Papua New Guinea is a land covered in mountains and rainforests. Typically the monsoon rains roll out across the Pacific from southeast Asia and keep PNG soaked. Our year here is marked by two seasons “rainy” and “dry.” Dry season usually meaning it only rains 2-3 times per week instead of twice a day. This year is quite different. The monsoon season that usually will run through June ended early with very little rain in June-September. This included a five week stretch without a drop. This abnormal weather is being caused by one of the most significant El Niño weather patterns in recent history. While other parts of the world are flooding PNG is on pace to have one of the driest years in its’ history. Similar droughts having occurred in 1964 and 1997. In a place where almost everyone relies on their gardens for most of their staple food this is starting to become a real hardship with many families going hungry. The staple food here is kaukau, very similar to yam or sweat potato, which is harvested four times per year. One growing cycle has been completely lost and another is in jeopardy. Imagine how this affects a place that has no familiarity with drought and where most homes are still without electricity. This country’s ability to cope with drought and famine is not present. We need rain and need it badly. I can not recall every experiencing first hand how important water is. We’ve begun seeing increasing numbers of infectious diseases related to the worsening water supply. As small streams are drying up and people are utilizing the bigger rivers nearby much more heavily the contamination in these water sources is mounting. The Kane, our river, is now so low that even with the new reservoir the hospital’s hydro is not able to produce enough electricity to keep the station and hospital powered. We have resorted to running on generators for long stints when the water level is too low. The hospital’s backup generator is in the process of being replaced as the current one is well beyond its’ lifespan. Usually the generator kicks on in a few seconds when the power goes down but today the auto switch was not working. The lights were out for several minutes in the operating theatre. Today, I was thankful for battery powered headlamps and a battery backup for the anesthesia machine. I was also reminded of one of my favorite quotes from a seasoned missionary surgeon, “Anyone can operate with the lights on.”
In my short career as a physician I have offered to pray with countless patients. I remember feeling a bit apprehensive about this in my early years of medical training. Would he be offended? Might she say ‘no’? What if a nurse (or worse yet, my preceptor) walked in while I was praying with a patient? But very quickly, those moments of solitude and connection with patients and their families became my own refuge. I would look forward to opportunities to provide this gift of prayer to those who desired comfort and peace in some of the most lonesome days of their lives. And since that very first day that I, a timid medical student, sat at the bedside of a terminal patient and prayed a quiet prayer, not one patient or family member has ever declined my offer. I believe there’s a message there! Particularly in the medical world, prayer opens doors and creates a space that is safe, accepting, whole and impartial. Prayer allows for the most unique opportunity to commune with the One who makes all things new, whether in body or spirit. Now that I’ve transitioned into this life of medical service in a mission hospital you’d be correct to assume that the opportunities to pray with patients are countless and precious. My challenge at the start was to learn how to pray in a new language and meaningfully express what I could easily articulate in my own language. I still find myself paying close attention during prayers in church or when I’m working with one of our hospital chaplains as they comfort a patient. There are certainly times when my Tok Pisin words are not enough, but thankfully, God hears prayers in all languages, including those of the heart. In the last two weeks it seems that I’ve encountered some of my more sweet moments of connection with patients and I hope that these glimpses into my clinic exam room will serve as a reminder to pray for our work in the hospital as we minister to both the physical and spiritual needs of our patients.
Maria came to my clinic room with her son one morning. As she entered the room, I hoped that she might share that she was here for an antenatal visit. Unfortunately, this was not the case. She was not pregnant. For several months now she had slowly been accumulating fluid in her abdominal cavity and she also complained of right-sided pain. She had been seen in several other medical facilities and at the last hospital where she was evaluated, she was told she likely had abdominal tuberculosis. As I heard her story and examined her full-term-sized abdomen, the diagnosis of abdominal tuberculosis rose to the top of my differential diagnosis. However, as I got her comfortable on the ultrasound table and moved the probe over her right-upper quadrant, the abnormal appearance of her liver suggested that her diagnosis was unlikely Tb and more likely chronic liver disease. I had hoped it was tuberculosis, because we have treatments for this very prevalent disease. Chronic liver disease in this middle-aged woman will come with many doctor visits and likely hospitalizations as well. She’ll be on diuretic medications for the rest of her life and eventually this disease will likely claim her life. I prayed with Maria that morning after sharing this news with her. I prayed a prayer that I pray with most every patient. “Papa God, stap klostu Maria. (Father, be near Maria.)” In my own heartache and desperation, I’ve found that closeness and communion with my God is the only thing that brings peace beyond measure.
Nenspe is a sweet old papa who was led into my exam room by his two adult children. He used his bamboo walking stick to lower himself onto the chair. Nenspe’s daughter shared his story. For two months he’s been having increasing difficulty swallowing. At first it was hard to swallow rice and kaukau, but now water won’t seem to stay down either. He vomits after most meals and says food seems to get stuck in his chest. He has been losing weight and can hardly climb small hills, let alone the mountains that he could easily manage before. The rest of his story, my exam, and his chest x-ray confirmed what seemed most likely from the start. Nenspe most certainly has esophageal cancer. His children were realistic about his diagnosis and his daughter even said that Nenspe himself felt certain he had cancer. I referred him to a nearby hospital for a barium swallow study to help confirm the diagnosis and I prescribed some mild pain medication. The family is Lutheran and Nenspe has given his life to the Lord. His son, who was present, is a pastor and felt so privileged that I would offer to pray with them. They all prayed aloud with me and I believe the Lord heard our prayers and will answer our request for peace that passes understanding. I asked if I could take a photo of Nenspe to share with my family and friends who will also be praying for him. I’m grateful for the lack of privacy laws in PNG that in any developed nation would prevent me from sharing these stories and photos. This family was thrilled to know that others would pray as well. After I took their picture, Nenspe’s son insisted that I get in the photo as well so that he could take one with his phone and share it with their village. Nenspe knows that this cancer will claim his life one day, but he testified that God claimed him first, so he’ll rest easy in that promise. What a beautiful story of the surrendered life!
