map Jesus in the Field of Land Mines

by Barbara Fried

Published in Issue No. 181 ~ June, 2012

Photo by: Mark Roy


Katie was fidgeting, finding it difficult to concentrate as she sat in the pew, listening to the members of the fellowship testify. There were only so many times she could hear about alcoholics gone sober, promiscuous women saved and married, and bad parents who had decided to give up drugs and sin and start raising their kids. It wasn’t that she doubted the glory of Jesus and redemption or that she was against spreading the Word, it just seemed like the same self-congratulatory stories all the time.

Now that she was in her twenties, it was getting harder to spend Sundays dressed in her long-sleeved best, her shoes pinching her feet, sitting next to her parents. She wanted to feel God in her heart. Right now she just felt the hard wooden bench on her bottom and a mild sense of claustrophobia from being crammed into church with so many others. She wanted to go out in the world and use her soul to bring meaning to others.

Then, Dr. Matthew Henderson stood up and took his turn at the pulpit. He was a medical doctor, not a doctor of divinity like the pastor. Dr. Henderson’s bushy gray hair formed a halo around his head, and fell down around his shoulders. He had piercing blue eyes, that froze the object of his attention in place before melting it with the warmth of his grin. Although he carried a few extra pounds around the midsection, he wore a tailored suit and tie. His reading glasses slid down from the bridge of his nose as he alternately addressed his audience and looked at his notes.

“Brothers and sisters,” he began, his voice strong and unwavering. “One of my favorite quotes is President John F. Kennedy’s paraphrase of Luke 12:48. To those whom much is given, much is expected.” He paused. “We are so blessed in our lives as Christians in this great country. I personally have been blessed in my career as a surgeon, and I want to bring healing to others in the world.” Jesus had called him to do God’s work, he said, and now he wanted the congregation to hear his testimony and join him in his medical missionary work.

He spoke slowly as he clicked through slides of beautiful temples and lotus flowers, brown-skinned women with round, flat faces holding tiny babies. There were pictures of a man with a giant goiter hanging under his chin like an apple he had caught while bobbing at a party. His dull eyes looked into the camera without any expression. A smiling man with both legs amputated below the knee held up his shirt to reveal surgical staples in his abdomen. The church members groaned and covered their eyes, turning away, but they could not stop sneaking peeks at his slides. Katie’s parents were horrified. Katie was transfixed. When the service finally ended, Katie pushed past everyone seated in her row at the Littleton Christian Fellowship and made her way to Dr. Henderson.

“Dr. Henderson! Dr. Henderson!” Katie called out to get his attention from the group of old ladies fawning over him. “I have to come with you. I’m a nurse.”

He smiled at her beatifically and swallowed her up, embracing her with open arms. “We need you, dear Katie,” he said. “Jesus needs you.” Katie felt pleasantly cocooned. There was an electric sensation that trickled down the back of her neck into her spine and down her legs. She couldn’t name what it was, but she knew she was in the right place and that she had to go with him.

It wasn’t easy getting to Cambodia. Katie felt as though she were swimming underwater after flying halfway around the world, changing planes, and taking Ambien. When she and the medical team finally arrived at the tiny airport in Phnom Penh, she stepped out into the heat of a blast furnace and immediately felt her clothes soaked in perspiration. Perhaps she had taken the wrong plane and ended up in hell after all. After a series of van rides, the group had checked into their hotel, dropped off their bags, and then headed to the decrepit two-story building that would serve as their clinic. Paint was peeling from the walls, and there were brown stains on the walls and floor from water damage. They sorted supplies in anticipation of a full day of seeing patients and operating the next day. As Katie unloaded IV bags, tubing, bandage supplies, surgical instruments, and a limited supply of drugs, she felt her stomach tighten.

“Is this all we have?” Katie asked one of the cheery volunteers who was helping her sort supplies.

“All this and God’s love,” he said with a smile.

