The Impact of Medical Mission Work in Rural Africa

by David McAdam


It is night time. All around, the village is in darkness and everyone has gone to bed. However, Chitokoloki Mission Hospital is still brightly lit, humming with activity and full to overflowing. In every ward all the beds are occupied. The entire floor area is carpeted with mattresses, each with a patient and perhaps a relative as well. You can hear a medley of languages: Bemba, Chokwe, Luchazi, Lunda, Luvale, Portuguese and occasionally English, as patients and relatives converse.


We enter the little Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Monitors beep, and alarm and oxygen machines whirr, delivering their life-preserving oxygen. A little 10-year-old, recently savaged by a crocodile, is recovering after surgery; she is sitting up smiling across the room. An HIV patient with pneumonia is struggling for life. Several others are recovering after major surgery that day. This was the mission hospital tonight and this scene was typical of last night also, and every night now for many years.


To understand the impact of medical mission work in rural Africa one has to imagine a place where there is no NHS, where the vast majority of people are desperately impoverished, and where medical care is usually at best very poor and often non-existent. There are virtually no general practitioners and very few specialists.


On Sunday morning a child is brought in from Angola; his parents travelled over 100 miles to Chitokoloki in a desperate attempt to save his life. A month before he had a simple break in his arm, but bad treatment has resulted in almost the entire arm dying and we had to amputate just below the shoulder. Just before that we operated on a man with two perforations to his bowel. He was scarcely out of the anaesthetic when he thanked God that such a service was available to save his life!


Friday morning and a man bitten by a very poisonous snake is brought to the hospital barely breathing. He is treated intravenously with antivenom and improves, but then deteriorates again requiring temporary artificial ventilation and more antivenom. The mission hospital is often the only facility where antivenom can be found. Two days later he is sitting up in our little ICU listening to the message of the gospel being carried by short-wave radio from the assembly. We gently remind him of the uncertainty of life and of the goodness of God in sparing his own. While he was being treated, a visiting orthopaedic surgical team operated on over 20 patients in 12 hours, often with life-transforming surgery.


These were just a few of the more striking cases treated by the hospital in the past month alone. In between, the routine work of the hospital continued night and day at its usual hectic pace, with hundreds of others treated for broken limbs, malaria, pneumonia etc. Already, by March of this year, the hospital had carried out 250 surgical procedures, many of them major operations.


Mission hospitals have also been on the front line of the battle against AIDS. We have several hundred patients on our register at the moment. Latest figures suggest that around 14 out of every 100 people in Zambia are HIV positive. Among the inpatients in the hospital, the figure is probably considerably higher. Ten years ago, with no drugs available, all of these people would have died. I recall one time when the first drugs became available. A young professional couple, who were so thin they almost resembled concentration camp victims, started treatment even at the point that all hope seemed lost. Today, eight years later, they are healthy and well, and are in the assembly fellowship.


The cases mentioned give some idea of the effect our work has on patients and their relatives. Often it is literally the difference between life and death.


In the past month, an important district government official told us how much he appreciated what we do and thanked God for it. The same day we had a message from one of the senior chiefs to tell us how much the treatment received at the hospital was valued. That same week we were especially touched when one of the senior figures in the Lunda establishment told us that he and his wife prayed for us every day. Last year at the 100th anniversary of the Chitokoloki Mission Hospital (see Aug. '14 Echoes p354), the then Zambian vice-president and a high-level government delegation, honoured us with a visit and spoke of their appreciation of the hospital's work. Last year two of our sisters, who run rural health clinics, were each given one of the highest awards that the Zambian government can give to foreign nationals. I write these things to illustrate the widespread influence of medical mission work.


The HIV patient with pneumonia, mentioned at the beginning of this article, lost his fight for life. Will we meet him in Heaven? In his case we cannot say, but we know that for several days before he died he will have heard the message of the gospel and been given a final opportunity to trust Christ. Quite a number of patients choose to trust the Lord in their last days at the hospital. Recently, a relative of a patient professed salvation when one of our sisters witnessed to them at the hospital village.


Throughout the hospital there are gospel texts on the walls and many tracts, gospel booklets and Christian books are distributed to patients. A number of our staff are faithful in personal witness at patients' bedsides. The gospel is preached in the morning over the radio system in one of the local languages. We pray with each patient before their operation and include a few gospel words. One evening each week some sisters speak to the women in the children's or maternity wards. It is wonderful to hear the hymns sung throughout the hospital. Sometimes a brother will share the gospel in the evenings with the men.


The message of Christ is preached to the continuous and ever-changing flow of people who pass through the hospital, day and night, year after year. We trust that they understand something of the love of God through the care and love that they are shown.


Medical missionary work affects the local Christian community. Ideally the work of the Mission Hospital is seen as part of the outreach of the believers. Such work is an encouragement to the local believers amid the confusion of healers and witch doctors - where unsaved people often first go for help when ill.


Our fellow mission workers also benefit from our support. Many evenings we answer email enquiries from some who have medical problems, or they may have been in contact with someone who has a problem. Often our colleagues will come for diagnosis and treatment.


Finally, the impact of medical mission work can be seen on those who carry it out. Earlier this year we attended a missionary get-together, to acknowledge Marion Ronald's (Canada) 50th year of nursing at Loloma Hospital. It was a wonderful occasion and the joy on Marion's face was evident as she looked back over 50 years of such work. She quoted Psalm 115:1,  'Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory'. God has allowed us to live our lives in places where we can be a blessing and a help to men and women in times of extreme need. Indeed, in a small way, medical mission workers follow in the footsteps of their Saviour's example, in bringing help and healing along with the message of salvation to people. It is difficult to think of any greater privilege in life.


It is worth reminding medically gifted Christians in the UK that there are at least 12 or more large medical works in Central Africa. Practically none of them have a missionary doctor and many are without a nurse. The need for good quality health care in Central Africa is as great as at any other time in history. There are relatively few nights when the worker does not go to bed quite tired, and painfully aware that they have met only a fraction of the need, whether physical or spiritual, presented to them that day.


On Monday 9th March 2015 we flew up to Chavuma Hospital on one of our fortnightly trips to operate and see patients. We brought back the little girl, mentioned previously, who exactly one month ago had been carried into the hospital almost dead with terrible injuries due to a crocodile bite. Today, she walks into the hospital with her mum, smiling happily. We took a photo of her at Chitokoloki, just before take-off, with her parents and her new toy!

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