Our family returned back to Burundi last week, and Rachel and I restarted work in the hospital on Monday. I had been seeing my hospitalized patients for a couple days, but yesterday was my first day in clinic.
The day starts out with Alyssa sharing at hospital devotions. She leads the hospital staff through a small gratitude exercise, passing out sheets of a yellow legal pad for us to write down those innumerable gifts that God has given us that we are so apt to forget. We close with a prayer and a few announcements, and the day starts.
The medical student who is working with me (and serving as Kirundi translator) walks with me to my clinic office, where an old man is waiting outside the door with his clinic sheet. She exchanges a few words with him, and tells me "I think he has Parkinson's Disease, or something like that." I start with surprise and then recovering, ask them to come inside. Sure enough, this old man has come all the way from Tanzania because of a tremor which seems consistent with Parkinson's. I have not yet found any real treatment options for Parkinson's in Burundi, and I doubt his rural outpost of Tanzania has better options.
I grab a bottle of Sinemet out of my office drawer, and I say to my student in French, "I don't make a habit of bringing medicines from the United States, mostly because we want to support Burundian supply chains. But, you see, my grandmother passed away a couple months ago. She was a wonderful and lovely woman. My grandfather asked me to go through the medications she left behind, to see if any would be useful for Burundi. The only one that seemed useful to bring back was this medicine for Parkinson's. This bottle won't last forever, but I hope it will help him feel better for a while." Turning to the man, I continue, "I don't see that many patients with Parkinson's, and I wondered whether I would find any before the medicine expired, but lo and behold, you are my first patient back, and it's precisely what you need."
My student gives me a look that says, "Do you want me to tell the patient all that?" Yes, I do. I watch my patient's face light up with joy and profound gratitude on hearing the story of his medication bottle, and I think about the beauty and the probability of this moment.
A couple patients later, I see a 50-year old woman with heart failure. She is a village lady that I diagnosed a couple years ago. "She's only taking this one medicine now?" I ask. "How is she doing?" My student and the woman chat for a few sentences. "She says that she feels very well. Before, she couldn't even walk, and everyone told her that she would never get better. Now she thanks God because she is even able to work in her fields, though she does get tired sometimes."
I smile at my student. These cases can seem so rare sometimes. I pick up my folded sheet of yellow legal paper from the morning hospital devotions. "Did you hear what Dr. Alyssa said this morning?" My student nods. I say, "I'm going to write this lady down on my paper."
The thing is, since returning to Burundi, my most frequent prayer has been that I would be able to see God's hand at work in my life and in the world around me, day by day. Kicking off my first clinic day with these two stories seems to be Grace to me in the form of an answered prayer.
Many other days are just discouraging. Today was much more that way. My patients are mostly sick and none of them seem like they're getting better. Is God at work? Do I just need eyes to see it? Walking home through the gate, there is a vivacious chatter of a flock of weaver birds who have taken refuge in one of our tall eucalyptus trees.
It's a thing of beauty and of joy. But is it really just a tree and some animals? Or are these small wonders windows that peek into God's work in the world and his glory? On one hand, I'm not interested in rose-colored glasses, but I need not exchange them for blinders either.
I think the answer to such questions always requires some kind of faith, in the end. Either faith that it's just a coincidence or faith that it's something more. Either faith that it's just a bird, or faith that it's a glimpse of the light of the world. I'm not talking about faith as some arbitrary choice. We reason and we discern, but there does seem to be some irreducible element of choice that remains. How will we see the world?
I really do hope to see the world with gratitude for all that God does. And at least for today, it seems like a reasonable approach.
(for those interested in slogging through this question with the great Blaise Pascal, here is a quote that is most rewarding is you can persevere through the tangle of double negatives:
“The prophecies, the very miracles and proofs of our religion, are not of such a nature that they can be said to be absolutely convincing. But they are also of such a kind that it cannot be said that it is unreasonable to believe them. Thus there is both evidence and obscurity to enlighten some and confuse others. But the evidence is such that it surpasses, or at least equals, the evidence to the contrary, so that it is not reason which can determine men not to follow it, and thus it can only be lust or malice of heart. And by this means there is sufficient evidence to condemn, and insufficient to convince; so that it appears in those who follow it that it is grace, and not reason, which makes them follow it; and in those who shun it, that it is lust, not reason, which makes them shun it.”)