A post by Wai Jia, her *story published with permission.
“From afar, I knew he was on longterm medication. To be precise, I knew he was on steroids.
Moon-like facies, peripheral wasting, central obesity. The medical list of the spot diagnosis came up in my head, and my mind ran like an automated printer churning the list of complications that this patient might have even before we spoke. Medical school trains us like that- to think 2 steps ahead at all times.
Osteoperosis (brittle bones). Hypertension (high blood pressure). Diabetes Mellitus. Hypercholesterolemia. Depression.
It turned out he had had them all before.
From afar, I also knew he was different. A big black book with golden edges sat on his table. He was about to open it when I walked over.
“Is that a Bible?” I asked tentatively.
He smiled. “Yes.”
There was something about his countenance which lit up that dark, quiet ward, beneath the whirling fans. I smiled. I was a little nervous about approaching him for an interview to take his medical history (an exam skill which we need to hone), since many hoardes of students must have, like me, ‘pestered’ him before, but he put me at ease.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. S, many students must have come to speak to you. Is it all right if I ask you similar questions?”
“Of course. Come, sit down.”
So we talked. Some people like to find out what the patient’s medical condition is first. I prefer to know his age and occupation, for it helps build rapport and speaks volumes of a person.
“I’m a pastor. Actually, I’m a missionary.”
Time stood still for 2 seconds and goosebumps came up all over me.
“Did you say missionary? Where to?”
“Oh my, do you know Dr. Tan Lai Yong? The missionary doctor?”
“Yea, I do. We work with similar rural tribes.”
“Wow, you know, I entered medical school to be a medical missionary too.”
A clean, cool presence swept over us. Smiles broke out on both our faces.
“I was diagnosed with lupus when I was 25. The doctors said my kidneys would fail me in 2 years. It was then that I started to believe in God. My kidneys eventually stabilised, I went on to become a pastor and missionary in China… But I got TB (tuberculosis), and cellulitis (skin infection) from the immunosuppressants I’m taking, so I’m back here for treatment.”
“When you were diagnosed with lupus, what else did you suffer from?”
He laughed. That surprised me. Most patients, on recollecting their suffering, recount it in neutral tones of grey, brown and black. But he told it in colour, in hues of emotion and reminiscence.
“Back then, it all started with mouth ulcers, and skin rashes on my face and cheeks. Here’s my picture before.” His boyish photo taken 25 years ago showed the typical butterfly rash of lupus patients.
” Then I had seizures, low blood counts, and depression. My kidneys failed, I had to take medication and then I became severely depressed.”
I grew quiet, I was speechless for a moment. I had studied the signs of lupus before, and seen many patients with various degrees of this illness, but never had I met someone who had suffered the full blown manifestations of this terrible autoimmune disease.
Malar rash. Discoid rash. Photosensitivity. Mouth ulcers. Serositis. Nephritis. Haematological disorders. Neurological disturbances. Depression. Joint pains.
He had had them all. This did not even include the side effects of medication.
I sat there, in awe at the quiet resilience this man’s experience had developed in him, in awe at his joyfulness and most of all, in awe at his commitment to serve the less fortunate in spite of the odds. I looked for wrinkles of bitterness, of resentment perhaps, and of resignation on his face but found none.
“May I ask you a personal question?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“I mean… after all this that’s happened to you, don’t you ever ask God why? I mean, why you? You’re a good man, serving God and the needy. Don’t you ever ask why all this had to happen to you, question the injustice of it all, become envious of the normal life other people live? You were serving faithfully as a missionary, don’t you get angry with God? Why you?”
“Why me,” he said. “How about, why not me?” He chuckled.
He actually chuckled. What was funny about this?
My mind somersaulted, and flipped over like a tossed pancake.
“Why not me?” he said, ” You know, I believe God planned illness.”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said. This was senstive ground. “No, illness is from evil- God did not create evil, but yes, I believe He does allow certain things to befall us in light of a greater plan.”
