​A team of five of us (me (Kim Milhoan), Kirk Milhoan, Mary Porisch, Minnette Son, and Molly King) just left Iraq.  Excluding trips to Kurdistan, Iraq, which I refer to as “Iraq for beginners,” this was our third team trip to “Iraq Proper” to perform pediatric heart catheterizations.  Teaming up with our partner organizations Preemptive Love Coalition and Living Light International, we went to Fallujah the first time in July 2012.  We returned to Fallujah in January 2013.

I’ve already confessed I didn’t want to go to Iraq the first time, was happy it went well and I survived it, and was hoping I wouldn’t be called to go again.  Knowing whom I’m married to, I should have known that would not be the case.  I actually don’t think I’ve known Kirk to say no to any request for pediatric heart help.  I went back obediently the second time, warning Kirk that my available time for trips was limited and he would need to look for another anesthesiologist if he wanted to make frequent trips to Iraq.  On that second trip, Nadwa, from Living Light International, asked us where else we travel to in the world for pediatric heart care.  She challenged us to actually stop going to those places, to free up our time and resources, because other people were willing to go there, but no one is willing to go to Iraq.  She’s not far from wrong.  As they told us on our first trip to Fallujah, it had gained such a reputation during the war that Iraqis don’t even like to go there.  It’s not overly dramatic to say our risk of death is much higher on these trips than others.  I had to come to terms with that on my first trip and ask myself if I really believe what I say I do.  Do I believe I serve a great, loving, sovereign God who sent His Son to die for me so that I will live eternally with Him?  I do, so even though I love the life the Lord has blessed me with on this earth, I do believe heaven, whenever I get there, will be a great reward and I’m willing to stake my life on that hope in order to serve His children.  As I had already come to terms with that, Nadwa’s challenge convicted me.  I came to the conclusion on our second trip that the need was so great, that since I was one of the few willing to go, I would continue to go.  I went on this trip willingly and, Lord willing, will continue to do so.

What was different about this trip, however, was that we went to Tikrit first, for three-and-a-half days of caths, and then we went to Fallujah, for three more.  Every new location is incredibly stressful.  This is no small feat what we do, taking care of children with heart disease well in international environments.  We had visited Tikrit ever so briefly on our first trip because they were hopeful we would do a trip there some day.  They told us then that we were the first international team that had ever visited their hospital and literally asked us not to forget them.  We kept our promise to return, but I knew from that first tour that the conditions were going to be austere.  In anticipation of this, I brought more supplies on the plane than I ever have.  We could not have done what we did without them.

We flew into Baghdad on Friday, were met by our hosts from Fallujah, and actually driven to the hospital complex in Fallujah where we have stayed before.  We had arrived in the afternoon, the time at the many required check points is unpredictable (we easily spent hours at check points on this trip), and it is unsafe to travel after dark, so our hosts felt it was safer to take us to Fallujah.  We left Fallujah at 6 a.m. on Saturday and arrived in Tikrit around 10 a.m.  We ate a quick breakfast and got to work, taking care of four patients that day and finishing around midnight.  I found the first case so challenging from a conditions standpoint, I was ready to quit.  I prayed for the will, stamina, and ability to continue and the next three cases went better.  We had planned to do four cases on Sunday, but our first two were incredibly challenging and took longer than we expected, one child had eaten when they shouldn’t have, and the last child was small and therefore more challenging, so we elected to stop, regroup, and start again the next day.  We ended up screening more patients that night until midnight.  Sometime after 10 p.m., Kirk said he would see the thirteen families waiting at that time and no more (after word spreads that the American doctors are screening, the flow of patients seems to never stop).  After those thirteen families, a baby was brought in that was not on the 10 p.m. list.  That baby had fluid around his heart that would probably have killed him within days.  We took that fluid from around his heart as our first case the next morning and I realized if we had come for only him, it had been worth it.  We did two more cases that Monday that went well, but our work and screening still took us to our third midnight in a row.  We finished with an incredibly stressful last case on Tuesday morning.  We praise God that we took care of eleven children well, but it was exhausting and harrowing.  We so desire to take care of children well, and not to hurt them, that it felt a little bit like doing a high wire act without a net.  Our hosts were so good to us.  They were welcoming and made sure we had good food to eat and a good place to sleep.  The cath lab staff was helpful, hard working, and eager to learn.  They were so appreciative that we were there.  But we found ourselves, hilariously to us, longing to get “home” to Fallujah.

This trip was all a lesson in perspective.  The first time I went to Kurdistan, Iraq, I was afraid and thought it was a big deal.  Then the first time I went to Iraq proper, I was so relieved to get to the safety of Kurdistan.  After going to Tikrit, I was so relieved to get to Fallujah.

