The Role of a Missionary Doctor

Throughout my time at Tenwek in the previous two summers and this last week, I have been honored to witness and participate in the work of the missionary doctor. Prior to coming to Kenya, my understanding of what it meant to be a missionary doctor was vague at best. Although both my grandfather and my uncle were medical missionaries (serving as ophthalmologists), I only ever heard of unusual medical cases growing up, and did not gain an appreciation for the social and instructive components that are also inherent in medical missionary work. Aside from expertise in the practice of medicine, this week has revealed three critical aspects of medical mission work

First, the social skills necessary to build strong relationships are essential for medical mission work. This applies to both doctor-coworker and doctor-patient relationships. An illustration of this skill involves the man whose small intestine had been wrapped around itself and was partially removed (mentioned in the last post). The man arrived at the hospital in intense pain and unable to excrete any waste. The doctor’s compassion and genuine concern engendered a necessary trust, which in many circumstances, may open the door for a future discussion of the gospel. The aforementioned man was a Christian, and after a successful surgery, he regained use of his bowels, and we praised God together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have also noticed that the relationships between a missionary doctor and his coworkers are extremely important. 1 Corinthians 3: 8-9 states that “the one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose…for we are co-workers in God’s service.” Although each team member has a unique role, all have a firm understanding of the their common goal, namely to represent Christ in their work and strive to further His Kingdom. This leads to teamwork that is not only very efficient, but is also a great representation of God’s Grace. Thus, although taking a brief break for chai tea and mandazi (Kenyan doughnut) with a team member may at times seem superfluous, it helps to strengthen God-honoring friendships that lead to a more effective ministry.

Second, successful medical missions depends on the Doctor’s instructive skills. Throughout my time at Tenwek, one question has always been reverberating through my mind: what is the best way a missionary doctor can serve the local people? This week has shown me that it is not necessarily the direct practice of their superb medical capabilities. Rather, I have seen that one of the most helpful things a missionary doctor can do (particularly for short-term medical missionaries) is to pass on their skills to the permanent, national doctors. An enduring member of the local community can regularly apply the acquired skill long after the missionary doctor has gone, thereby, having an impact not only on the individual patient but also on the surrounding community. Thus, yesterday when Dr. Miller (a missionary doc) was reconstructing the nose that had been entirely bitten off, her success was not primarily in its restoration (a very impressive feat!). Rather, it was passing on her skills to the assisting Kenyan surgeon. She taught the procedure of dissecting a flap of forehead skin, transposing it, suturing it onto the nose, and closing scalp. These skills will be used for years to come on similar cases (unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence).  I saw this teaching in nearly all the cases in which I assisted or observed a missionary doctor. Such cases included plating an open tibia fracture, installing an artificial hip, straitening radically misaligned eyes, suturing a lacerated cornea, inserting a femoral nail, and removing a gangrenous large bowel (all this week!).

Finally,  a medical missionary needs to be a representative of Christ. I have been most humbled by the subtle yet continual deeds that comprise an essential piece of evangelism. Whether it’s praying with the patient before surgery, dedicating the operation to God on the operating table, praising God after a successful surgery, or interacting with a patient in a way that demonstrates the love of Christ, God’s presence is obvious in these doctors. The capillaries are the smallest blood vessels in the body, yet they are absolutely essential for life, providing a means for the necessary gas and nutrient exchange across the entire body. Similarly, the subtle, seemingly insignificant deeds of the missionary doctors add up, and provide a solid foundation for the Good News to be spread.

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