Why I Won't Go to Africa to Help with the Ebola Crisis

As a nursing student, each month I participate in a small-group, interdisciplinary ethics meeting with nursing students, medical students, a chaplain, a nurse, and a doctor.  Last week the topic for discussion was the ebola crisis; the question posed was, “Would you go to Africa to help with the ebola crisis?”  Some people said no, with the reasons ranging from “I don’t feel qualified” to “I don’t want to go in blind – we don’t know enough about the virus and how it’s transmitted.”  Some people said yes, they probably would go, because as healthcare professionals we are to help and care for people.  I said I would consider it. 

After some discussion and after others in the group had elaborated on why or why not they would go, the doctor who was facilitating turned to me.  “Allison, you said you would consider it.  Why did you say that?”

My heart started beating fast, and my face was warm.  Not because I was nervous, but because this topic gets emotional for me.  I began slowly and almost made it through my reasoning without my voice quivering and giving away my emotion.  You see, I learned a lot about caring for peoples’ health needs in other countries this summer.  You may have noticed I have been absent from blogging for quite a while, and that is because when I came home from Cambodia in August, I had much more to unpack than dirty socks and underwear.  I had a summer full of memories in a foreign hospital that was severely under-resourced in many different ways.  The past few months have been a season of emotional unpacking, wrestling with the “why’s” of seeing preventable suffering and death, and questioning God’s goodness.  This summer I felt completely overwhelmed by the sickness and brokenness in the hospital, watching a beautiful people group made in God’s image lay on metal bed frames in sickness and suffering.  I have never hit my breaking point and then been pushed past it so many times in my life.

But God is faithful.  After some nudging from a counselor, I explored the “why” questions that so bothered me about this summer’s experience in the hospital.

First, why did God let me see what I saw?  What was the purpose of seeing the suffering, the deaths, the tears of family losing a loved one to what I knew was a preventable disease?  The cold reality is that the suffering would have happened if I had seen it or not.  So why did God choose for me to witness it?

The answer came quietly one day while I sat weeping and remembering the patients I had seen.  I was sitting alone – because the weeping was easier alone, and no one in the world knew exactly what I had experienced, seen, observed, worked in.  I felt desperate and detached much of the time with my emotions and memories and grief.  It was too big for me, and it overwhelmed me.  I could not comprehend the suffering or the health disparity between developing countries and the United States.  As I sat on the floor with tissues beside me, I asked over and over again, “Why? Why did you let me see that?”  And the Lord answered.

Because I am there.  I am there in the hospital.  I see the suffering, and I grieve.  Yet I am bigger than all the suffering and all the good.  For years you have marveled at My love because your mind cannot comprehend it.  Now, you marvel at the amount of suffering that exists and My ability to grieve compassionately for each and every person.  I am bigger than all of it, Allison; the suffering is too deep for you to grasp, and so is my love.  On both ends of the spectrum, I am bigger.  I hold both things in my heart: intense love and intense care for the suffering.  You saw these things because I am there, and I have invited you into this part of my heart, too: the part where I see each person’s suffering and pain and grieve for them.

Leading up to the summer it was my prayer that each day I would know the Lord better at the end of the day than at the beginning.  He granted that prayer.  I never would have asked to be ushered into this part of God’s heart, but He chose to bring me in anyway. 

And I know Him more intimately for it.

The second “why” question I asked was, “Why does suffering like this happen at all?”  I knew the church answer: because humans sinned, and the world is broken.  But when the images of beautiful Khmer people hurting and memories of suffering came back to haunt me, this answer was far from enough.  I believed God was sovereign.  Never did I doubt that.  But since He was sovereign, why did He allow this suffering?  I only saw an inkling of what goes on in Cambodia, much less the world.  He could not let this happen and still be good.  He was sovereign.  He could do something.  So I sat there on the floor praying through tears again, asking why, and rejecting the answer that it was just because of sin.

Again, the answer came quietly. 

Because you – the world – need Me.

How was this different from the answer that the world is broken due to sin?  The explanation is simple.  My answer – “we sinned and the world is broken” – ends with us.  It ends with our sin and our brokenness.  It ends with frustration, helplessness, and hopelessness.  The answer the Lord gave, though, did not end with us or with the consequences of our sins. 

It ended with Him. 

This world and all that it holds – the evil, the suffering, the good, the joys – is not about us and our brokenness.  It is about Him.  The Lord’s answer was one of hope: it ends not with us but with Him.

Back to ebola.  My voice wavered and my heart pounded and my face flushed because talking about healthcare in other countries stirs up strong emotions.  It brings back memories that will never be erased from my mind of people dying and ill who could have been alive and well. 

The reason that I would consider going and would not just go to Africa is because seeing people suffer and die in a developing country is extremely hard emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  When you know just as much as physicians about medical care for a disease, and you still do not know what to do to treat someone…that is one of the most helpless and overwhelming feelings that exists.

I would consider going, and I have considered and prayed about going.  Yet for now, I will not go to Africa to help with the ebola crisis because my heart is not ready for it.  After a summer in Cambodia, I am still recovering.  Maybe in the future I will go (and I believe I am called back to Cambodia in the future), but for the time being, I have to let my heart finish grieving and healing. 

Perhaps when we talk about going to Africa and the reasons we would or would not go, we are mistaken about the hardest parts of being there.  Perhaps the hardest part would not be the fear of contracting the virus or not feeling qualified to treat a patient. 

Perhaps the hardest part would be the grieving it would demand from our hearts. 

Should we shy away from this kind of grief?  No!  As I said before, I know the Lord more intimately for it.  Should we prayerfully seek the Lord as to whether we should go or stay?  Yes.  For whichever way He leads, I believe this:

We will know the Lord more intimately for it.

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