On October 27, 2006, I left San Francisco airport with 11 other intrepid travelers on a journey to Ethiopia, a land of friendly, poor people with great need in many areas of their lives, not the least of which was a caring smile and loving touch, which we each happily provided.
Our group's mission was to provide medical care, health education, and the love of God to people in and around Yetebon, Ethiopia, a rural area of about 70,000 people located about 90 miles south of Addis Ababa. We accomplished all that and more: In the process, our hearts were changed, our minds were enlarged, and our vision of humanity and human existence was expanded.
Each one of us, in various ways, was touched deeply by what we saw, the people we encountered, and the living conditions of the people we touched. This was clearly one of those life changing experiences that makes one regard in new ways our own privileged life in the west, our own relationship to the rest of the world, and our place in history. The absolute grandeur of the sights seen and the life stories heard could not be ignored.
The very first patient I saw on the very first day of our mobile medical clinics became for me the archetype of the stories I was to hear: the medical needs of the people, the degree of suffering that is part of daily life in rural Ethiopia, and the emotional impact these stories would have on me personally.
This woman sat across from me and told her story: She was 29 years old, had a fistula with the constant leakage of urine, had delivered 6 babies only one of whom had survived, and now was living as an outcast due to the fistula. Sadly, we were not in a position to offer the surgery she needed and all I could do was reach out to her with a gentle touch and a prayer, and with a lump in my throat encourage her to get the care she needed at the fistula hospital in Addis.
Hopefully, this advice from a western doctor "counted" in her mind as a positive, just as did the antibiotics and other medicines we distributed to many others with problems we were prepared to treat.