I (Kim) got very sick this week in Iraq. Nine of us (Mary Porisch, Cathy Woodward, Molly King, Nelia Soares, Caley Johns, Tim Sanken, Becky Ernst, Kirk, and me) arrived on Saturday and immediately started a whirlwind week. That first day we screened 33 children for heart disease at the Fountain of Love in Shoresh for our partner organizations Kurdistan Save the Children and Shevet Achim and then drove to Dohuk, where we spent the next five days performing fourteen pediatric heart catheterization procedures and screening over a hundred more children. My illness on Tuesday, the exact middle of our week, was novel enough that even my team members suggested that it be included in the traditional update I write on the plane trip home.
I had woken up sick overnight, but felt good enough when the alarm went off to get up and get ready. By breakfast time, it was evident I should skip it, so I went back to bed briefly and then got up to go to the hospital with the team. Kirk suggested when we got there that I should get some IV fluids before starting the day to prevent me from being dehydrated and having to test putting anything in my stomach. I laid down in the area where the patients usually gather and he put in an IV, which I quickly pulled out by moving my hand too far too quickly. My pediatric-trained teammates thought this was hilarious, pediatric patient-type behavior and joked about needing to give me an arm board and to tie my hands. As they took pictures of Kirk lovingly putting in a second IV, they suggested the event had reached update-worthy status. The local hospital staff had arrived by then and, down to the housekeeper, blessed me with their concern, getting me clean pillows and covering me with blankets. I tried to nap, but when the crying baby that I was supposed to take care of arrived, I had to move out of that room. We had postponed the baby to give me a little more time to feel better enough to take care of her…and it was tortuous to me to hear her little hungry cry. I also figured it wouldn’t give the parents a whole lot of confidence to see one of their child’s doctors sick enough to need an IV. I moved into the crowded team room…and started to feel worse. Dr. Aras, one of the local anesthesiologists, came and moved me into their anesthesia call room. He agreed to handle the patient we had planned to do second first, while I took a nap. After I got to the call room, things went from bad to worse.
I became much sicker very quickly. But everyone had left me alone to sleep. I was on a different floor than my team and had no phone. My clothes had become unwearable so I was no longer decent or strong enough to get help on my own. I found something to wrap myself in and made it to the door, praying for someone who spoke English. My prayer was answered when one of the resident doctors who had been working with us all week was outside the door. I asked him to please get any member of my team, quickly. The first to arrive was Dr. Fitoon, a Kurdish surgery resident from Sulaymaniyah we’ve worked with before who took a week of vacation specifically to come and work with our team in Dohuk. Her sacrificial care for me was amazing. The scene was not pretty but she got me cleaned up and into bed. She started a third IV because the second was no longer useable. She secured appropriate medicines from the resident outside the door and starting administering them. Blissfully, one of the medicines was an anti-nausea medicine that allowed me to sleep for most of the rest of the day, between trips to the bathroom. I realized later that while she was watching me, she had cleaned that bathroom spotless. The rest of my teammates took turns checking on me all day long. I was distressed to keep getting updates on who else was feeling ill (by the end of the week only Cathy and Mary were unscathed). Thankfully no one else ever got as sick as I did, but that meant they all worked through their illnesses all day long, taking care of two very complex patients in the cath lab. I never was well enough to work that day, but was the next day, when that sweet baby named Bien finally got taken care of. The first thing her father asked me was “Dr. Kim, are you ok?”
