Shipwrecks... and hope.

14 March 2013

Most often when I go up to deck 8 what I see is the sun reflecting off the hazy water, a few birds diving for their dinner and perhaps the odd plastic bag or flip flop floating by…  This afternoon the tide was exceptionally low, and I saw the carnage that is usually hidden from view.  Surrounding the Africa Mercy, throughout the port of Conakry lay the skeletons of about a dozen sunken vessels; their disintegrating hulls and decaying structures bear little resemblance to the grand ocean liners and tankers they once were.  Their glory days are but a memory as the birds gather and squawk and stalk the fish swimming in the murky depths below.

Why so many shipwrecks?

I’m obviously not a mariner, so please forgive me if this is woefully ignorant or simplistic.  But from my limited understanding, there are three possible reasons.

They were mishandled.  The pilot, whoever was at the helm, was inadequately prepared or distracted or unqualified or unaware they were in imminent danger. The lights weren’t working, or the warning systems weren’t firing, or the driver fell asleep at the wheel; something went horribly wrong and as a result the ship crashed into rocks or a pier or the dock or another ship. 

They were abandoned. Somewhere along the line someone decided they were unable to maintain it or the ship wasn’t worth keeping up; the coat of paint that would keep the rust under control was just too costly, or the engine maintenance to keep them chugging along was simply too difficult, or no one was able to repair the cracks in the hull because there wasn’t any access to the right equipment and tools.  Eventually, after years of disrepair, of being pounded down by the relentless waves and rain and wind, they were slowly swallowed up by the darkness beneath, succumbing to the brutality of their environment.

The storms proved too fierce.  The winds whipped them around, the environment was dark and destructive, the storm surge became too strong, too dangerous, and the ships were thrown mercilessly into the rocks.

Isn’t this the reality of life for our patients? Somewhere along the line something went horribly wrong; someone wasn’t paying attention when the baby fell into the fire, or their broken leg wasn’t set correctly, or the obstructed labor went on for days.  Or perhaps when the tumor started to show there weren’t any doctors, or the costs to repair the cleft palate was more than they made in a year, so they were abandoned or banished to the shadows, slowly swallowed up by the darkness.  Or maybe the environment in which they were born into proved too much; the infection viewed not as a treatable disease but as a curse, or the child malnourished because no rain had fallen for many months.

Let me take this one step further: Isn’t this our reality? Life is brutal on hope. Perhaps not as much a physical reality as it is for our patients, but our hearts are mishandled, either by accident or on purpose; something goes horribly wrong and as a result we run ourselves aground, unable to make forward progress. Or we decide that it’s just too costly to pursue joy and freedom and life to the full, to fight the rust and leaks and decay that find their way in, that we may as well just give up and sink to the depths of our despair.  Or, just look around; no one would disagree that life is just hard, the reality of the storms of life causing us to feel like we’ve crashed and burned.

My heart cries out, it doesn’t have to be this way! I look around at where I am standing, this incredible place I call my home, the Africa Mercy.  It’s huge and strong and freshly painted; we have crews of specialists, men working around the clock to keep the engine running and the rust at bay and the ship afloat. We are literally a beacon of hope in the midst of the carnage of life around us; our patients come and we love them, we see through their deformities and into their hearts. We remove the tumor and straighten the legs and repair the damage on the outside; at the same time, we offer them the hope of restoration to the devastation and decay inside.  We offer a shelter to the storms raging around them, a safe place where the flicker of hope can grow into a flame.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Those ships didn’t have to sink.  You don’t have to live in the shadows. You are worth fighting for, maintaining, guiding, teaching, saving.  You are worth it, for all of these people to come together from all over the world, to love you and restore your hope.  You are worth it…and so am I. 


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