Minute miracles

Sometimes life marches by and suddenly I glance up and remember that it’s been a while since I wrote you.  A visiting friend told me that my letters give the impression that I am the only person working in our mission and that I am involved only in practicing medicine. Neither is true, so after detailing a few of my recent joys I will try to give a more general overview of the non-medical aspects of our mission/church and also some of my non-physician roles here.

Recent joys: A 17 month old, swollen and hairless from malnutrion, irritable from the associated cheilitis (cracks at the corners of the mouth) and the scabs covering the lower half of her body, was brought in by her mother for persistent diarrhea.  She lay limp in her mother’s arms, unable to sit unassisted.  The government hospital had given samples of formula earlier but the milk was producing diarrhea, so the mother had persisted in feeding the child only starch and sugar water.  I again gave them powdered milk but explained the need to gradually reintroduce food.  A week later the mother returned with a bag of fresh green peppers for me, delighted at her daughter’s recovery.  The child had gained 1 ½ pounds, the diarrhea had resolved, and curly hair was starting to sprout.  In another week she was able to stand briefly and the skin lesions and cheilitis had completely resolved; I’m still enjoying the bananas from this last visit.

An 11 year old girl came in with her grandmother, both of them embarrassed and frustrated by her bedwetting.  We decided together to try some simple behavioral changes and undertake more expensive options (an alarm clock—no fancy alarm systems available in this country!–and/or meds) later if this failed to work.  This week both were beaming:  only one wet night in the previous month!  After updating me, they sat outside to hear a Bible lesson in which Marietta was discussing real wisdom and the fact that a wise person is kind.  “So how would you describe a kind person?” she asked the group.  “Oh,” spoke up this grandmother, “it’s just like you and the doctor are.”  There are many days when that definition would require modification but it was a high compliment.

Last week I watched Martha, my amazing assistant for the past 10 years, poring over a book.  She had picked up the Spanish edition of a dermatology text/atlas whose pictures in the back of the book are completely disassociated from the text either by order or cross-reference.  She was discovering how to take the captions from the photos (from which she makes a tentative diagnosis), find the caption in the index (her fifth grade education equipped her with neither alphabetization nor indexing skills) and from there refer to the text in order to correctly document her findings.  Sometimes my staff’s ingenuity just makes me so proud!

The broader picture: Over the past ten years our mission has been not only to establish a clinic but also to form a church and school.  The church is currently comprised of people from two main areas: El Resbaladero and Las Delicias, a community 30 minutes to the east of us.  On Sunday mornings people from Las Delicias clamber on the back of an open pickup in their Sunday best for a mud-filled or dust-bathed ride. Around 60 people usually attend the Sunday morning service and manage to tolerate and even enjoy the 3+ hours affair (small tykes and the doctor should possibly be excluded from the enjoyment clause).  Since the illness of one of the two missionary pastors in March, we have been privileged to watch the skills of three lay pastors develop.  All of these lay pastors can all read but have had to learn to use resource materials such as dictionaries on their own.

I have the privilege of teaching the adolescent young women in Sunday school.  Remembering people who influenced me for life during my adolescent years, I pray that the hour together on Sunday mornings will help develop ways of thinking and deciding that can equip my students for a lifetime of thoughtful, godly decisions rather than mere reflex action.

On weekdays the two Sunday school rooms become transformed into elementary education rooms.  Twenty students are enrolled in our school and many others beg to attend.  (These first graders can actually read [!] by the end of the school year.)  Three teachers teach six grades.  I am on the school board and have wrestled with the teachers and other board members over difficult questions such as how to fund the school:  we have wanted to avoid dependence on international aid but the students’ parents already are struggling to pay the $12.00 annual tuition.  Even greater challenges arise with special needs students.  What does one do with students with severe ADHD and no resources?  (One of these students is being raised in the village tavern/gambling headquarters.  His mother is deaf/mute and has never been taught any formal signing or speaking.   A grandmother and the father alternate as primary caregivers; they contradict each other in matters of discipline, so the child wanders the village at will, modeling after his father’s gambling friends.  Finding appropriate medications for him is a challenge of its own. Another ADHD student is being raised by her well-meaning great-grandparents who no longer have the energy to guide a child of this activity level.)

For a bit of an overview of the rest of the church community:  we have, as I said, 2 missionary pastors.    One of our pastors is entirely self-supporting and the other raises chickens in partial self-support.  The self-supporting pastor currently sells plywood poster clocks and decoupage but is also exploring agricultural methods of self-support. He and his family raise rabbits, parakeets, and are attempting various garden projects.  He is experimenting with a simple non-electrical pump to carry water uphill from a creek for irrigation and hopes to start raising earthworms as fertilizer-producers.  Nothing seems to be easy here.  Two out of 8 parent parakeets have become gravely ill from maggot infestation; the sweet corn died of an ant invasion, and dogs jumped over a 6-foot tall fence to devour the rabbits.

Others of our church family are farmers (some who raise corn and beans, others who sell eggs from the chickens they raise, and one man who is trying to support his family by raising 7 head of cattle), a self-taught mason who is most comfortable with adobe bricks, a government health care worker, and several people without land or regular employment.  We try to act as a family to each other in caring for a child with severe cerebral palsy, working toward healthier marriages, and helping to help a member buy a piece of land.   We also try to be involved in the larger community by helping a mother of two whose husband is in prison, starting literacy classes, and by working with the local public school to establish a job-training program in the community.  What we find, though, is that we all are busy enough with our personal occupations that we are more aware of needs than capable of meeting them.

That’s an overview.  Which means I’ve surely omitted some very important details and emphasized some unimportant ones.  Ask someone who has visited us for the true story of our lives here.

Have a wonderful autumn!

Jana Nisly