Grace. Unmerited favor. Kirk and I are on the plane home from Mongolia. During our annual Searching for the Broken Hearts week, Kirk and a team of about 22 Americans and 16 Mongolians screened 2,184 children for congenital heart disease in the southwest portion of the Gobi desert near the China border and they found around 50 children with cardiac defects. During the subsequent Mending the Broken Hearts week, our team of about 30 Americans worked with a Mongolian medical staff to perform 10 open heart surgeries and 19 heart catheterizations. The Mending week is an utterly exhausting week. It’s easily the most exhausting of my year. I always mentally process during our mission trips what the Lord is teaching me and what I want to share in these updates. I confess this year I had no such mental energy. Six of us left Mongolia at 10 p.m. on Saturday night and flew to Beijing, where we had a 12-hour layover. Kirk smartly made a hotel reservation for us. We stayed in a beautiful hotel, where we got a good night’s sleep, a wonderful shower, and a good breakfast. It was when I was closing up my suitcase that I remarked to Kirk “I haven’t even thought about my update!” which I usually write on the plane home. I told him “God is going to have to tell me what to say (He usually does!) because right now I have no idea other than statistics and chronology!” It was when we were standing in line to board the plane and we got the call for a free upgrade to business class that it hit me like a ton of bricks. Grace. Unmerited favor.
I struggle to rejoice in our good fortune because members of our team didn’t have such good fortune. People’s flights got delayed and canceled. They got stuck in Mongolia, Korea, and China. Some wanted upgrades and didn’t get them. Some wanted to sit together and couldn’t. What a lesson for life. Why me? No life is perfect and into each a little rain must fall, but my life blows me away. I did nothing to deserve being born in the U.S. to the wonderful, loving, stable, supportive family I was born into; nothing to deserve the amazing educational opportunities available to me; nothing to deserve the phenomenal man I am married to; and nothing to deserve the front row seat of God at work.
Kirk started going to Mongolia in 2000. He started the Searching weeks in 2003. We’ve been doing Mending weeks since 2005. I have seen more miracles on my trips to Mongolia than I can even recount. The first was in 2005 when our container of medical supplies did not arrive and we did a week of surgeries (including the first pediatric heart surgery ever done in that country with cardiac bypass) with whatever they had in Mongolia (which was not a lot back then) and what we brought in our suitcases. There’s a story in the Bible (in 1 Kings 17) about the widow’s oil that she uses to make bread never runs out during a drought…until it is no longer needed when the drought is over. That week the supplies were just like the widow’s oil. We would find things we didn’t know we had…and when the last case was done, they were gone. This year, circumstances changed in our supply line. But, for better or worse, I lived through that week in 2005. It’s good in that I know we can do a lot with a little. It’s bad in that sometimes I wonder if I plan well enough for what we’ll need. But we left a room full of supplies last year. That room is usually full of what we left behind when we walk in on Saturday to unpack our container of supplies that Samaritan’s Purse ships for us. This year, that room was the emptiest I had seen it since 2005. Things I had planned in my mind to be there were not. I must admit I panicked…and started praying! As we unpacked, things just started showing up. We have a lot of wonderful friends who gather supplies and donate things to us. Those boxes were full of supply gold! You know who you are and we thank you!!! The week just went that way. Every supply, equipment, or medicine hole that I thought was there was filled…and sometimes just at the very moment that we needed it. I told the team on the last day that one of my favorite verses in the Bible is Mark 9:24 “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” I don’t know how many miracles I need to witness before I stop doubting.
We went to church on Sunday as usual. Boggi’s mom was there, as usual. I’ve written before that her daughter died under our care in 2007 (one of two we’ve lost in over 100 international surgeries, Undermaa in 2006 and Boggi in 2007). Our team’s most fervent prayer every year is not to have to go through that again. God was again gracious this year. Boggi’s mom moves us to tears and wonder every single year as she tells us September is her favorite month because she knows children will be helped and she prays for us with a fervor I cannot describe but that makes me cry every time. The church we go to was planted by our dear friends Dr. Rita Browning, a pediatrician, and Margie Stone, an occupational therapist, who are long time missionaries to Mongolia. The church has an orphanage. This year we had the privilege to perform surgery on one of their orphans, Ganbayar. The Lord makes it clear in the Bible with verse after verse, like “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27), that He absolutely reveres orphans. As such, probably the softest part in my husband’s heart is for the orphan. These sweet orphans on Sunday prayed for us and danced for us and recited verses for us. What an honor to be so honored by God’s treasured orphans. What a gift to all of us, but especially to Kirk.