Matlyn was especially quiet as she made her way into my room with her grown daughter and brother. As I asked about her symptoms and what brought her to Kudjip that day, her daughter asked if she could tell the story for her mom. About seven months ago, Matlyn felt a small lump in her tongue. She ignored it at first because it was small and not all that bothersome. But over the last few months her tongue has become more sore, firm and now she can hardly talk or swallow. As I listened, I wondered to myself what I would find when I donned my gloves and asked her to open her mouth. The few times that Matlyn spoke were mumbled and she had difficulty controlling her saliva. My exam revealed what I feared…advanced tongue cancer. The entire right side of her tongue was a solid mass which had grown into the soft tissues below, tightly tethering it. She could not move her tongue more than a centimeter at the very tip. Unfortunately, Matlyn was not from our province and any biopsy or treatment (which was unlikely) would have to be done at the next provincial hospital. Her prognosis is dismal, but once again, I was allowed to enter into a beautiful time of prayer with this family. As I began to pray, the daughter asked if she could share one more thing. Matlyn is a mother of eight children, but only five are now living. Matlyn’s oldest daughter proceeded to share that Matlyn’s 17-month-old daughter passed away last week after complications from tuberculosis. I could hardly contain my sadness as I allowed this piece of news to sink in. In those moments, I prayed for God’s infinite grace to settle over this family and for His spirit to comfort the deepest reaches of their souls. And what a blessing to know that those words are not empty, nor do they fall on deaf ears. In this place, where death and tragedy are daily occurrences, I often remind patients (and myself) that God does not promise to bring complete and miraculous physical healing (although He is able), but he DOES promise to abide with us and weather the storm with our hand tightly grasped in His. The storm may rage around us and threaten to swallow us, but our God remains a firm foundation, the hearer of our prayers.
As a surgeon I often get to care for patients who find themselves in desperate need. One time it may be from advanced cancer, another from severe infection, and yet another due to a car accident or an act of tribal or domestic violence. These individuals come to Kudjip looking for healing as well as something or someone to ease their suffering. One of the most challenging lessons that I am learning is that not every patient can be helped. Sometimes my best as a surgeon just isn’t good enough. Too often what we have to offer in this resource-limited place just doesn’t cut it. I knew that this would be the case long before I moved back to PNG to serve. I don’t think I was naive about the reality of being a surgeon in Papua New Guinea. In the past five months I have witnessed more death on my watch than in my five years of surgical training. I’d like to think that each of these deaths has been from advanced disease or lack of resources. But I know there have been instances when my inexperience as a young surgeon has led me to operate when perhaps I should have waited or maybe not even gone to surgery at all. Thankfully I have an experienced, invested, and supportive senior partner who on many occasions has gotten me out of a jam or kept me from getting into one in the first place. To have my father as a partner is an incredible resource and thrill for me. He has helped me to see which patients we can help and how best to do it. And at times, he’s shown when it is best to do nothing. I am coming to realize the truth of the surgical adage that states, “The best surgeons are the ones who know when not to operate.” Its becoming clear that this wisdom comes from experience…experience that sometimes teaches unpleasant lessons.
As a physician I feel that I’m called to go to battle with death and disease. But as a follower of Jesus I am compelled to believe that we were not brought into existence for death and disease. The Creator’s intent was never suffering, but rather life…and life to the fullest. Two poems have been on my mind as I have been wrestling with these concepts of life and death in this setting where they are so very tangible. These poems have crossed my mind frequently at the end of the day or in the middle of the night after a particularly difficult case or when I’ve done all I can for a patient on the ward. I’ll share portions of each that have been especially present on my mind in these days. The first is Dylan Thomas’s, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
And you, my father, there on the sad height. Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The second that has become so meaningful to me is Annie Flint’s, “He giveth more grace.” The second stanza has become my testimony in recent days.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance, When our strength has failed ere the day is half done, When we reach the end of our hoarded resources Our Father’s full giving is only begun. His love has no limits His grace has no measure, His power, no boundary know unto men; For out of His infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
I want my patients to rage against the dying of the light. My promise to them is that I will do the same. The only way I make this commitment is through my firm belief in a God who cares infinitely more for my patients than I ever can.
“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’” 2 Corinthians 12:9a
Last week we celebrated THREE months of living and serving in PNG! There is a fairly commonly described “honeymoon phase” of the missionary life and we’re probably still in the thick of it. But as it winds down and we settle into the long-haul of our ministry here, I want to look back and remember what the “early days” looked like. And, since most of my perspective is from home these days, this particular “day in the life” post will detail our exciting lives (mostly) within these four walls. But don’t be too disappointed, as a post about a full day’s work at the hospital is on the horizon!