The reason this entire episode became update-worthy for me is I don’t know when I’ve ever been so needy. Kirk observed that in almost eighteen years of marriage he had never seen me so sick. Everyone coming to my aid truly brought tears to my eyes and the words “thank you” seemed woefully inadequate. Similarly, the local Kurdish doctors and hospital staff could not seem to thank us enough this week for coming. They repeated the words over and over…and they treated us to dinner night after night, even when we were so tired we would rather have gone to bed. On our last day, Kirk talked about this overwhelming, cannot-do-enough gratitude in our morning team devotional. Often the life-changing question for the Christian is “do you believe Jesus loves you?” We can have a head-knowledge of God or of the story of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, but when we finally get the depth of His love for us, we cannot say or do enough to express our gratitude. I believe the Lord allowed me to get that sick so I could fully understand this lesson. I was naked, filthy, needy, and longing for rescue…and that is the gospel. We are naked, filthy, and needy in our sins and God sent Jesus to rescue us, to clean us up, and to take care of us. The Lord allowed me to live that object lesson.
Going to Iraq this week for me was an act of obedience. No surprise if you follow along on these For Hearts and Souls updates. Kirk is the one who is fearless, motivated, called, and inspired to go anywhere. My other seven teammates obviously are too. I’m not. I’ve never been fearful on my numerous trips to Kurdish Iraq before and have even felt safely taken care of on three previous trips to Fallujah and Tikrit in Arab Iraq. That was all before ISIS…and the knowledge that ISIS-controlled territory was less than an hour’s drive from where we were in Dohuk. When Kirk suggested this trip, I was praying for a Spirit-led “out” that never came. I’ll admit to being fearful (before we left but never, actually, after we got there)…and to dreading the usual exhaustion that accompanies these trips. It seems impossible, but our team thinks we’ve never been more exhausted than we were on this trip. We arrived at two in the morning on Saturday and drove to Shoresh. We had about three hours to rest and then got to work. We worked about eight hours and then drove five more. By the time we went to bed Saturday night, none of us had been in one since Tuesday or Wednesday. We were at the hospital every day by 7 a.m. and maybe got more than five hours of sleep on only one night. We worked our last day, spent an hour at the hotel, were hosted at a lovely dinner, drove three hours to the airport, and left on a 3:45 a.m. flight. Most of us cannot remember the plane taking off out of Iraq.
But we left Iraq. We’re recovering. I’ve slept on two planes, in an airport lounge, and in a hotel, and am on my third flight. I’ve showered. I’ve eaten good food. And it all makes me cry as I type this. That is the good of obedience. The Lord says, “I want you to do something” because “I want to show you something.” I experienced true misery this week. And it was temporary. I had the choice to go to Iraq. And I had the choice to leave. My beautiful home in beautiful Maui is still intact. I still live in the greatest nation on the face of the earth, with the freedom to pursue my vocation and worship how I please. Most of the patients’ families we took care of this week have no such freedom or luxuries. They are refugees who’ve lost their homes, their possessions, their vocations, and who knows what else in the face of unspeakable evil. Kurdish Iraq is a haven of safety. We quizzed many on whether they felt safe so close to ISIS and they did. They trust the Kurdish military peshmerga to defend their borders. The Kurds still express gratitude to the U.S. for their survival starting with our military intervention in the 1990s. They have renewed gratitude for recent air support against ISIS. One of the doctors we worked with is from Mosul and his Muslim parents are stuck there under ISIS’ control. Another was from Syria and his mother and sister are stuck there. They see no hope in either situation. They are grateful to be in Kurdish Iraq, both expressing that all they want is to live a life of peace and safety and they see no other place in the Middle East where they can do that.
I cannot imagine the misery that many of the people I came into contact with this week have endured. But the Lord gave me a tiny little insight. And then He rescued me. He rescued me from illness. He rescued me from exhaustion. The contrast is so great that the LAX Westin, a meal, a shower, and an overnight of sleep seem like a foretaste of heaven. I have greater insight into the fact that all suffering in this world, no matter how short or long, is temporary in comparison to eternity with God. He showed me how much He loves me, and my words and actions of gratitude become inadequate. How can I not be obedient? How can I not go to a place in the world where people are suffering and let them know that the Creator of the Universe loves them and has not forgotten them? He convicted nine people to get on a plane and go serve and let them know there’s a Rescuer and His name is Jesus Christ. May He be glorified by our actions and may they come to a knowledge of Him.