“Things are not very settled,” Silas said pensively, “I don’t know when you will be able to make it to Surkhet. For now it might be best if you help one of the medical teams.”
“The medical teams?” I repeated.
“Yes,” said Silas cheerfully, “there are two doctors here from Flagstaff, I think you know them. They are holding clinics around town.”
Suddenly I felt like an extremely specialized ESL instructor, adapted only for the area of education, and incapable of doing anything else helpful. I tried to picture myself administering injections, checking for symptoms of the plague, and sewing limbs back on.
I whole-heartedly support the work of medical missions, but I have always felt nervous about getting close to it myself. I feel helpless when I encounter sickness and injury. I wish it were in my power to alleviate suffering. My first choice, if the gifts of the Spirit were mine to distribute, would have been to give myself the gift of supernatural healing. I would use it magnanimously and indiscriminately, like a benevolent fairy, and would undoubtedly wind up not in keeping with the hidden plans of God. God was wise not to give me that gift. Still, I often wished I had been born with a bent toward science, a natural self-discipline, and charming bedside manners, so that I could have become a doctor. Then, I sometimes told myself, I would be more useful in the developing world. One of the most practical and powerful services in the world today is work like that conducted on the Mercy Ships.
But I was beginning to see that God’s people are not all created to be hands in the Body of Christ. The most useful people in the developing world—in fact, the most useful people anywhere—are those who care, not those who are well-educated. The most useful people in the Kingdom of God are the meek, not the mighty, and the most important trait for a missionary, or an aid worker, or a next-door neighbor to possess is faith expressing itself through love.
“Well,” said Silas frankly, “that is where the need is at the moment. Remember what your dad always said about serving the Lord: the three most important things are flexibility, flexibility, and flexibility” He grinned, “and besides, I’m sure even you can help a dentist.”
Silas picked me up from the Goshen guesthouse at seven the following morning and` drove me to the make-shift clinic. “I’ll bring lunch later!” he called as made my way toward a school building made of bricks and corrugated steel. The school was situated in a suburb of Kathmandu, a poor neighborhood patched together with a little concrete, lots of trees, and a scattering of small shanties. I walked passed a row of seated patients, waiting for their turn to see the dentist, and entered a classroom which had been temporarily converted into a clinic. I was assaulted at once by the smell of antiseptic.
I have an aversion to dentists. It is nothing personal, of course, it is an impersonal (and I think rather common) hostility inspired by the whole dental experience: the dread I wake up with on the morning I have a dental appointment, the dull anxiety of the waiting room, the sight of the long, flat chair, the ache of my tired jaw being screwed open by metal clamps, the clinking and whirring of drills and pick axes hammering inside my mouth, the dentist who asks questions that no patient can answer when her mouth is full of tools, and the dull, fat feeling that hangs around my lips for the rest of the day. It is normal to dislike dentists.
But of all the dentists I had ever met, I liked Dr. Hamilton the best. He and his family had attended the same church I had for years. He was quick and practical, an unsentimental dentist who never apologized. His assistants were kind, soft-spoken, and apologetic. They would turn away when they filled syringes and say gently, “Now, this might hurt just a little” when they clamped large metal vices to your gums. But not Dr. Hamilton, he would walk into the room, stare at your chart, and start probing, clamping, and stabbing away without the slightest hint that he felt sorry for you. He got straight to the point. When I walked into his make-shift clinic that day, he got straight to the point.
“Ann! I heard that you had arrived! It is nice to see you.” Dr. Hamilton shook my hand. He was ready to go, with white apron, white face mask, and one glove on. He was sorting out his tools. “Why don’t you finish lining these up, I need one of each cleaned and ready on the tray for each patient.”
I put on an apron, face mask, and gloves, and began silently looking over the array of instruments, arranging one of each kind on a clean blue paper towel: a mirror, a syringe, some scratchy things, some clampy things, things for scraping, things for digging, things for grabbing and twisting and pulling, an empty paper cup, a plastic cup full of water, little rolls of cotton.
“Mostly we’ll be doing extractions and fillings,” said Dr. Hamilton briskly as I set the tray down on a small rickety desk, “Go bring in the first patient.”
Dr. Hamilton had another assistant, the daughter of an M.D. who also attended our church and who was studying to be a doctor herself. She was outside with a clipboard, efficiently admitting patients and sorting them into groups. When I stepped out and whispered hoarsely, “next, please.” She smiled and indicated a plump, middle-aged lady sitting on a bench.
“It’s your turn; come with me, please,” I croaked at her. She did not move. I paused and really looked at her for the first time. Her rolls of brown belly tumbled around the sides of her sari. She was grimacing and holding her chin. She had the familiar, dentist-dread in her eyes, hiding back behind the pain. I walked over to her and touched her arm, “Come,” I said gently. She stood up and followed me into the classroom.
Dr. Hamilton, quick and capable, had her jaw numbed in no time, and soon we had a second patient stretched out on a bench a few feet from hers. I followed the dentist as he stepped from one to the other, never wasting a movement, issuing swift, clear instructions. “Have her swish and spit.” “Keep the blood off the benches.” “Tuck the cotton under her gum.” We were working like the well-oiled arms of a mighty clock. Dr. Hamilton was leaning over another sari lady, both gloves on, concentrated, when he said abruptly, “spoon.”
“Sorry?” I mumbled into my mask.
“Spoon” said the dentist. He held out his hand, his eyes fixed on the patient’s teeth.
I stared around the room. “You want a spoon?”
“Yes, hand me a spoon,” he enunciated.
I ran my eyes frantically across the tray of instruments and then over to the wall where boxes of extra equipment and supplies were piled. “Just a minute, sir, I’ll just go check.”
“Didn’t you put one on the tray??” asked the dentist, reprovingly.
“Well, no, I didn’t realize you would need one…I’ll just see if I can find one in one of those boxes…” I scurried to the wall and began frantically digging for a spoon. I thought I had seen some plastic ones in a bin with coffee cups.
The dentist’s eyebrows flickered ever so slightly but he stepped across to the next patient and began checking fillings. I rummaged for a minute.
“Um, I’m so sorry, Dr. Hamilton,” I mumbled, “I can’t find one, but maybe there is one in the school kitchen… I could go check.” I stared helplessly at my shoes.
“Ann!” said the exasperated dentist, “it is a spoon, not a teaspoon! It is a surgical instrument that looks exactly like a spoon!”
“Oh, it is an instrument?”
“Oh, well, I can look some more. You say it looks like a spoon?”
“Because, I didn’t see anything in here that looks like a spoon.”
Dr. Hamilton sat down again. “Let me see the tray.”
I sat down across from him and tentatively held out my collection of tools. He instantly snatched one, and began working on the woman’s mouth.
He handed it back to me a few seconds later. “That is a spoon?” I asked meekly.
“What does it look like?”
I held it inches from my face, it looked slender and strong and tiny, like all the tools.
Dr. Hamilton thrust a magnifying glass at me. I squinted through it. “Wow!” I marveled, suddenly seeing for the first time. It was a perfect, microscopic spoon, just the right size for a Barbie doll, with a handle a mile long.
Suddenly Silas’ head poked through the classroom door. “Ann!” he hollered. I nearly dropped the spoon. “Ann! Let’s go! You are headed for Surkhet!”
My career in medicine ended as abruptly as it began. I pulled off my plastic apron and face mask and stumbled toward the SUV while Silas talked hurriedly. “The pastor from the village is here. He is in Kathmandu but he is going back to Uttarganga in a hurry because his little son is sick. Epilepsy. You can travel with him, but you have to leave right away…