“Well,” he said, “I agree and disagree. Yes, the devil created evil, but God also plans and orchestrates it into our lives for a grander purpose that we may not understand. I don’t think my theology is wrong. Look at the man named Job in the bible. He suffered. Big time. And only because God gave the devil permission. But it all turned out for the best, there was a greater purpose behind it, it was not for nothing.”
“Why not me,” I echoed.
What a paradigm shift. I had heard this phrase used before, but to hear it from the lips of a man who had been through such hardship was powerful, to say the least.
I thought about my previous hamstring injury, about how I struggled and questioned God about my pain- God, why does this happen to me? I do so many things for you and am faithful to do my best to balance my sport with serving others- why do other people get away with things so easily? How unfair can you be? I thought about the many excuses people like myself make for not going to the mission field to help the less fortunate when we have healthy bodies. Oh I have work, I have this constraint and that constraint… … I won’t be hardy enough, it’s too tough…. I thought my previous long struggle with anorexia and depression and how I had thrown my fist and thrown tantrums at God for His apparent silence.
Why not me?
When we think about our lives, full of mistakes and errs and blunders and offenses, as being bought over and redeemed by God’s love for us, we then begin to cherish the fact none of what we have is deserved. Yes, I suffered lots for my illness 3 years ago but who ever said life ought to be easy? Yes, I tore my hamstring this year- it might never be the same again, but who said I had the right to do triathlon in the first place? My bike, my legs, my cardiovascular system are all blessings, gifts of grace. Joy, is a gift.
And that, was the greatest lesson Pastor S taught me.
As he spoke, tears started to dam up behind my eyes.
He was married too, serving together with his wife in China. “If you remember, please tell your wife that even though I’ve never met her, I admire her faith and trust. Both are you are very special.”
I remember a question my colleagues and I were discussing, whether we would marry anyone with a long-standing medical illness. We were surprised at how varied everybody’s responses were. Not everyone has the kind of courage or nerve to do so.
“Now I have a question for you,” he said. ” I’m very encouraged by your passion for God and the needy. You have only believed in God for 5 years. That really surprises me, because you talk like you’ve known God for ages. Can you tell me, what makes you so passionate, so committed to your calling?”
Silence. My mind winded around my heart like a sinewy vine and gripped it.
“It was my illness. When I was ill, those years really tested and grew my faith.”
That’s when the tears fell.
“You see, God has a reason for everything.”
These few days, I’ve been struggling with God with regards to the illnesses that some of my friends struggle with, namely cancers and infections. Why do they have this lot in life? Why God? It was at that moment that I saw, that everything had, has a reason. Till today, a part of me still resents the fact I had suffered those years. Why did they have to be in medical school when I had a price to pay. But now I see how those years have shaped me, given me a kind of resilience towards life, a kind of compassion for my patients and a daredevil-attitude when it comes to going the distance and taking risks for causes I believe in.
“All my life, I’ve only met 2 humble doctors. I’m sorry to say, I think most doctors are very proud. I think you are the third one. I will pray for your final exams.”
I suppose, illness has its way of keeping us grounded, reminding us of our feet of clay. And God has His way of humbling me when my feet drift off the ground.
Do you struggle too? Are you in a trial which you feel is unfair, unjustified? Are you bitter? Do you, like me, often ask why me?
Then like Pastor S, ask, why not me. And perhaps, the world will spin on its right axis for you again.
“Thank you Pastor S. Meeting you has been a great blessing.”
“I feel like I’ve been blessed more than I have blessed you, haha.”
When we begin to see the little things in life as gifts and not rights, and learn to appreciate the cost God paid to love us, we give room for gratitude and personal growth in our lives.
Why not me.
Thank you Pastor S. You get well soon, and hope to see you in the mission field someday.
that I might learn Your statutes.”
“This is my comfort in my affliction,
that Your promise gives me life.”