I read the book “Unbroken” on the way home from our recent pacemaker/screening trip to Kosovo.  It is the true story of Louis Zamperini, who was an Olympic runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  He became a bombardier in World War II, flying out of Hawaii.  His plane went down on a search mission in the Pacific and he and two others survived in a life raft longer than anyone ever has.  Their third companion eventually died on the raft, but the other two floated into Japanese territory and were held as POWs for over two years.  The story is harrowing and compelling.  It is absolutely unbelievable to me that these men survived the conditions on the raft or the conditions in the POW camp.  Timely perspective.  Reading how absolutely much they suffered and yet endured gave me a longer yardstick to measure suffering, and endurance.  It gave me more endurance for tiredness, hunger, and imperfect food, bathroom, and sleeping conditions.  I have felt before that these families we serve didn’t choose where they were born.  For the most part, they didn’t choose the conditions they live under.  But they are God’s children and I can enter into their conditions and endure fatigue and hunger, if necessary, to serve them.

The conditions in Fallujah are quite nice.  We stay in a dorm on the hospital complex that we now consider “home.”  They feed us wonderful food.  Our hosts are gracious.  It was our third mission there, so we have achieved a rhythm with the local staff in terms of supplies and work flow that allows us to work much more efficiently.  We took care of 11 patients in three-and-a-half days in Tikrit.  We took care of 16 in three days in Fallujah.  All along the way, there were many firsts:  first international team to Tikrit, first pediatric heart cath in Tikrit, first PDA device placed in Tikrit, first ballooning of a narrowed pulmonary valve in Tikrit, first ballooning of an aortic narrowing in Fallujah, the first time we’ve done six cath cases in one day anywhere internationally.  Our productivity would have been amazing for home.  It was really amazing in Iraq.

All week I was marveling at the new perspective I gained.  I had an endurance attitude in Tikrit and my only true complaints were about making sure we were taking care of the children well.  I marveled that I was excited to get to Fallujah.  The trip from Tikrit to Fallujah involved one incredibly long checkpoint that lasted well over two hours and involved us being taken by Iraqi Army escort to an Army base while we waiting for the appropriately high up approval to allow us to enter Anbar Province.  I marveled that my normally anxious self did not feel anxious.

I’d get a chance to check the news on the internet most nights before I went to bed.  Largely, it is not encouraging.  There are so many hot spots and places of unrest in the world that it is hard to keep up.  The Bible talks of the End Times and that only the Father knows the day or the hour, but that we can know its season (Mark 13).  That’s the dichotomy for the Christian:  live like your life could go on and on until a ripe old age or that it could end at any minute.  I guess that’s the dichotomy for all of us.  I found myself agreeing with the Ephesians 5:16-17:  “mak[e] the most of your time, because the days are evil.”  The evil in the world gives me more motivation to be about my Father’s work, taking care of His children.  I said to one of my teammates “with all that is going on in the world, I may as well be in Iraq.”

Obviously Mary was feeling similarly.  Her devotional on our last day of procedures in Fallujah was based on the book of Esther.  There is a Persian plot to kill the Jews.  Esther, the Queen of Persia, happens to be Jewish, unbeknownst to her husband.  Her cousin Mordecai pleads with her to go to the King to expose and defeat this plot.  Esther explained that no one, not even the Queen, can go before the King unsummoned and the punishment for doing so is death.  Mordecai reminds her “who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this (Esther 4:14)?”  So Esther answers “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.  I and my maidens also will fast in the same way.  And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish (Esther 4:16).”  None of us on our team have a death wish and we love our lives and our families and would love the Lord’s grace to continue to enjoy them, but we have come to that peace where we can say “if I perish, I perish.”  We were also struck by Esther’s request:  please fast and pray.  Those of you who are concerned for our safety, this story tells you what to do:  fast and pray.  We appreciate every prayer said on our behalf and we know they are many and effective.

As we were driving out of Fallujah to go to the airport in Baghdad, I was staring out the window as I usually do on all our drives, taking in the conditions.  I saw a dusty little sparrow.  I like to joke that even the animals in Iraq must ask themselves “how did I get here, instead of someplace beautiful and lovely like Hawaii?”  And if the animals, how much more the people?  I remembered that even a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without the Father knowing it and we are so much more than sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31).  The Father knows every person in each poorly constructed house in that war-torn country and loves them the same as you and me.  Everything in Iraq is so dusty that even the palm trees are covered in dust.  The phrase “dry and weary land” kept coming to me, so I looked it up in my Bible and found Psalm 63, written by King David:

O God, you are my God; I shall seek you earnestly;

My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You,

In a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary,

To see your power and Your glory.

Because your lovingkindness is better than life,

My lips will praise You.

So I will bless You as long as I live;

I will lift up my hands in Your name.

My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,

And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.

When I remember You on my bed,

I meditate on You in the night watches,

For You have been my help,

And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.

My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek my life to destroy it,

Will go into the depths of the earth.

The will be delivered over to the power of the sword;

They will be a prey for foxes.

But the king will rejoice in God;

Everyone who swears by Him will glory,

For the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.

The times, justice, my life…they are all in the Lord’s hands.  My soul is so satisfied with the beautiful life the Lord has given me.  I know His right hand upholds me and He hides me in the shadow of His wing.  His lovingkindness is truly better than life.  I am willing to trust Him with mine so I can be in the position He has called me to, to serve His children, “for such a time as this.”