I was leading a medical team in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. We were serving in a village of around 5000 with its dirt roads, small stone houses, and indoor plumbing was a “city” thing. The clinic we ran had just finished for the day. My interpreter and I had seen at least 50 patients and we were exhausted. That’s when I first saw him. He was standing at the door to the clinic. A gangly teenager dressed in a white shirt and black pants. The look on his face, the way he stood with shoulders slumped, arms at his side, eyes downcast, however, all cried out “Help me”!
I found myself irritated that he had “suddenly” showed up. I told my interpreter to tell him to come back tomorrow morning. Her eyes locked on mine and she said, “We have to see him! He needs our help, don’t you see that?” She was right. We were there to love and serve any way we could. I motioned him in and he slowly walked toward us, head down. He made me think of the village dogs that roamed the streets -neglected, beaten, starving, their tails between their legs. What was his story?
In my many years of leading medical missions, I have learned that the emotional needs of those we serve are often as great as the physical. This is especially true in Moldova, a country without hope after centuries of oppression, wars, and nearly 100 years of Soviet rule. A corrupt government, crumbling economy, and high unemployment forced many a mother, father or both, to leave their children with friends or family for work in a neighboring country. It was the only way they could survive. A Moldovan pastor once told me, “The world has either never heard of Moldova or it doesn’t care.”
Through my interpreter, I asked if he was having any physical problems. He shook his head no, his eyes fixed on his hands. I then asked how things were at home. He began to cry. His father was an alcoholic, as were most men in the village. When drunk, he became violent and beat his mother and him. He had heard from others, who had been to our clinic, that “the Americans” were kind, compassionate, and spoke of a loving God. He had no place else to go, so he came to us.
I reached my hands out to him. He gripped them tightly as my interpreter spoke of God’s love with a compassion and caring he had never experienced. His entire demeanor began to change. He listened intently, eyes now focused on us. We told him about the Moldovan pastor who had invited us to serve in the village and asked if he would be willing to meet him. He immediately nodded yes. We stood up, and wrapping my arms around him, I prayed for him. He thanked us and turned to leave. When he reached the door, he turned and looked at us. I hardly recognized him as the same person who had appeared so suddenly less than an hour before. Then he smiled. Not a faint smile, a big smile! He waved one last time and left.
I will never forget “the smile”. It is a reminder of the difference a person can make in the lives of others. May each of you have your own “reminder” of the difference you make in the lives of those you serve. This is where the human side of medicine happens and the joy that comes with it. We are better people and physicians for having experienced it.
Thank you for who you are and what you do.
Andy Lamb, MD