So we’re back from a ten day medical mission trip to Nigeria. The images in my mind are numerous. Not surprising, since instead of seeing twenty-some people a day (as in my practice here), we would each see a hundred and twenty-something there – less thoroughly, of course, just trying to identify something with which we could help. There were the legions of patient, respectful elderly with the common complaints of “body aches” and “headaches”. No surprise given the hard physical work of farming by hand that many of them had done for decades. Their “bad vision” was usually caused, at least in part, by obvious dense cataracts needing surgery that was mostly out of reach for them.
The cases of malaria were so common that instead of saying they had “fever”, the person would say they had “malaria” since that was the most common cause of fever for them. Likewise, typhoid fever, which I never see here, was a regular on the list of diseases seen or suspected. Less severe, but still debilitating, were the frequent parasitic worm illnesses from unsanitary food and water. Frequent prescriptions of a de-worming medicine were administered to at least temporarily knock down the person’s worm burden.
As always on such trips, there are the more profound illnesses and maladies for which little can be done. There was the woman with an obvious advanced cancer of her salivary glands, far past the point of surgical cure. She had been informed of it six years before but didn’t have the money for surgery. Now it wouldn’t really help even if we somehow could arrange it.
Or the ten year old smiling boy who could barely walk. Further questions revealed that two weeks previously he had had a high fever, neck pain and severe headache. Nigeria is in the “meningitis belt” and in all likelihood this boy had survived untreated meningitis but had been left with a walking debility that will probably be life-long. Yet both he and his father repeatedly smiled at us thankfully for the little we could do.
Then there were the several young men with jaundice (yellow) evident in the whites of their eyes. This indicated liver disease, but what kind: hepatitis, cancer, parasite, yellow fever, malaria? With no access to an ultrasound, CT scan, or even blood work we were left to guess.
Perhaps most heart-tugging were the young women who would come in and with profound sadness explain that after several years of marriage they had not been able to have any children. In Nigeria, children are a particularly valued part of life and marriage. When we would explain that we were not equipped to work-up or treat this problem, their look of hopelessness would deepen. Yet, when we would pray with them it was always striking how their whole countenance revived.
At such times it would be wonderful to have the healing touch of Jesus. Our medicines and tools are so much less potent. But, at the same time, the rest of our team was presenting the good news of Jesus Christ to those eager to hear it. And one should not be quick to dismiss the impact and potency of this remedy for the soul. All in all, it was a very blessed trip and a reminder of how laden we all are in terms of resources and opportunities. Yet somehow, in the midst of all their unmet needs and difficulties, it was remarkable how content and even happy so many of the Nigerians were. As always on such trips, we learned and received more than we taught or gave.
Andrew Smith, MD is board-certified in Family Medicine and practices at 1503 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Contact him at 982-0835