So, to honor this three month anniversary I’ve taken photos of an entire day of our lives. Actually, I lie. You’ll notice that the photos stop just after dinner time. And, well, the only explanation I can give is the honest truth. Ben and I were both exhausted and I forgot to take photos of bath and bedtime. And sure, I could’ve scrapped it all and started fresh the next day being sure to include every waking minute. But I didn’t want these moments to be wasted. So, there you have it. But honestly, you didn’t miss much. Directly after dinner comes baths and within 30 minutes after baths comes the boys’ bedtime. Picture some rowdy bath-time play…followed by the donning of pajamas which often turns into a wrestling match…followed by some relieved parents as they turn out the lights and say good night to two sweet (and exhausting) children. And…you’re all caught up! And as things go around here, I’m finding my way to bed not long after the kids are settled in for the night. Afterall, our mornings do start early!
I stood in the hallway as I watched his little hands scavenge through his toy bins. I heard the clinking of toys. He was searching. Searching for the perfect car or truck to give to William on C ward. Although I found myself hoping he wouldn’t choose one of his favorites (afterall, did his almost-three-year-old little mind REALLY understand that this was a gift…as in…gone forever). But as soon as that thought entered my mind, I was quickly reminded that this was HIS idea. When I informed Simeon earlier in the morning that today we’d visit the surgery ward and some sick children that Daddy had helped to take care of, I asked him what he thought we could take to those kids to make them happy. I also told him specifically about William, a 6 year-old-boy, who three weeks ago was walking home from school when his feet and the bottom of both legs were run over by a Land Cruiser. Of course, Simeon has a fascination with all trucks, so that led to a lengthy conversation about the specifics of a Land Cruiser. I informed him that its the same type of truck that we have here on the Station and that he’s ridden in many times and he seemed satisfied with that. He asked curiously about William’s injuries and I explained that he had broken the bones in his lower left leg and foot and that he lost his skin on both feet as well. (Simeon is quite used to medical talk, given that he’s the child of two physicians and the grandson of one too and he is ALWAYS curious and asking about scratches or marks on someone’s body and wondering if they need some cream to make it feel better.) So, as I shared matter-of-factly about William, he listened intently. I asked him if he’d like to take a gift to William. I tried to explain (in several different ways) that whatever he gave to William would be William’s toy forever. He’d take it home to his house when he left the hospital. Simeon didn’t seem bothered by this at all and actually seemed eager to share something with “his friend.” He had two ideas—a lollipop (thanks to the recent box we got from Ohio) and a truck. It was at this point I realized we were about to have our first lesson in gift-giving. The lollipop was an easy one and he was frequently happy to share his food treats with friends and family. The truck, on the other hand, might get a little dicey. Simeon has a fiercely strong love (bordering on obsession) with any wheeled vehicle and when he suggested he’d like to give a car or a truck I worried that it might be harder than he thought. I just decided I’d let him lead the way and as he emerged from his bedroom with a (previously favorite) blue HotWheels truck I explained again that this was going to be a GIFT and William would get to keep it. He smiled and nodded and I knew at that moment that he got it. I was proud as proud could be and couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he got to experience the true joy of giving that sweet little sacrificial gift. I loaded the dum-dum’s, blue truck and the two boys into the stroller to make our 1/4 mile journey to the hospital.
Ben met us in the breezeway outside of C ward. I was behind him with the stroller when Simeon hollered back and excitedly waved me into the ward, “Come on Mama!” William was in the far back corner of the ward. We made our way past the two rows of beds filled with sick, but smiling patients and their families. Simeon and Matthias were (of course) the
main event as we strolled through the center aisle. With very little prompting, Simeon gave his sweet little wave and said “apinun” (the afternoon greeting here). The Papua New Guinean people love to shake hands and both boys obliged. We finally reached William’s bed where he was joined by his mother and younger sibling. He is one of five children. Simeon stood sweetly at the side of his bed and gladly shook his hand. William was quiet, but did seem interested in this little white boy who had come to visit him. His mother was delighted and grinned from ear to ear. I handed Simeon the prized blue truck and he knew JUST what to do with it. Without a moment’s hesitation he put that truck in William’s little hand and then glanced back at me and smiled. He reminded me about the lollipops and I encouraged him to give one to William which he did with somewhat serious determination. After we sang a song with William we decided we had enough suckers for the rest of the children on the ward and Simeon very willingly handed one to each outstretched hand. Its easy to think that Simeon couldn’t possibly know the joy he shared with those children, but then I remember that Simeon himself can easily be overwhelmed with joy at the sight of a lollipop! He was doing EXACTLY what I’d hoped he could do. He was giving to them some of the things that he loved very most in life. And he reveled in every minute of it.
As we were getting ready to leave the ward we decided to sing one last song with the patients. Its one of the pidgin songs that Simeon has been singing for months now—Jisas Laikim Olgeta. Its a simple song with a simple message of Jesus’ love for all of us. There’s nothing profound about it, but as we stood around the beds of these sick men, women and children, their smiles and joy were a testament to God’s love for us. We went to give gifts and spread cheer, but in the end we were given an even greater gift of fellowship with some very precious people.
For those expecting the usual excellent writing on this blog please be advised that this edition is written by the “other” doctor. Just consider me a much less talented guest blogger.
I’m usually not one for writing. Writing requires too much thought and too much time. I’m not sure which is more difficult for me, taking the time to think or just sitting down to write. Neither comes naturally to me. That being said, I wanted to share some of my experiences these first few weeks at Kudjip Nazarene Hospital.
