As a final year medical student I wanted to become the Director of Surgical Services in a medical college, preferably as a brain surgeon. I had this image in mind of doing a ward-round, being followed by a train of juniors, associates, lecturers, residents and students.
This picture did not come from a vacuum but from watching the head of the surgical unit where I was posted. We looked up to him with awe. He was our role model—a UK trained Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS), who wore a three-piece suit in the heat and humidity of South India. He was a phenomenally skilled surgeon who stood an imposing six feet tall.
A Change of Mind
Immediately after my graduation, I started work at a mission hospital in rural India. I met many doctors there, one of whom stood out. He was a surgeon who would ride a bicycle to work, wearing the traditional attire of khadi jubba and mundu, without any train of people following him. Initially, I did not pay much attention to him. But when I realised he was highly skilled and had a double FRCS, my perspective changed.
In conversations with him I learned he did not see himself primarily as a doctor, but a follower of Jesus who happened to be a well-trained surgeon. For a young doctor who had been brainwashed over 6 years of training to believe your identity is married to your profession, this was a paradigm breaking perspective. He considered all he had earned and received for his hard work as given to him by God.
In every conversation, he displayed gratitude for being chosen and being given the skills, the profession, and the platform to care for others. I had studied hard and earned a degree on my own, so I was not used to considering it as a gift I had been given. But for him it was a privilege to give back to God by caring for those in pain.
An understanding of the gospel and his personal relationship with Jesus had transformed him to recognise he had been given a privilege to be part of Jesus’s own ministry in the world.
His posture confronted the reasons I joined the hospital. I joined healthcare thinking God needed my service and I had much to offer to God and the many whom I thought needed my help. I was realising the life of Jesus can transform me inwardly and the way I live outwardly in the world.
Being a health care practitioner and a follower of Christ can change our hearts, our reason for being in health care, our career choices and the way we carry out our professional practice.
A Change of Heart
A few years down the line I began working in a mission hospital in India. Most of my time was spent taking care of many with critical illness that needed my urgent attention. I had the opportunity to spend a few days with christians who were faithfully proclaiming and living out the gospel in difficult contexts. I saw the church growing vibrantly among a community that, just under a decade ago, was addicted to alcohol and had a long history of violence. The gospel was breaking through in power, with wonders and miracles.
From seeing the health care practice as taking care of those in need of critical care, I was being challenged to consider health care as ushering in the new heavens and the new earth.
I heard stories of many missionaries and church members who had died of Malaria in the field. I also had the privilege of caring for a missionary who was on her deathbed due to Malaria. The oldest member in that church community was 45 years old—the life expectancy there was less than 50.
There were women dying of childbirth every day, infants and children dying due to Malaria, TB and Kala Azar every other day. This was a church that was growing spiritually and flourishing but its members were dying of preventable illnesses.
I found this experience disturbing my heart and challenging my theology. From seeing the health care practice as taking care of those in need of critical care, I was being challenged to consider health care as ushering in the new heavens and the new earth.
I began to relate God’s desire for shalom to the work I was doing on the field: “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old. . . .” (Isa. 65:20).
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech. 8:4-5).
The relevance of these images in the midst of the busy curative work I was engaged in began to change my theological perspective and its influence on the practice of healthcare.
I saw the importance of being an intentional healing presence as opposed to merely being a curing presence. I began to see that a person who may not be cured can still be cared for by journeying with them. I started to see that if healing has to come to a community and shalom has to be ushered in, there is a need for the church and a caring community where such a journey can take place. There was a need for a “multi-disciplinary” group of people who can support each other in this journey to healing and wholeness.
A Change in Responding to Challenges
During this season a person with HIV infection was brought into our OPD. In those days, it was a challenging task to get him admitted and provide him with care in the hospital. It was the early days of the HIV epidemic when there was so much fear, shame and stigma. The challenge for such marginalized communities to get access to compassionate care created internal disturbances for few of us in the team. We ended up starting a program to care for them.
I began to see that a person who may not be cured can still be cared for by journeying with them.
After a few years spent working with and care for HIV infected drug users and sex workers, we learned that the existing institutional structures were not open or accessible for such communities. The care needed to come in makeshift contexts—at home and within the community itself. For institutionally trained professionals this was tough but there was no other way.
We learned that when God challenges you to respond to a need He has put into your heart, being available for people is more important than the ability or availability of structures or institutional frameworks. Evolving models have to emerge from the needs around you. For those who have no cure in sight, we cannot but look beyond the body. And people can be cared for and healed only in the context of family and community. Such care can only come from a caring community.
The gospel invites us to be available to those who need the presence, the power and the love of God through a community that cares. The lifestyle, power and mandate of the gospel transforms our hearts, challenges our perspectives and warrants a response in our life choices. This is true not only for health care professionals, but for anyone who wants to follow Jesus.