Thursday, February 2, 2012

Medicine in Afghanistan: A Unique Ministry

"I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” Ezekiel 34:16

There is no question that medical professionals are ministers in every sense of the word. If my brief stints as a hospital chaplain taught me anything, it was that those who had constant contact with patients, whether changing the dressing of a wound, helping to bathe a person weak from surgery or simply offering regular human touch to one wrapped in tubes, are the ones who made a difference in the healing process. Often, I would marvel at the depth of love I witnessed between caregivers and their patients, so much so that I felt what I had to offer as a chaplain paled in comparison. Sometimes, from the doorway, I would watch a nurse soothing a patient, offering whatever salve possible that might bring comfort or relief. In those moments, I realized just how much I had to learn about ministry from this special kind of minister.

While in Afghanistan as an Army Chaplain, I have been acquainted with members of the 352nd Combat Support Hospital, a U.S. Army Reserve medical unit out of Dublin, California. Over these past few months, while getting to know these soldiers and observing them in their work, I have been reminded of the lasting impact these practitioners have on each person whom they touch. As a soldier myself, I am particularly grateful that there are kind and competent doctors, nurses, and therapists who take months and years away from their practices in the States to share their gifts with deployed US personnel. There is nothing like getting injured or feeling sick and wondering if there will be someone trustworthy to help you get better, especially when you are away from the comforts of home and family.

Lately, though, I have realized the powerful witness of love which these medically trained soldiers offer to Afghanistan. In our detention facility, doctors, physician’s assistants, nurses and medics, work shifts both day and night, ensuring that persons in US custody are fully cared for twenty-four hours a day. From dental work to eye exams, no stone is left unturned. And, I should know because my roommate is the optometrist. I am constantly amazed by the level of care that she extends to her patients. Whether she is spending her nights reading up on new research which may save a person’s eyesight or following up to make sure that her patients understand their treatment plans, there is no doubt that she gives one hundred percent of herself and her medical training to those under her care.

A team of physical therapists work with Afghan detainees who have suffered severe wounds so that they may regain strength in the aftermath of their injuries. Though they are accused of terrorist acts or even found guilty of crimes in some cases, medical care and other kinds of succor are not ever withheld. For an Afghan male detained in a US facility, this treatment must seem counterintuitive to what would be expected from “the enemy.” Detainees may have an impression of the United States which is negative. They may even have a cultural bias against women as educated professionals. Nonetheless, a female physical therapist may be the one who helps a detainee live with less chronic pain. In her meticulous mending she doesn’t just share a skill set, or with her own hands, work at the knots and flared up places throughout the body, she also offers a deep sense of compassion which may be difficult to reject or turn away from, even for a person who has become hardened through a life of violence and trauma.

Part of the Hippocratic Oath, which many medical personnel take in some version when they complete their training, upholds the transforming power of compassion. The Oath says, “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.” At the end of the day, whether a person has been physically healed, their overall health, including mental and emotional well-being, may be improved because of the nurture that is offered by a provider. Ultimately, each of these realms-- physical, mental, spiritual, etc-- are connected to one another and have direct influence on a person’s capacity for healing.

Perhaps the most striking gift that I have observed is that often, these medical professionals go back and forth, sometimes every other day, between caring for US service members and Afghan detainees. Their commitment to medicine and their craft of ministering it to those who are in need means that they transcend lines of friend and foe. The therapist who is known around camp for her warmth and diligence with soldiers doesn’t flip that compassion switch “off” whenever it is time to have an appointment with an Afghan detainee. Even when her caregiving is challenging or complicated, she shares all she has to give, working toward binding up the injured and strengthening the weak. In this ministry, there are no enemies.

Part of any ministry is learning how to give yourself away. Ministry demands a willingness to share whatever you have to give, whether that is a kind ear, a sense of sanctuary, or a particular skill. This is exactly what these medical professionals are called to do day in and day out. It is one thing, often too easy a thing, to stand in a pulpit and talk about healing and hope. It is another thing altogether to bind and care for those who are in the most need of healing and hope, and not just for a few moments but over time. A few days ago, one of the physicians assistants mentioned that he sees his job as giving people hope throughout their journey of healing and not letting them be discouraged by the setbacks which are sure to happen along the way. I can’t imagine a more faithful way to minister to a person than this.

As a government, we may continually struggle with how to change the culture of terrorism and violence in this place, but I don’t think any of us need to look too far to discover just who is winning hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Here, at this detention facility, these aren’t typical Afghan citizens; in some cases, they are the ones who have caused severe injury and even death to our very own. Nonetheless, under a physician's care, they are nurtured and made whole again. I should not be surprised that in the midst of this conflict where I have been called to ministry as a chaplain, I would be taught this important lesson from the medical community.

Binding up the injured and strengthening the weak are what we have been called to do, in one way or another, wherever we may find ourselves in this world. This is at the heart of loving God and neighbor. Really, there is no other way.

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