It seems a bit surreal to be back where I grew up, with many familiar faces but also with many things that are so different. Stepping into my role as the junior surgeon at Kudjip has been an exciting new challenge for me. It is also a very humbling one. Daily I’m reminded of how much I don’t know and how much I have to learn. Many things I thought I knew I’m having to re-learn in a Papua New Guinea appropriate manner. How to diagnose and treat a surgical problem here in PNG is in some ways quite different from what I’ve been used to. For example, a lady in her mid-thirties came in with right upper abdominal pain. She had been having this pain for almost a week and it wasn’t getting any better. Her white blood cell count was elevated and she had a mass on the right side that could be felt on exam. In the USA she’d probably have gotten an ultrasound read by a radiologist and most likely a CAT scan. In her age group the most likely diagnosis in the USA would be gallbladder disease. The lady had had an ultrasound done by Dr. Erin (one of the family docs here) and she had gotten a second opinion from Dr. Bill. They weren’t sure what it was but thought it might be a liver abscess. So I saw her, did another ultrasound to see what they were talking about, and saw what looked like an abscess or a mass at the lower border of her liver (although it didn’t look quite right) and promptly called in my senior partner…Dad. With her concerning exam, elevated WBC and fever we decided to do what any self respecting surgeon would do, get a CAT scan and consults from infectious disease and interventional radiology. Just kidding! Here the old surgical maxim of “when in doubt cut it out” is sometimes true, not trite. The next day we took her to surgery for exploration and found a perforated retro-cecal appendix that had formed an abscess walled off by the liver edge, gallbladder, duodenum, transverse colon and omentum.
I am finding out very quickly that common pathology looks quite different when it presents late. I’m learning that my ultrasound skills need some work and that the lack of diagnostic tools is achallenge, but a challenge that is not without intellectual reward. I’ve also found that operating here has already given me a breadth and scope that makes being a surgeon so much fun.
Just for fun I’ll list a selection from the plethora of pathology I saw during my first two weeks. Two patients with thoracic stab wounds, one of which needed to go to the OT (operating theatre, yes we prefer the British naming and spelling over here. It’s quite a step up in class compared to the operating room.) to control bleeding from an intercostal artery.We also saw two colon cancers, five appendectomies of varying sorts (three perforated, one gangrenous and one acute), two sequestrectomies for osteomyelitis (bone infection), trans-anal excision of a rectal tumor, two submandibular gland masses, three pediatric neck abscesses, two modified radical mastectomies, one facial stab wound that came in pumping blood from the temporal artery, a couple of cesarean sections, several hysterectomies, a re-implantation of a ureter with a bladder flap for a uretero-vaginal fistula, two hand incision and drainage procedures, a few upper endoscopies, several rigid sigmoidoscopies, a machete chop-chop to the scalp with an underlying fracture, a machete chop to the upper extremity with a humeral fracture, a C3-C4 cervical spine subluxation, several inguinal hernias, a hydrocele, several lymph node biopsies for suspected lymphoma…and I think I might even be missing a few! As one can see, if you are looking for variety in your surgical practice, Papua New Guinea is the place to be.
In closing I’ll share one more story. As is often the case in medicine, “you just can’t make this stuff up.” A couple weeks ago on a Saturday, I was called to the ER to evaluate a stab wound.
Two boys had been “playing” with knives and that play had turned into a fight. The patient, an eight year old boy, had been stabbed in the back by his cousin when he had tried to steal his cousin’s knife. He had a decent sized hemothorax (blood in the chest cavity) and as I began telling him that he would need a tube in his chest to drain the blood I asked him his name. My first stab wound patient in practice was an eight year old boy named….. wait for it…. Zoro 🙂 Yep, I laughed out loud.
Fortunately for him, he did well and did not need major surgery. He has since gone home and I’m looking forward to seeing him in follow-up clinic next week. I’ve already instructed him that there is to be no sword play, at least not until he sees me for his follow up visit!
I am incredibly grateful to the Lord for bringing our family to Kudjip. It is quickly becoming home for all of us. Please continue to keep us in your prayers as we live, learn and serve in this new/old incredible place.
Come and visit us. We’ll welcome any guests with very open arms. We won’t even make you sleep on the top bunk! And we’ll hang some fresh bananas before you arrive!
We arrived at Kudjip on Friday, February 20th. The following Monday morning (after we finished unpacking our three (of ten) suitcases that had arrived) we proceeded to pack a new suitcase for our one-week adventure in a more remote village of the Highlands. This would serve as our family orientation to the language, culture and customs of PNG. We were headed to Ambang which was about a forty-five minute drive from Kudjip. Unfortunately for Ben, one of the missing pieces of luggage was the one that held the majority of his clothes. He resorted to borrowing a few things from his dad and just re-wearing the two outfits he DID have! It was a true bush experience. Ha!
We knew that we would be staying in a missionary home at the New Tribes Mission station in Ambang, but really we had no idea what to expect regarding the amenities of the home. As we drove up the mountain to the small village, nationals greeted us on the road and the yard of primary school children all dressed in their yellow uniforms waved and hollered as we passed in our Land Cruiser. We had to ask directions once or twice and after turning around when we realized we were getting farther from civilization and not closer, we called the other missionary from New Tribes and he directed us to their station. They were right! We were smack in the middle of the village and the smell of the open fires that cooked the morning kaukau (sweet potato staple of PNG) still lingered in the air. The small station consisted of three fairly modern missionary homes arranged in the center of the land with a small common area between them that served as a driveway as well as the playground for the missionary and national children. We were introduced to the Lenz and Hulley families and all of their animals. It turned out to be a bona fide farm there at Ambang! Levi and Robyn Lenz, along with their three school-aged boys, Michael, Daniel and Matthew (and one baby on the way) are from the United States and have been working in PNG with New Tribes for a number of years now. Levi spends his days doing Bible translation work along with a couple of faithful national helpers. Daniel and Rachel Hulley, along with their three children Ben, Georgia and Rebekah, are from Wales and although they have many responsibilities, they primarily do translation work as well. (I’m very sorry to not have a photo of the Hulley family all together, but they left the station before I could get one.)