After church, we had a luncheon for the patients and their families, a tradition that Kirk began in 2006 and that has been graciously supported by Samaritan’s Purse Children’s Heart Project for the last few years. There were three young men there (Uugnaa, Otga, and Choijko), all of whom came to San Antonio with Children’s Heart Project for their heart surgeries, performed by our surgeon Dr. John Kupferschmid. They traveled with Kirk and the team on the Searching trip and enthusiastically shared the Gospel with the children and their families. At the luncheon, they shared their stories of their surgeries and their coming to faith in Christ. At the end of the luncheon when the children and families were prayed for, I was sitting at a table with these three young men and one of them was absolutely overcome, sobbing. I realized how absolutely personal it was for him and how he could pray in a way I never could for the healing of these children’s hearts and souls.
We did ten surgeries this week, two a day over five days. Only one of them was “easy.” It is heart surgery in Mongolia, so no surgery is ever “easy,” but only one went perfectly smoothly from beginning to end. Our desire is to teach and work ourselves out of a job in Mongolia, so we have increased the complexity of the cases year after year. This year, we did some hard cases. And the hours were long. There were complications and delays that added up and added up and we never got the second patient to the ICU before 9 p.m. all week. That is unusual. And exhausting. For everyone. We always have a team chaplain with us. This year, Lloyd Folsom joined us and had some big shoes that are impossible to fill from our former beloved chaplain (who continued to pray for us all by name all week, even though he couldn’t be with us). Lloyd created his own big shoes right alongside the former ones: different, but equally good. His devotional on Thursday morning was about the story in Luke 8 where Jesus tells the disciples to get into a boat to go to the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee. During the trip, a storm comes up and the boat is nearly sinking before they call on the Lord for help. He talked about our tendency to focus on the goal (the “other side” or, for us, the end of the week) and to wait to call on the Lord, even though He is right there with us, until we are nearly perishing. The easiest case was on Thursday morning (I kept saying longingly after that, during every difficulty, “remember that first case on Thursday morning?!”). One of the hardest was on Wednesday afternoon. Eegii really could have died…and he didn’t. He really could have had a bad neurological outcome…and he didn’t. Praise God! He showed up with another miracle and was gracious to answer our most fervent prayer. I realized after Lloyd’s devotional that that is what had happened. It is so soothing when things are going badly in the operating room to lock eyes with my team members and know they are praying. And to know that word is spreading to the rest of the team not in the O.R. and they are praying. We cried “Lord, we are perishing!” and He was mighty to save.
The sweet orphan Ganbayar’s surgery was supposed to be Friday and we moved it to Tuesday. He had the most post-operative complications. Another miracle. The Lord knew we needed to take care of him on Tuesday so we would be there to take care of him through these complications. He was so miserable a lot of the time. On Thursday, two people came into the O.R. to tell me, with tears in their eyes, that Boggi’s mom was sitting with him, in the same bed her daughter died in, all day long comforting him. Words fail. Another single mom helped us this week too, as one of our drivers (her profession). We took care of her only child, her daughter, in 2008. She died suddenly this past year likely of an abnormal heart rhythm. She shared with Kirk that she remembered and appreciated the love and care of our team and she also was willing to re-enter a scene that I’m positive brings her sadness in order to serve us because we had served her. We pray that all those around us would see Christ in us. These two moms are some of the amazing proof that, miraculously and inconceivably, people do.
Kirk was trying to encourage the church members on Sunday that we had the same goal as them, to share the Gospel and the love of Christ, but that we just have a unique way of doing it, through pediatric heart care. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Gospel. We have a heart broken by sin and we need a free gift, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to heal it. These children have physically broken hearts and they need the gift of our heart care to heal it. The only step required is to accept the free gift. We have had children whose families, for whatever reason, have refused the gift…and the children have died. Our purpose is not only to fix physical hearts but to heal broken souls. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26) ?” If we heal physical hearts but these children and their families are lost for eternity, we’ve done nothing except make ourselves feel better. On Saturday, I helped Kirk and Dr. Mary Porisch, our dear and dedicated pediatric cardiologist friend, screen about 25 children. Many were children who have been taken care of by us in the past coming for follow-up checks (one family traveled for over a day for their quick time with us!). The number of crosses I saw around necks for a country that is only 3% Christian was amazing to me. More miracles.
I said at the outset I did nothing to deserve this front row seat on miracles. The only thing I did was accept the free gift. As Lloyd pointed out this week “I am not the person I should be, but by God’s grace I’m definitely not the person I was.” And when Kirk and I were at a hospital in Kenya for a month in 2001 observing children dying of cardiac disease, I prayed that if the Lord opened the door for me to be a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist to take care of His children internationally, I would do it. It’s a funny thing to me that it took eleven years for me to fully realize the absolute privilege of answering the Lord’s call on my life. He lets me see Him work in powerful and miraculous ways, in healing children and in changing the lives of our patients, their families, and the people who travel with us. Grace. Unmerited favor. Thank you, Lord.
Kimberly D Milhoan, MD
For Hearts and Souls