachel away from the man. She was exhausted, completely soaked in sweat. She had refused to stop trying to revive him even after she knew it was too late.
“I am so sorry,” she stammered, as people all around her began to wail.
She stepped back and felt defeat once again wash over her. All around her people were letting the full force of their anguish pour out. A woman whom Rachel assumed was the man’s mother threw herself on his body, keening loudly. Rachel had never seen anything like it before; she let her own tears flow.
Am I ever going to do anything right ever again?
On the flight back Rachel watched the lakes disappear behind her. She felt completely alone and desolate. Dr. John had warned her as she boarded the plane that she might not be able to do anything. Why was so much of the doctoring here in PNG just too late or not enough? Sometimes they did not have the right medicine or the right instruments.
How do the doctors handle this day after day? It was just too much for Rachel to bear. As the tiny aircraft flew, leaving the seemingly endless lakes in its wake, Rachel could see the flat lowlands stretching out in front of them like a green sea. Her tears ran down her cheeks, she could imagine them joining that ocean.
“Fifteen years ago I had an accident.” The pilot’s voice came through the headset.
Rachel started; she had forgotten that he was sitting beside her. She had been crying for what seemed an eon, and he had been there the whole time. She glanced at him, embarrassed, trying to wipe the evidence of her tears away, but he seemed to be concentrating on what was out the front window.
“The turbo failed at a crucial point when we were in the mountains, and we hit terrain. One of my passengers, a young boy, was killed.”
Rachel could not have been more shocked at his confession.
“We went back to Australia,” he continued. “For years I tried to do everything to erase the load of guilt I carried, but it never went away. The accident had not been my fault, and yet I felt I was to blame. No matter what I was doing or who I was with, all I could think of was that I had killed someone.” He stopped talking, obviously still affected by the incident.
Rachel wanted to tell him that he did not need to continue. Why was he telling her this anyway? She had not confided in him; in fact, they had hardly spoken. Until now, the man had been as talkative as a pair of forceps.
“It took me a long time to figure out that it was my guilt, the accusing voices in my head, that were keeping me from living the life God had for me,” he said. “God was not condemning me. He wanted me to take my mistakes and failings to Him with the promise of forgiving me. It says in the Bible, Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
Rachel started to ask him what that meant, but he had begun to talk to some flight service on the radio. She thought about the heaviness she felt and the dark thoughts that she had let run riot in her mind that morning. Lena had said everything was good between them, but Rachel had basically rejected her forgiveness. Her mum had said it was okay that she had forgotten her birthday, but once again Rachel refused to believe that her mistake was not held against her.
Besides, she had to admit that no one at the hospital accused her of totally messing up or told her to leave because she was not “fitting in.”
“I realize that my story came out of the blue just then,” the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. “It’s just that you looked like you were hurting over much more than what happened today. I thought sharing my experience might help you out.”
Rachel smiled at the older man and nodded.
“Thanks,” she said. “I, umm, guess I realize that what happened today was not my fault,” she stammered, “but I still feel somehow responsible. The last couple months have been really hard.” Rachel choked back more tears. “I have been beating myself up about a lot of different things. I’m, ahh, not sure that I am cut out for working here.” Rachel surprised herself by confiding, but he had shared something with her, and she felt that he would understand.
He nodded, “It is a tough country to work in. Just try not to do it on your own. We have a big God who can handle anything and Who specializes in helping when we are out of our depth.” He grinned at her.
“It wasn’t easy to let go of my feelings of guilt; I had to give it to God over and over and ask Him for His strength and perspective in my life. I also had to learn how to forgive myself. If God does not condemn me, who am I to condemn myself?” He glanced at Rachel again and smiled. “I live with the memory of that accident every day, but I do not let it keep me from the work to which God has called me.” He turned to the front once again, flipping switches and fiddling with knobs and levers as they approached their destination.
Oh God, please take this guilt from me. I have been listening to my own hurt pride and selfishness and not to You. I have been letting even the little things become huge and block my way to You. Help me to be here for Your glory, not my own, Rachel prayed as they circled above the small hospital community.
After they had gotten out of the plane Rachel shook the older man’s hand. “Thanks, Dave,” Rachel said, hoping he would realize she meant for more than the safe flight.
“No worries,” he replied, a smile tugging at his mouth. “By the way, the name’s not Dave, it’s Gavin,” he said, pointing to his nametag and grinning, “but don’t beat yourself up about it.”