And now…the animals. There is Socks (the slow-to-warm, but very sweet dog who came running to our porch every time I emptied scraps from a plate into the food waste bucket), Hunter (the weeks-old, tiny brown puppy who was a quarter of Matthias’s size and meek as can be, but scared the boy to death!), Bouncer (the beautiful rabbit that stayed in a cage in the common area and who Simeon loved to feed each day), Stinky (the piglet runt of a litter that was taken in by the Lenz family and not thought to live, but has somehow survived and will soon be returned to their national friends), Shoogie (the sugar glider that I primarily saw sleeping in the hood of Michael Lenz’s hoodie), a couple of chickens, a new family of ducks with the dirtiest little ducklings you ever saw, the village pigs, some of which were worth many thousands of kina (the PNG currency) and lastly, enough flies in our home to make us mildly crazy!
We soon became well-acquainted with our home and our boys were VERY pleased to be greeted by other children as well as toys…lots of toys. Yes, we were in the bush, but where there are children, there are also toys, and Simeon will forever be grateful! These days, whenever we mention a new place we’re going (say, for dinner one evening on the station), Simeon’s first question is ALWAYS, “Do dey have toys at deir house?” Fortunately for him, both Ambang and Kudjip are well-stocked with toys. In our home for the week, there was a train set, lots of books, a bucket of toy animals (including some rather large insects that almost got screamed at once or twice), cars, trucks and plenty of other things that go! The six incredibly sweet children on the station helped Simeon feel right at home and when it was time for them to leave our house that first day he could hardly say goodbye (he didn’t quite understand that he could play with them all-day, every-day for the next seven days)!
Our week was full of cultural experiences and intentional interactions with the national folks there at Ambang. We were, afterall, their neighbors for the week, so it only seemed natural that we join in their routine daily activities. We spent a morning washing some clothes at the nearby river with our new friend, Agnes. She showed me the ropes while the boys and Ben played alongside the (very cold) river and Matthias chewed on a few rocks. It was a grand time!
This was also a perfect opportunity for me to practice my pidgin (the trade language of PNG). Our short hike back up to the village from the river led us through the gardens of Agnes’s family and she pointed out the kaukau, taro and kumu that are all staples in the Papua New Guinean diet.
Another afternoon allowed me to take part in the six-month, four day a week literacy class that takes place in the small common building just next to our homes. The building was built by Steven who is a translation helper of Daniel and Levi and whose land was given to the mission.
This is where the believers gather for lotu (church), Bible study as well as the literacy class. The class is from 2-4 pm and is comprised of local villagers who wish to learn how to read and write their Tok Ples (the distinct language specific to the people group and tribe). There are nearly 800 distinct languages in the country of PNG and this accounts for about one fifth of the world’s languages (although most people do also speak Melanesian Pidgin). I also learned that there is a correlation between the difficulty of a language and the altitude at which the tribe lives. Higher altitude groups generally have more complex languages. Yu Wei, the language of the area around Ambang is a moderately complex language due to the higher altitude. Although the entire class was taught by Daniel Hulley in Tok Ples, I was able to follow along pretty well given the context of the bookwork and with my new friend Agnes by my side. There were about seventeen in the class with a good mix of men and women. There were also varied backgrounds of education including some who’d been through primary school and others who had no previous formal education. But as they learn to read and write, they are afforded the opportunity to read the Scripture portions that are currently being translated into their Yu Wei language. This is an incredible gift to these people and they take it very seriously.
One of our most memorable experiences during our week in the bush was the afternoon we spent with Janet (wife of Steven), Maria, Elis, Marip and Agnes (as well as a handful of kids and animals that came and went as they pleased). We had planned to prepare a typical PNG meal together. We provided some money ahead of time to get the produce needed at the market and the ladies also used some kaukau from their gardens. We also provided the rice and tin fish. I arrived around 3 pm to help start the preparation, and since we had a larger group, they decided to do the preparation and meal in the church building. Our first task was to peel the huge pile of kaukau and then we sorted and prepared the various greens that would be boiled with green onion, carrots, pumpkin (squash), Maggi noodles (like Ramen) and tin fish and then poured over rice and served alongside the kaukau. It was a feast and after the two hours of preparation, we had worked up quite an appetite. Ben and the boys joined us after their naps and the ladies got a big kick out of Matthias chewing on kaukau peels and Simeon holding his plate with great expectation. As we peeled potatoes, laughed and talked I realized how this very mundane-seeming activity of food preparation had created such community among us. We were so different in so many ways, but for that afternoon, we were just friends enjoying a meal together. It was really beautiful and spoke to the generosity and warmth of the Papua New Guinean people. Simeon and Matthias even gave compliments to the chefs by eating (literally) everything that had been prepared for us, including various boiled greens and tin fish!
Our week ended with a worship service on Sunday morning and the children’s Sunday school class that was held on our back porch! What a treat to hear those kids answer trivia questions, sing Bible songs and laugh together.
