“We have been waiting here since Monday. We came from Nigeria.”
Our eyes meet. I glance at the four-year-old twins next to him, both struggling to balance on extremely bowed legs. I try to hide my expression from their father, fearing my transparency will only make the situation worse.
“Please. You can help us?” His words feel like fire.
I apologize again. The response doesn’t feel natural at all, but thick and poisonous. My explanation regarding a full orthopedic program cannot dissipate his tangible sadness. Or his continued questions.
“But they have pain. Can you fix it?”
My mind knows the answer is still “no” but my heart cannot support it. I need back up.
“Nate?” I beckon my supervisor. “These twins…they’ve been waiting outside the gate for five days. I know we can’t…but I need your confirmation.”
Nate’s gaze falls on the young girls. “Technically, we can’t,” he says softly.
I turn back to three pairs of desperate eyes. Feigning confidence, I repeat that the program is full.
The father is staring at me. Finally, with a quick nod he motions his family off the cement slab and toward the exit gate. I watch the man shuffle through shifty sand, trying to support his twin daughters. My heart breaks. I feel like a liar.
Our orthopedic program isn’t full.
As a screening team we had decided to allocate the sixty one orthopedic surgery slots. We divided the slots among three weeks, which is how long the screening center is open. The alternative was to take all sixty one patients as they come. First come, first serve. If we had chosen this option our slots would have filled in about three days’ time.
Some team members thought it would be fair to offer surgical opportunities to patients who will journey to Cotonou over the next two weeks. We agreed that we would attempt this approach. This meant that we would take only ten more orthopedic patients this week. We had already found those ten.
I had thought we made a sound decision. After all, I had turned countless patients away this week. This is difficult; however, “no” is more straightforward and undemanding when the patient doesn’t meet surgical critera. I feel okay when I can shunt the control elsewhere because the disappointment is not my fault. You’re too young to have the surgery. Mercy Ships only offers this to women who are past child-bearing age. Or I’m sorry, but Mercy Ships does not do this kind of surgery. Or unfortunately, surgery could make the problem worse. These conversations are certainly sad, but they’re doable.
This “no” felt completely different. Gone were the external factors. I had no organizational chart to fall back on, no exclusion critera to support my verdict. These Nigerian twins met the requirements for surgery, but there is an overwhelming demand so we had to pick and choose. Our selection system seemed ungrounded and unstable. I don’t even want to make life-changing decisions for myself. How can I make them for other people?
When the decision is mine (or ours, as a team) the responsibility feels sovereign. The power is dreadful and condemning.
I feel like I am playing God.
Speaking of God, I am not sure what Jesus would do in this situation. He faced desperate eyes and crippling ailments. I am willing to bet that he felt overwhelmed. Even though his divine nature had no healing limitations or surgical quotas, I am convinced that as a man he felt aching disappointment and deep discouragement in every breath he took.
I watch the twins approach the exit gate. I want to scream, Come back next week! We have more slots! But what if they are too late? What if they can’t make it through the gate? What if they are the ninth and tenth orthopedic patients in line, and are denied again because we accept the first seven?
I turn back to the weaving line of people, some of them soon-to-be patients. The queue seems more like a maze of fraught individuals eager to come out at the right end. I signal the next man to approach me.
Now I understand what Jesus would do. He would keep meeting with those who are suffering. He would come back to this cement slab every day. He would remain open and continue to offer his heart to the wounded, broken, and downtrodden.
Just because you can’t help everyone does not mean that you don’t try to help anyone.
Disclaimer: This is a personal and private page about my experience aboard. This is not an official Mercy Ships page. The reviews and statements presented here may not reflect the beliefs of the organization.