May 5, 2017
I recently returned from a two week medical mission trip in the Philippines with 6 members of my church and a total of 80 members of the Asian Relief Mission Services (ARMS). It was a remarkable experience! This trip had a special significance because it was my first time back to the country where I was born and raised until 12-years old (in 1988). For several years, I have wanted to return but unsure how it could happen. The opportunity appeared last year when I was invited to attend a co-workers church that was active in missions, and one of the main mission trips supported was the Philippines. Since then, I continued to attend the church, got to know several of the members, and really prayed about this trip. I worked very hard to ensure the opportunity would not pass me by despite that I would not be visiting the area where I grew up. It was not just to return to the Philippines, it was about the mission. It was about an experience that I wanted and expected because of it.
As an adopted missionary kid going back to the Philippines, this particular trip had significant meaning, in part, because I knew it would mean a lot to my parents who dedicated 10 years of their life as missionaries in this country. And also, I was returning as a missionary with a medical focus, something I found profoundly meaningful as a medical sociologist. And so not only am I going to care for hearts and souls, I am going to care for physical bodies too.
On the first night while preparing the medications, I met several new people and struck up conversations. Later that evening, we split off into groups and one of the people I was talking with at the table asked if I would like to work with her. Flattered, I agreed. I then realized a few minutes later that she was one of the dentists. I just agreed to work in the dental clinic, which is exactly where I did NOT want to work simply because I had worked as a dental assistant many years ago and there’s a reason why I only lasted a few months. I learned dentistry was not my niche. I decided that because Doc Addy chose me, I would give it a chance and make the best of it (it was only for 2 weeks after all!). Besides, several people told me that if we wanted to change places after a day or so, we could. I wanted to keep an open mind and be open to experiences, so I proceeded and was not disappointed at all!
Lesson #1: When you go on a mission trip and expect one thing, but then God places you where you didn’t necessarily want or expect to work… Well, suck it up buttercup, the mission isn’t about you!
Day 1 – Doc Addy and I were learning how to work together. Both of us were new with ARMS and how things worked and were set up. But by the end of the day, we were doing better and we made a game plan on how to make Day 2 go more smoothly. And it did! I was beginning to master how to mix the paste (or cement) for the cavity fillings, set up the drill and the suction machine; we were the only dentists filling cavities while the other dentists mainly did extractions. To my surprise, the majority of dental work were extractions with very few surface level cavity fillings (approx. 85%, 15% respectively). Of course this makes sense due to the lack of preventative care and the social conditions particularly in this area. On Day 3, I volunteered to offer some basic preventative care for the young children (under 9 yrs), brushing their teeth and giving them fluoride. I hoped that as I gave them their toothbrush, they would take it home and share it with their siblings even if its just temporary. During my time there, I thought a lot about the lack of basic preventative care and that this was a key lesson for this post. However, after some reflection and extracting plenty of teeth myself, I think the real lesson is extractions.
Lesson #2: Extract those things from your life that are harmful or toxic to your well-being or relationships. You may not realize it at first but you will know it. Are you simply wasting your time and energy trying to change it, or is it simply time to let it go? Extract.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this mission trip was a remarkable experience! I decided to remain in dental for the entire time even when I could have moved elsewhere after week 1 when Doc Addy left. I ended up working with Doc Joy and really enjoyed what I was doing. When asked what I liked best about the trip, first and foremost are the people and connections I made, not just with the dental team and other ARMS people whom I enjoyed very much. I also connected with the patients while they sat scared or in pain while getting worked on. Despite not knowing how to speak their language/dialects, I do understand the look of anxiety and pain. [However, I did learn the phrase most often asked, “masakit?” It means, “are you hurting? Are you in pain?”]. I would hold their hand when I could see they were scared or anxious especially when they saw the needle, drill, or instrument coming towards them. And they braced themselves, held on, and sometimes squeezed if in pain. When all was done, there were the sighs and tears of relief, and endearing cotton-filled smiles of gratitude.
Lesson #3: Learn to recognize anxiety, fear, and pain so that you can throw a lifeline even if you don’t know them, won’t ever see them again, or not able to speak their language. Holding the hand of a stranger when you are scared or in pain may, in fact, be quite comforting.
One of the most unexpected feelings was that I felt more like a stranger on this trip than I ever have in other situations. It was actually existential at times I can’t put it into words. I was a stranger in my country of birth, which I mainly attribute to the language barrier. I was a stranger among the ARMS people (even though they were very welcoming and they didn’t treat me like one and now that I graduated and was initiated by eating balut, I earned membership!). And to some extent, I feel like a stranger to myself because of this experience. I’m not quite sure what it means yet. I’m still working it out with God.
Image: ARMS Dental Team (Day 3) 2017