We had a very blessed week with a lot of new friends. We so enjoyed fellowship and meals with the missionary families and certainly the boys loved their new playmates. We were so proud of Simeon and Matthias, who despite getting diarrheal illnesses for a portion of our time, were very friendly and really embraced their village experience. Well, perhaps all but the time Simeon looked down to see the first large streak of mud on his leg and shorts and exclaimed (disturbedly), “What is that?! I need a na-kin to wipe it. Mama, I need new pants!” Perhaps he’ll need a slightly longer orientation!
As journeys go, ours had its share of highs and lows. Our departure from Columbus, Ohio on Valentine’s Day was anything but lovely, but what would a good world traveling story be without at least a few snafus?! We were to depart at 1:15 pm and although we watched the forecast carefully and knew there was a chance of snow that afternoon, we had little concern that it would cause any trouble for our take-off. With the help of our family from Mount Vernon we successfully loaded, unloaded and checked all ten of our bags without a hitch. We had a leisurely lunch together at the airport food court and then said our (sad) goodbyes. We were set to get through security with a good 45 minutes to spare and aside from Katherine’s pat-down because of the child’s apple juice that exceeded the 3 ounce limit, all was well and we made it to our gate in plenty of time.
We watched out the huge windows that looked directly onto the runway and our hearts sank as our previously on-time flight was just now being delayed due to the sudden closure of the airport. The fiercely blowing snow made visibility poor and no flights could take off. We were discouraged, but still maintained hope as we knew we had a couple of hours in Minneapolis before our flight to Anchorage. We waited and waited. With two well-behaved (but soon to be very antsy) boys. After what became a two-hour delay, we knew that we most certainly would not make our connection and Ben stood in line to find out our options. The desk attendant made it a point to mention that if we could not be re-booked on another flight that day, then we’d be sleeping in the Minneapolis airport as there were no hotel rooms available. This seemed odd to me at the time. Really? There were no vacant hotel rooms in the entire city of Minneapolis? Anyway, perhaps it put a fire under us to get our plans worked out quickly. As Katherine was texting back and forth to her Mom and through the power of social networking we discovered that if we needed it, we would have an empty condo to stay in just 15 minutes from the Minneapolis airport! Our dear friend Johanna has a brother who lives there and his in-laws have a condo that they only use when they’re in town. Amazing! At this point we knew that we WOULD in fact need a place to stay as the next flight available to Alaska was the next morning at 9 am. And although it wasn’t a direct flight as we’d anticipated, the flight times and the layover in Seattle seemed perfect. So, we were re-booked with those tickets and then we waited. At one point, they called for boarding of families and we were literally handing our boarding passes to the agent when they scurried about discussing where in the line-up our flight would take off. They then decided since we were third in line for de-icing and take-off that perhaps we should wait to board. We waited another hour. Finally, our time came.
We got ourselves settled into the rather small commuter plane. It took a bit to push back from the gate, but as we started the 45 minute de-icing process, we were starting to feel encouraged that at least we were leaving shortly and we had a place to lay our heads in Minneapolis. We finally moved out to the runway and we sat. And sat. And sat. Now, mind you, at this point our boys are much more squirmy and hungry and irritable. As were we. FINALLY, the pilot could be heard over the crackly intercom. We were informed that although we were next for departure, we’d have to return to the gate because a computer message could not be cleared from their system and this had to be completed before take-off. There might have been tears at this point. That small plane felt tiny and we were sweating bullets (although Ben and Matthias did manage to escape the madness with a brief nap). [On a side note, how is it that its possible to use a 3D printer to build a functioning vehicle but there is yet to be invented an effective system of heating and cooling an airplane?] We taxied back to the gate and were miraculously told that we could exit the airplane if we wished. Katherine and Simeon began to make the walk to the front of the aircraft (was it mentioned that we were seated in the very. last. row?) when Simeon did exactly what the rest of us would have liked to do had it been more socially acceptable. He had a meltdown. We couldn’t blame him, so instead of leaving the plane, we took that moment to pull out one of the presents that Grandma Betsy had stashed in his backpack for each flight of the long, long journey. He opened his finger puppets and was appeased for awhile. After another 40 minutes at the gate we finally taxied BACK to the de-icing area where we waited another 30 minutes for our turn. Another crackly message from the cockpit, “Well folks, when it rains, it pours. We’ve been informed that the truck that was due to de-ice our plane has just broken and we’ll have to wait for it to be fixed or to be sent another truck, whichever come first.” Its almost laughable to re-live this whole experience through writing, but at the time, it was anything but amusing. Although we received MANY compliments about the good behavior of our young boys, we were very aware that we had approximately 31 hours of flight time ahead of us and we had not even taken off yet! This was a discouraging thought at the time, but we were grateful for how well Simeon and Matthias had done so far. By the grace of God (oh, there were prayers involved), another truck came very quickly and we were FINALLY making our way to the runway.
When the day was done, we had spent three hours waiting at the gate and five hours on that airplane for a two hour flight to Minneapolis. We were tired already, but SO grateful for a timely pick-up by our new friend and a short drive to our beds. We had texted our friend’s brother and asked about carseats, informing him that we have a two-and-a-half-year-old and a 10-month-old. We were willing to hold them on our laps if we needed to! We were desperate. He texted back to say that he and his wife have a two-and-half year-old and a 10-month-old as well! Amazing. We slept well and were thankful for the pack-n-play that was already at the condo for Matthias. They even brought kid-friendly snacks and breakfast food for the morning before our flight. God knew exactly what we needed that night.
