We pulled up to the security gate in front of the hospital and the guard, recalling the bags of lentils we gave him the day before, let us in without any trouble. I jumped out of our air conditioned truck and climbed up the front stairs into the warm hospital lobby. Natural light lit up the chandeliers that were never turned on. I quickly turned down a dark hallway with no ceiling tiles and squeezed past the ever present line of patient families waiting to see the hospitals only social worker. Down a half flight of stairs we took a left into the radiology department. Cachectic patients on metal gurneys, gun-shot victims holding their own IV fluids, children in splints, and the occasional healthy looking patient waited in line to receive their X-Rays and CT scans. I slipped past the line and opened the metal gate that lead into the emergency department.
One of my patients had been shot in the back the day before and was losing function of his legs so I decided to check on him. I pushed open the door into an observation room where they kept up to nine patients waiting for surgery. The patient from the day before was closest to the door and, unfortunately, he still wasn’t able to move his legs. I looked around the room and saw a patient being ventilated by one of my Honduran counterparts.
Since the emergency department did not have any ventilators, medical students took turns for an hour at a time delivering breaths to the patient. The patient’s eyes were closed and soft bandages restrained his arms and legs to the bed. I could tell that he had at least one skull fracture from the bruises around his eyes and the blood dripping from his ear. His left arm was casted up to his shoulder; a chest tube jutted from his chest and five, one-liter bags of saline held traction on his fractured left leg. Although intubated the patient was laboring to breathe on his own. He breathed in quickly and deeply and the striations in his intercostal muscles testified to me about how difficult it was for him to do so. As he took a breath in, the right side of his chest elevated and the left side sunk down towards the bed. His rib cage told me about the multiple rib fractures that would undoubtedly be present on his chest X-Ray. He exhaled forcibly and the unusual pattern reversed itself. With each breath a violent rush of air escaped his lungs. The faint whistle created by the forceful expulsion of air through his endotracheal tube sounded like a distant scream of pain. His daughter walked into the room and burst into tears before her mother could usher her back outside. Due to medication shortages, I realized he would most likely get an Ibuprofen equivalent for pain and a shiver climbed up my spine while I fought to keep tears from rolling down my face.
Difficult scenes like this one were common inside the small public ER…. A young woman unconscious from an assault…. An elderly man with broken legs and 8 broken ribs, jumped by four young boys…. A young man eating the scabs off of his legs because there was no meal service in the hospital….The list goes on.
Every once in a while I float through these images as I am trying to get some sleep. Waves of inadequacy wash over me, tossing me from one side of the bed to the other. I start to drown in the nagging knowledge of the suffering that I wasn’t able to alleviate and the incessant tide of disease and destruction that continues to pour in while I’m not in the emergency department. As children, my cousins and I loved building walls of sand on the beach as the tide came in. Sand flew in every direction and we let out squeals of joy when we kept our castles from being demolished. We never won, but it was fun. If only this were as innocent. There are days when your reward for stabilizing a patient is three more just like the last one. I lift my head from my pillow and take a breath, only to dive back into the depths of my thoughts as I lay back down.
As I lay awake in bed I thought for a second about how Paul prayed for the Ephesians “to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Chirst.” Surely this love would crush me if I truly understood it. To truly understand the love that caused Jesus to weep after the death of his friend Lazarus… To truly understand the grief of a father for his hurting children… To truly understand the love of a savior who would willingly die for his people… to truly understand the love that has poured out comfort onto every soul that has suffered in every hospital, clinic, home, street, ditch, and corner of the world every day for the history of creation and the love that will continue to shoulder that burden until restoration is complete… surely that love would crush me. I was just trying to carry the weight of a few patients from one ER and that alone – threatened to crush me.
I prayed to the Lord, “God, you have opened my eyes to so much suffering and have given me a heart burdened for their pain. How can I possibly carry this burden you have given me?” For a moment I was Moses the stutterer. I was Gideon hiding in the wine press. I was Jonah running from Nineveh. I was Thomas doubting, and I was Peter sinking in the water. He nudged me to read the whole prayer in Ephesians:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3: 16-19, emphasis mine)
I fell asleep. I realized once again that his love does not come without his power.
Is there suffering occurring around you? Have you come face to face with a problem within your community? It is difficult to think of such things and the size of the problem often threatens to crush us. Resist the urge to look away. Resist the urge to close your door and isolate yourself from the world. Respond to the voice inside of you that is urging you to do something and resist drowning it out with an IV dose of Netflix. Remember that as you embrace the love that allows you to feel the pain you also embrace the power to do something about it. Remember that his power is “capable of more than anything we could ever hope or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
Or, perhaps, you are in the midst of your own suffering? First… I am so sorry. I have never found words to be sufficient in supporting someone through a struggle and will not attempt to offer any eloquent explanation for why you are going through what you are going through now. Instead the “God of all comfort” intended us to comfort each other with the comfort we ourselves have received. I have found strength, hope, peace, and rest in my relationship with Jesus and if you are interested I would love to talk to you about that. At the very least, I hope that you know “just how wide and long and high and deep” his love is for you and although mine will never be as perfect, I love you too.