I met a man who lost his three middle fingers. Most of his right hand was gone as well leaving just a stump with the thumb and little finger poking out either side. It all started with a simple cut to his hand while doing his daily work as a cane basket and furniture maker. But the cut wouldn’t heal and became infected. (At the time he wasn’t aware that he had diabetes.) So he went to the local traditional healer who made a poultice of mysterious ingredients, most likely one of which was cow dung – a common remedy for wounds. The healer then chanted magic words, blew on his hand and sent him home.
Instead of healing the infection worsened. The hand swelled up like a balloon, all red and inflamed. Eventually he came to see a medical doctor at a government hospital in Phnom Penh. By this stage it was too late to save the hand and the man had surgery to remove the rotten flesh. I think the surgeon hoped the remaining thumb and little finger would be able to oppose and give him at least some function. But it seems they failed to send him for follow up therapy and by the time I saw him, some three months after the operation, the man’s remaining digits, wrist and shoulder where stiff and painful from immobility.
It is hard to understand how a simple cut can lead to a man losing his livelihood and becoming totally dependent on his family. The maddening thing is that a different response at any one of a number of points along his story would have led to a better outcome.
I felt angry, frustrated and quite useless as a physio trying to address this situation, knowing that most likely he would return home to his village the next day and never return for follow up treatment.
The Khmer nurse who was helping me communicate with this patient suggested in the end that we pray for him. I was all for that as I knew what I’d done so far was not likely to make any difference and the man himself was very happy to be prayed for. So that is what we did. There was no miracle cure but the long discussion that then proceeded between this godly nurse and the patient, full of questions and deep seeking, was itself a demonstration of God’s grace and love. The man left encouraged and hopeful.
Despite my exasperation at the number of the serious but preventable health problems I’ve seen I have been constantly amazed at the way the gospel is so openly and naturally shared through the staff at this Christian clinic. It did, however, make a bit more sense after our latest ‘foundation year’ morning.
We’ve been organising monthly seminars for the newer people in our team. On Saturday we heard from some very experienced people sharing their insights on Khmer culture and Buddhism. An interesting point came up about how we talk about spiritual things. Often in Western cultures we feel it is polite to be quite reserved and careful not to impose our beliefs on others until we feel the right opportunity comes along or the relationship is developed sufficiently. It seems that in this culture if you have something good or know some good news it is unkind and uncaring not to share it with others.* In this context faith sharing with people you meet is therefore seen as something very natural. I’m learning a lot from the people I meet and some of my own cultural values and assumptions are certainly being challenged.
* Maybe this is why the temple and the aerobics dancers love to use loud speakers directed outwards. It would be seen as unkind to not share their good experiences with the whole community. This puts a very annoying aspect of life here in a new light.