Are things getting better down there?

By Dr. Mark Blaser

I didn’t give this question any thought 25 years ago when my partner Randy Cardott, MD, a family practitioner and frequent missioner, asked if I wanted to go to Jamaica with a Methodist parish on what would be my first medical mission. I responded yes immediately but don’t really recall my wife’s thoughts as our girls then were only 3 and 1.

Dr. Blaser

I learned that the Jamaicans were deeply spiritual and generous and that feeling “not bad” was clinically significantly different than “not so good.” Most of our meager medical supplies had been detained by customs yet the people graciously accepted our written prescriptions in lieu of actual medicine and were genuinely thankful for our efforts. I was bitten.

Three years and one daughter later I joined the same parish mission, at one point finding myself treating patients in a mostly barred building in a Kingston slum. A school custodian brought unattended young students to be seen. A young adult man asked if I could make a house call to his sick grandmother. Grandmother … I trained in pediatrics. This was a slum. “Could she be seen at the Kingston hospital,” the coward in me asked. “It’s a war zone there, man,” he replied. I wondered: then what is this? I nonetheless fearlessly walked with him through the “valley of the shadow of death” to her home and experienced God’s peace like no other time in my life. She had pneumonia; I had proper antibiotics.

We returned to the clinic and I was euphoric! Treating patients can be a numbers game, but sometimes the number is one.
In 2000, my mother-in-law sent a clipping from the bulletin of my Dubuque home parish, St. Anthony’s, soliciting donations for their mission to Port-de-Paix, Haiti. I innocently called the leader to offer wholesale medicine donations and discovered that they were very short on doctors for the trip. My wife Nancy, now four young daughters strong, was out for a walk and I suppose the reader can probably guess how overjoyed she was at the thought of me leaving her on short notice for another adventure.

Poverty in Haiti can be almost indescribable; the needs are immense. On that trip, my occasion to make a lame man walk — either by my miracle or removal of a voodoo curse — was superseded only by watching our priest’s sternly countenanced cook silently pour coffee and add sugar to the cup of a fellow lay missioner who managed to repair the small gas stove the cook would use to prepare our meals. That relieved her from the constant irritation of burning charcoal. Very humbling, very powerful.

Belize came next. Why? Because Judy Glancy, RN, of Trinity Rock Island (Ill.) found me by word of mouth and I joined her because I can’t keep my mouth shut. Some spousal justice: My four daughters were each able to join me over the years, giving my wife some respite and me the privilege of offering our daughters a different world view.

As for view, one nurse, a longtime friend of Judy’s, refracted eye glasses for patients. It was very eye opening for me. Having perfect vision, it had never dawned on me that not having glasses didn’t mean that you didn’t need them! Ouch! My daughter Jamie, experiencing the importance of the ministry, later sought donations of eye glasses with two friends as a service project while attending Assumption High School in Davenport. Their goal was 100 pairs from area parishes; 800 pairs later they said, “I surrender!”

On January 12, 2010, Port-Au-Prince and areas to the west experienced a hellacious earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people and destroyed the lives of countless others. My parish, St. John Vianney in Bettendorf, serendipitously became associated with a highly effective nonprofit in Florida called Hands Together of the Palm Beaches. We have worked together since the fall of 2010 with a parish located in an expansive rural village north of Port-u-Prince called Jean Denis. While there was no damage in Jean Denis, they had a tremendous influx of displaced persons in an area of already scarce resources.

At this point I have too many stories for the allotted space. Our collaboration feeds school children, funds teachers and fosters rice agriculture. We built a beautiful school, treated thousands of adults and children with no other meaningful access to medical or dental care, and gave clearer vision to many hundreds more. I “cured” two other women, one blind and one nearly lame, again courtesy of God over voodoo.

I come home exhausted and rejuvenated after each trip. I am a tiny piece of this puzzle called mission. No co-pays, prior authorizations or physician burnout. I return, at least temporarily, more content, patient and grateful. I am not a Scripture scholar, but you would have to be nearly blind to not see the Gospel alive with every mission encounter.

As for my question in the title of this article: I am asked frequently yet fairly blithely, “Are things getting better down there? Yes, they are; especially for me.

(Mark Blaser, MD, is an allergist/immunologist at Medical Arts Associates, Ltd, in Moline, Ill. He and his wife Nancy have four daughters and are members of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf.)

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