One of the moments that really emotionally hit me the hardest on my Bolivia expedition will sound a little silly to anyone else who went on the trip or anyone who has never felt like an outsider in a group you’re supposed to feel connected to.
To start off, I want to assure anyone reading this that I absolutely love my entire team with ever myocyte in my heart and every neuron in my central nervous system. They are incredible people and I wouldn’t change them for anything. This is not a judgment on any of them. They never intentionally hurt me or anyone else.
We saw a patient, a very sick young woman with a history of gastritis, at the end of our last clinic day. She was sweet but seemed ashamed the entire time. As we listened to her history and asked our questions, I became more and more concerned that her gastritis had developed into something worse- IBS, or Crohn’s, or worse. She’d lost 25 pounds in three months and couldn’t eat.
Our clinic was bare bones, bare floor, and open air, a dirt-poor church just starting out- we needed imaging, a full GI exploration, and some serious training in order to figure out what was going on. In my limited Spanish, I tried to directly reassure her that we would give her something to manage her worst symptoms, which was really just Tums for her “burning” and a fiber treatment to help her with her feeling of fullness and her lack of bowel movement. I felt so helpless. She was rail thin, so thin that when I took her blood pressure the adult cuff barely fit. We did the best we could for her, tried to reassure her, told her that we’d use the church’s resources to get her to a clinic we knew of for the full workup.
Her response stopped my heart.
“No creo que ellos van a ayudarme, la iglesia es bautista, yo soy catolica.”
She thought that they/we wouldn’t help her because the church we were set up in was Baptist, and she is Catholic.
This got my dander up. I was furious at a system that convinced a sick young woman that Christians would not help her because she wasn’t their particular brand of Christian. That told her she couldn’t get medical aid because of her faith. I was indignant for her, but also for myself.
Half via interpreter and half through my own words, I adamantly told her that I was going to help her no matter what, even if the church was resistant, and that the church was helping people who weren’t Christian at all. And then I told her, completely on my own, “I am not Baptist either. I am Orthodox, and I am here to help you, and Baptists, and Catholics, and atheists, and Jews, and Muslims. We are taught that God loves every blade of grass- if He can love and care for every bird and insect and tree, how can anyone tell me not to love and care for every one of His children?”
She cried. I held her hand and told her, “I want you to know that we are going to help you to the very best of our ability, and we will get you help from people who are better able to help you.” She told us, “I walked from very far away, in this hot sun, with my pain and my fear, and sat in the sun from this morning until this late afternoon, waiting, but afraid that I would not get help. I want you to know that I came with fear and sadness, and I am leaving with hope.”
I hugged that woman so hard that my stethoscope left a bruise on my chest. It’s still there, four days later- a physical reminder of the pain of exclusion that she and I shared in that moment.
I am a member of the oldest sect of Christianity, large inside but small outside of Eastern Europe. Even in our traditional countries, we are dying out- a product of modernization, secular governments, persecution, and children growing up to rebel against everything “old” in their lives. In the States, I am a minority- in South America, I am probably an anomaly. I’m pretty used to this. But in our secular society, I’ve never had to worry that I wouldn’t get medical care because of my faith, let alone because of my particular brand of Christianity. Sure, I’m used to members of other groups not understanding my traditions/beliefs, telling me I’m not “saved”, telling me I’m not Christian or I’m going to Hell. Those things hurt, a lot. But I’ve never seen injustice (or even perceived/expected injustice) on this scale.
I won’t go into detail on the conversation I had with the evangelist from our team who was speaking to this poor woman. I will merely say, as dispassionately as possible, that she was delighted that the woman “trusted Christ” and, even after several conversations about how other traditions of Christianity view salvation, still fails to recognize that being “saved” is different in every tradition. I am pretty sure she thinks I’m not “saved” and that I’m going to Hell because I haven’t had the same epiphany moment she and others have had. I’ve always known my God and my Savior. I’ve always trusted Him, since I was a child. I lost my faith that He loved me and was protecting me in my preteen/early teen years, but even then I knew He was God and that He was active in the lives of people around me for good. I began to trust His love for me again when my pain had eased some, when I’d managed to patch my life back together enough to function, but I never once doubted Him as my Savior. The term “saved” the way she knows it doesn’t really apply, sure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the same levels of faith as she does, or the same salvation.
I’ve always been interested in faith, and interfaith discussion. I’ve recently become really interested in the effects of faith on access to healthcare (from the angle of inability to have certain procedures done, or use of alternative medicines). I’d never thought that I’d have to see restricted access from this side of things, especially not in my faith, one of the “big three” in the world at present.
I still see that woman’s face, my gut still roils with indignation at some of the things I heard said about “saving” and my feelings of frustration with the one evangelist for her inability to understand what her position was doing to this poor woman’s hope.
This makes me even more determined to be a good doctor who treats every patient according to their health and religious needs, and a better Christian who doesn’t make anyone else feel less comfortable with their faith.
tl;dr- Athena gets riled up by religion and medicine.