It always seems impossible until it’s done. At least, that’s what selection day feels like in the weeks & days leading up to it.
Some moments in our lives are hard to forget, while others are less memorable. Last Wednesday was one of those hard to forget days that will long be etched in my mind. Certainly the biggest day of the entire field service, it was our patient selection day. Advertised for months in advance, people started to arrive & line up the night before. With the hope of being seen by a doctor & receiving much needed surgery, they waited throughout the night & well into the day. As the night stretched on, a few nurses walked up & down the line looking for people they knew we couldn’t help, so that they didn’t wait unnecessarily. Some understood & left, but others refused to leave the line. This was their chance & they would wait! Rarely did we hear of any sort of commotion in the line, which may be attributed to the presence of the local police, guns slung over their shoulders. Or maybe they were simply grateful for the possibility of receiving well overdue medical care, & without the sense of entitlement you so often see in the west, they simple didn’t complain.
I could explain the day to you in numbers. My alarm went off at 4:30am & I jumped out of my top bunk like a wound up rubber band. I found my pre-assigned land rover & we pulled away from the ship under the cover of dark. We arrived at the screening site just before 6am as the sun was just starting to rise, & began what would be a 14+ hour day. There were over 300+ Mercy Ships crew on site at any one time, & we needed every single one. From the surgeons & nurses, to the amazing patient escorts, to the people entertaining the tired children, & our Academy students who handed out water & food to hungry patients, everyone had a part to play. Like a well-oiled machine, my Mercy Ships family worked together to pull off one of the smoothest selection days ever. I’m told we broke all the Mercy Ships records… in fact it was the largest turn out to a screening day Mercy Ships has ever had!! Over 7534 Congolese people turned up, & 4236+ potential patient’s were seen by our team. Mercy Ships has never been to Congo before, so no one really knew what to expect. To be honest, we were a little nervous that we wouldn’t find enough patients. Why did we ever doubt?!
But numbers cannot even begin to do the day justice. Statistics could never convey the desperation, the hope, the jubilation & the disbelief. It was a day full of joy one moment & heartache the next. It’s not about the thousands… it’s about the one. Because each one matters. That’s why we’re here & I hope that’s the message we conveyed to every single person we came across.
I was working in pre-screening, which was the first stop once those waiting got to the front of the line. They would explain to us the reason they had come to be seen, & we would make a decision according to our specialties whether or not they were a candidate for surgery. If their need fell within the scope of specialised surgeries that Mercy Ships can offer, then we would give them a coloured card indicating which specialty they needed to go to. They would then be registered, have their history & vitals taken, & be see by a doctor. But many people turned up with chronic conditions or illnesses that we simply could not help with. If the answer was no, then with regret I would have to explain that we were not able to help. As the day rolled on, the weight of every no began to weigh heavy on my heart. I looked into their eyes & told them what they didn’t want to hear, & I wondered, what if this was my Mum, my grandparent, or my friend. Everything within me groaned as the tears began to well up. I quickly put the thought to the back of my mind… I didn’t have time to loose my nerve. After yet another lengthy discussion trying to explain to someone why we weren't able to help them, I looked at my translator & we both let out a big sigh. This is hard, I remember him saying. I could only manage a smile, as if to say, I know. Then we both turned towards the front of the line & put our hand up in the air to motion that we were ready for the next patient.
What amazed me more than anything was the way so many people accepted a ‘no’ with such grace, humility, & understanding. Some were upset & disappointed to be sure, while others just stared at me in disbelief. At times all I could manage to say to the person standing in front of me was, je suis desole [I’m very sorry]. One man replied, “that’s too bad”, while another said to me, “That is the will of God”. Whether you agree with him or not, his faith & strength in the midst of trial stood out to me as an example. I am already learning from the Congolese people. How do you look into a father’s eyes & see the desperation on written on his face for his child’s life, & tell him that you cannot help?! There’s no changing the channel when you’re standing in the same dirt. It’s one thing to do the research & know the statistics, but there is a certain sense of responsibility when you’ve seen the need with your own eyes & held them in your own arms. The injustice of it all reminds me why I am here. I may not be able to help everyone, but I can help one. I can use what is in my hands & within my capacity to serve & honour God by serving the poor.
I don’t mean to sound gloomy, because selection day was amazing & I would do it again in a heartbeat. The truth is there are thousands of people that we will be able to help over the next 10 months, & I am so excited to be a part of that. In fact this afternoon as I write this, our first patient's are being admitted to the hospital for their surgeries tomorrow. I can't wait to meet our patient's, to care for them & love on them, & then share their stories with you.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.