When blisters are more than blisters... (Part 2) “Oh Lord, is there nothing more anybody can do Oh Lord, there must be something you can say.” (Phil Collins - Another Day in Paradise)
…. Acutely aware of the desperation of Rachel’s deeper plight, I look down and wonder how I might help her. I see her feet, bleeding, scabbed, scarred. I remember that, as I do near the end of most of these trips, I have brought my shower flip-flops to bless someone’s tortured feet. I know Rachel is meant to be this trip’s shoe recipient. Pulling the flip-flops out of my backpack, I wipe off her feet with my hand towel, and slide the shower shoes gently onto her macerated feet. “Yours,” I say, extending my open hand toward her.
Even before Moses translates, her head comes up, her eyes widen in disbelief, and the smallest of smiles settles on her face. Within seconds, however, the abiding grief and despair of her condition triumphs, and she looks down again. Shyly she looks up one more time from under a downcast face and gives me a brief smile of gratitude. Walking awkwardly in her unaccustomed footwear she joins a throng of mothers and children in tattered clothing, a group afflicted with more poverty than I can grasp, the trace of her sad smile still on her face as she disappears into the crowd.
Four years later, the connection between body, mind, and spirit, and the need to treat the whole person in light of that would come into even sharper focus for me.
As part of a Community Health Evangelism (CHE) team, we are in Preah Rumkel [“pray-ah roomqual”], an isolated community near the Laotian border accessible only by Mekong River boat. Our medical work here is intended to give credibility and support to Warren and Victoria, a husband-wife missionary team. She is a physician, he a pastor. So far they have been met only with suspicion, some fearing they are part of the flourishing cross-border drug trade, others that they might be informers. Our venue is a former Khmer Rouge meeting hall overlooking the two-mile-wide Mekong River, made famous during the “American War,” as they call it here. The slatted wooden hall has never been put to better use. In spite of its sordid past, I feel the presence of God’s Spirit here. When we arrived at this outpost near the Laotian border all of us prayed over the building and the assembled patients scattered over lawns, walls, and two even on the roof.
Just before lunch, a woman in her late forties named Raksa, with tight-set lips, narrowed eyes, and hunched-forward shoulders collapses into the chair in front of me. She meets my attempt at a warm greeting with an exasperated “get-on-with-it” look. Hurting pillar to post, she complains to Pastor Tun Chhay, my interpreter, of her back, her neck, pain in her temples, and blistered, worn-out feet. I inquire about her daily tasks, how they might be contributing to her pains. Through the back and forth of translation I learn she works long hours in the fields as well as at home.
Examination reveals tight muscles, tension in her neck, and feet desperate for TLC. Chhay translates my explanations and recommendations, but it is not good enough. Raksa’s lips are set tighter and she appears angrier than when she sat down. Exhibiting the heart of a pastor, Chhay nods. Undaunted, he asks a few more questions. And Raksa begins to talk. Initially her tone is still combative. Chhay, cryptically translating, speaks of trouble with her husband. I nod empathetically in Raksa’s direction. Judicious small comments by Chhay draw her out further. We allow her to talk without regard to time and those yet waiting in line. As she talks, her facial muscles relax, then her shoulders, and finally her tightly clenched hands. In spite of herself, tears trickle down her cheeks. She furtively wipes them away with a you-didn’t-see-that gesture. Whenever she pauses, Chhay translates. Her husband of over twenty-five years is lazy, has no work, does not
want any, does not help around the house nor in the fields, and drinks when he can get booze. He is verbally abusive, sometimes physically. When she is finished unburdening herself, she sighs, wipes away residual traces of tears, straightens herself up and grudgingly allows a brief prayer.
And then we see a change. After I hand her the necessary prescriptions for her sore muscles, the hardened woman of thirty minutes earlier stands up and shakes our hands warmly. She leaves with a slight smile and a lighter step on her way around the side of the hall to 'the pharmacy’. After a luncheon in Victoria’s charmingly decorated house we go back to work. To our surprise, Raksa is waiting for us. Effusively thanking us for “making her better”, the transformation in her is astounding. Chhay, in his humble way, nods and attributes it to the work of the Holy Spirit in her heart.
* * * Postscript: That evening Raksa turned up at Warren and Victoria’s house. To their utter amazement, Raksa greeted them with, “Now I am ready for your Jesus and your Book.” The following Sunday she attended their worship service and brought several friends along. Influential in the community, Raksa’s heart-change re-ignited Warren and Victoria’s work in the Preah Rumkel region. More neighbours followed her to their house to ask questions.
Pastor Chhay’s patient persistence in seeking out the emotional and spiritual components underlying the aggravating physical symptoms, changed a woman’s life. On a trip to Cambodia a year later, I found out it also changed a whole community. These episodes are excerpted from the author’s book 'Seasons with Sojourners – A Doctor’s Story Working with Refugees and Outcasts in the World’s Hard Places' http://seasonswithsojourners.com/downloads.php Henry Reitzug (The first part of Henry Reitzug's account can be found in April’s PRIME international email)