We made it to Anchorage the following afternoon and we were SO glad to see Joel, our brother-in-law, who picked us up and helped man-handle all of our luggage. Fortunately some very kind folks from their church offered to bring their van and get our luggage to the home where we stayed for a short 2.5 day visit. Our time was blessed with newborn baby Rosie snuggles, a trip to the windy and beautiful lookout over Anchorage, a lunch of Moose’s Tooth Pizza, lots of cousin playtime with 5-year-olds Dora and Sylvia and a wonderful visit with Bekah, Joel and Grandma Kathy. Ben even got the chance to speak at Joel and Bekah’s church during our brief stay. It was a blessing to get to know the people who have taken such good care of them during their time so far in that beautiful city. We were sad to say goodbye, but so very grateful for our unexpected detour!
The remainder of our travels, including stops in Seattle, Los Angeles, Brisbane, Port Moresby and then our final destination of Mount Hagen, were surprisingly unremarkable. Oh sure, there were the few scream-offs between Matthias and the 4-month-old little girl in the seats next to us on the 13-hour flight, but this was to be expected, of course. The most challenging time was the 2 hour wait for the long-haul flight out of Los Angeles, which left at 11 pm (although our bodies were still telling us it was 2 am). The last 20 minutes of that wait and the first 30 minutes on the plane before take-off was a mild form of torture for all of us, but we emerged unscathed and the boys ended up doing amazingly well on the long journey (but not so well that we’re signing up to do it again anytime soon). Throughout the flights we received many nice comments regarding our boys’ behavior and it did make us proud (and hopeful, seeing as this whole missionary thing will likely be a career for us). After each flight Simeon’s favorite thing to do was strap on his backpack and barrel through the terminal. It was an added bonus if the long hallways included those “people mover” conveyor belts. He was mesmerized by them and actually got the knack of entering and exiting them without any major mishaps.
We landed in Brisbane, Australia with the blessed knowledge that the worst of the flights was behind us and only a 3-hour and 1-hour flight remained. We were able to shower in Brisbane (and change into our OSU gear) and fortunately for us, there were only 50 passengers on the 3-hour flight to Port Moresby so we had empty rows all around us. This allowed Simeon to move around a good bit and play peek-a-boo with his brother between seats when he wasn’t coloring on the iPad or watching a video. We were gearing up for our arrival in the capital of PNG, knowing we’d have to gather all 12 pieces of luggage (if we included Mom’s) and get them through customs as well as get our boarding passes for the last flight. We quickly found Mom’s two bags and three of ours, however it didn’t take long to realize that the remaining SEVEN bags were not coming off that conveyor belt. After asking several personnel standing around, we discovered that our bags were in fact NOT in Port Moresby, although nobody could tell us where they were. We quickly filled out the required paperwork that might allow them to get transferred to another airline and flown on to Mount Hagen. Did I mention it was obscenely hot in Port Moresby? Its always hot there. And humid. But after being in the cold and snow for so long in Ohio and Alaska, the heat was especially breathtaking. A sweet Papua New Guinean man must have taken pity on the sweaty, red-faced toddler in the terminal and offered to buy him a Sprite out of the soda machine. In fact, he seemed almost privileged to do so! Simeon was grateful. Many troubles and potential outbursts can easily be diminished with the promise of a sparkling, sugary drink! Just don’t tell his dentist. [On another side note, during a trip to the other side of the world is NOT the time to worry about being judged for the things that you feed your children and allow them to do in order to keep from losing your own mind. “Yes, I AM in fact feeding my toddler his fourth package of fruit snacks in a row. And you would too if you knew what this moment would look like without them.”]
Despite the delay with the luggage, we made it to the large open room which serves as the domestic terminal. When our flight was called, we handed over our final set of boarding passes and stepped outside into the heat of the afternoon to make the trek to our plane. We quickly settled into our seats and Matthias quickly made friends with the Papua New Guinean ladies next to him. He’s hardly met a stranger on this trip! Simeon was asleep within 30 minutes of the flight and missed the most beautiful views of the highlands as we descended into the valley. We were moments away from landing in a place that already felt like home and we couldn’t have been happier.
Despite the news in Port Moresby that Jim and the operating room staff couldn’t come to the airport as expected because of an emergency surgery, they were there waiting for us as we de-planed! Apparently they did the fastest surgery in the history of time in order to make it and we were SO glad. Aunt Lydia, Uncle Cilla (yes, that’s what Simeon has called her for months now), Uncle Bill and Aunt Marsha McCoy and some other hospital staff were waiting too. We loaded up the vehicles with our fewer-than-expected pieces of luggage and drove the hour to Kudjip. Home was waiting for us. As we pulled onto the station we were greeted by a beautiful sign and flowers woven through the gate. We were preparing Simeon for “our new house” as we’d been referring to it for months. We’d say, “We’re almost to our new house Simeon. Its just around this corner.” He had a look of anticipation on his face. As we neared our home, we saw what seemed like the entire missionary family on our front lawn! We drove by a few of the kids playing in a yard nearby and Simeon chirped, “Are those my new friends?” Yes, yes they are! If there are friends and toys, that boy is happy. There were many hugs, some new faces and lots of “good to see you agains”! Simeon had his mind and heart set on finding his beloved “orange juice truck” which was a purchase at a next door garage sale in Mount Vernon and ended up making the trip to PNG via our first crate six months earlier. Simeon had literally been talking about that truck everyday as he was just itching to get his little hands on it. And that he did. He took it back outside to show off to his new friends (who didn’t seem nearly as impressed as he was)!
We were home and never before had the word HOME meant so much to us. It seemed that all of our homes up until now had been a sort of transition. Sure, we settled into them and made them comfortable and a place of refuge, but this felt different. We knew that THIS home would welcome not only us, but also many of these beautiful people whom we have come to serve. We had completed our long, long journey. And that journey led us home.
There’s an old proverb that says, “He who would travel happily must travel light.” But I get the sense that the wise writer of that proverb was not moving 8,672 miles to a remote part of Papua New Guinea where many conveniences of life are…well, not so convenient. That being said, we are also making this big move with the hopes of living in PNG for a good while. We know our first assignment with World Medical Mission will last two years, but it is our hope that the Church of the Nazarene will appoint us as career missionaries at the end of this assignment. So, when it came time to pack up our things and sell our home last summer, we decided we’d keep and ship to PNG those things that would make our house feel most like home (and might make life slightly more convenient). After all, we had accumulated some nice things during our ten years of marriage and it seemed a pity to put all of our artwork and that leather La-Z-Boy recliner in storage. So we didn’t!
Our packing journey began 8 months ago when we decided we would build, pack and ship a 4-foot wooden crate. That seems simple, right? We were rookies in the crate-building department, so we consulted with our good friend Steve Doenges who had built a similar crate for his daughter Steph when she moved to PNG where she served as a family doctor. Steve gave us lots of good advice and offered to help, but we were off and building before he knew it! Katherine’s Dad even drove 40 minutes out of town to purchase the special heat-treated plywood necessary for the crate. There were, of course, the usual mishaps of a small building project. But within a few days, the crate was ready for its large plastic liner and then we got to start the huge puzzle that is filling a 4-foot cube with NO room to spare. We certainly didn’t want to waste any of that precious space so we even created small pallets with gallon-sized ziploc bags and our favorite Target brand diapers that filled every single crack between Rubbermaids and boxes. We made the final arrangements, put on the side wall, wrapped up and taped down that black plastic like a huge Christmas present and screwed on the lid. It was done. We breathed a sigh of relief and left for our Stevens family beach vacation knowing that Ben’s brother Tim would be there when the shipping company arrived to pick up the crate a few days later. I remember the phone call from Tim as we sat relaxed in our beach house. “Ben, did you leave keys for the Camry parked in front of the garage?” Right. So we built and filled our 900-pound crate just inside the garage door for the convenience of pick-up, but we failed to move the vehicle sitting directly outside the garage. Nor did we leave keys for someone ELSE to move said vehicle. Well, Tim still had a bit of time before the truck arrived for pick-up, so he carefully put the car into neutral and backed it down the drive and off to the side just enough for the crate to be moved past. Success! Until…the gentleman arrived with his pallet-lift which was about two inches too wide to fit around the 4×4’s at the base of our crate. This was the news we received in Tim’s NEXT phone call to us in North Carolina. We couldn’t believe it. Our crate could not be picked up because of two inches. Tim thanked the gentleman and we decided to sort it all out when we got home a few days later. But, unfortunately for us, “sorting it out” meant discovering that there was no shipping company that would be able to pick up our crate as built because of the space allowed for at the base of the crate. Well, it was a good thing we thought ourselves to be pretty good crate-packers, because we were going to get to do it all over again. That’s right. We were forced to unpack the ENTIRE crate, flip it over, remove one of the 4×4’s, re-pack the ENTIRE crate and find a new shipping company to pick it up within 24 hours to get it to Oregon in time and on the container to PNG. If that sounds exhausting, well, it was. We even took pictures on our phones of each stage of the unpacking so that we’d remember exactly how
to put it back together. But, to make this story short, we did it! And about 3 months later we received word that the container with our crate on it had arrived at the mission station and it was being unloaded into our new home. We breathed a sigh of relief and said more than once, “Glad we don’t have to do THAT again anytime soon!”
Fast-forward to the end of November. Ben received confirmation that he was having an entire set of laparoscopic equipment as well as other OR equipment donated to the hospital in PNG. We were doing it again. All over again. But this time, we got smart. A simple google search found a pre-fab 4-foot crate ready to snap together. That thing was on our door-step four days later! Fortunately, we knew the routine and filled the SECOND crate with essentially no snafus. The equipment did not fill the entire space, so we were “forced” to add a few extras, like a Rubbermaid of books, a stove-top waffle maker and heavy-duty “we live in the tropics” door mats (just to name a few). We packed it full. Maybe too full. But, last Friday, with a little help from our brothers again, it was sealed and the pick-up was successfully done the next day! I love it when that whole “live and learn” thing actually works out. That crate has arrived in Oregon where it will be loaded into a container in April and then shipped to PNG. If it makes good time, we’ll receive it in Kudjip mid-summer.
The remainder of our packing, including 10 suitcases and 5 carry-ons, has felt like a breeze after two crates! We’re glad to say that the 10 bags are now packed (with 3 days to spare, I might add) and we’re making the final touches on the carry-ons before our departure on Saturday. And, apparently all the packing has made quite an impression on Simeon (age 2.5) who walked by the counter after my quick grocery trip for dinner. He noticed a new box of trash bags on the counter and inquired, “Are we taking those to Papua New Guinea?” No, sweet child, we just need a place to put our trash! We may not travel light, but at the end of a long day, we’ll be really glad to kick off our muddy shoes on a heavy-duty door mat before relaxing with a good-read and a warm-crispy waffle.