Katie wondered what exactly Jesus would have thought about trying to cross the street in Phnom Penh. She had set out from her relatively luxurious hotel after dinner to walk to the gas station across the street to satisfy her intense craving for ice cream after the difficulty of the day. For some reason, Khmer people just didn’t seem to eat anything sweet. As she stood on the sidewalk, she watched the chaotic flow of traffic both ways. There was an unending stream of bicycles and scooters moving at various speeds; then the occasional car would come roaring through, pushing the two-wheeled vehicles off to the side. There was no stoplight, no signs, nothing to help her find a break in the rush that kept coming. The only ones who noticed her were the men driving tuk tuks, little Chinese motorcycles with a passenger seat on wheels and a canopy attached to the back. They were the enterprising equivalents of cab drivers in New York. Most of the scooters had multiple passengers, frequently whole families, with no one wearing helmets. All of the riders wore flip-flops. Sometimes they carried large packages on the back. Katie watched as a woman rode with a long stick across her back that held several live chickens hanging upside down. Somehow, the woman managed to ride and balance the birds without any effort. Another scooter passed by with two men carrying a twin-sized mattress. The sounds of the heavy traffic were deafening. There was the loud buzzing of the motos, the noise from the cars, honking, the yelling of the tuk tuk drivers, competing for fares. The smell was nauseating in the heat. The combination of human perspiration, strange fried foods from the street vendors, and gasoline and oil made Katie sick.

She watched in awe as a tiny elderly woman dressed all in black slowly made her way across the street. The woman was hunched over and never looked up from beneath the parasol that she carried. The traffic never actually stopped for her, it simply went around her like Moses parting the Red Sea.

Katie had been standing on the sidewalk for a long time when two teenage girls came up beside her. One girl grabbed her elbow and said, “Madame! Madame!” She bowed and smiled in a typical gesture of politeness. The two girls started to walk across the street in the same fashion as the elderly woman had, guiding Katie with them through the waves of traffic. They made slow progress but never stopped. All of the vehicles somehow managed to keep going, zooming around them as though they were a slow-moving island in the midst of a stream. At one point when Katie hesitated in fear of being hit by a young man on a fast-moving moto, one of the girls grabbed her elbow and said, “No stop. No!” and guided her along, like a shepherd, herding a stray sheep. When she finally made it to the other side, Katie was speechless. She bowed to the girls, who both smiled. She was exhausted, sweaty, and triumphant, giving thanks to God. The ice cream wasn’t very good, but she gulped it down in preparation for the challenge of walking back across the street to get back to the safety of her room.

Later that evening, Katie and her roommate called the front desk to get extra pillows. Although the hotel was one of the nicest in the city, the rooms were plain, and the beds were hard. It was ten o’clock in the evening, but Katie’s sense of time was disturbed by jet lag. She was exhausted. She climbed up the stairs carrying her pillows. In the opposite direction heading down the stairs, she saw a tiny young Cambodian girl who looked to be about thirteen years old. She was heavily made up and wore a very short skirt. She looked Katie directly in the eyes and tilted her head back, laughing in an ugly way that contrasted with her gentle face. Behind her, a large doughy white man tried to keep up with the girl on the steps. Katie caught her breath in disgust. She had seen prostitutes before, but never such young children. When Katie got back to the room, she told her roommate, Patricia, about her encounter in the hallway. Patricia was an older, more experienced nurse and a member of Katie’s church. It seemed to Katie that she knew how to handle just about any medical situation and was never at a loss for what to say to comfort her patients. Her makeup and hair seemed to be perfect at all times, and she carried herself with a confidence that made Katie envious.

“Katie, you know what Proverbs says about a prostitute,” Patricia said, smilingly, as she arranged her pillows and turned on the fan. “ Her feet go down to death. Her steps lay hold of hell.” She turned out the light in the room before Katie could even register an objection. “Good night, Honey. Sleep well. We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.” Katie laid awake in the dark, pondering that Patricia seemed unbothered by the doughy foreign man who had paid to have sex with a child. She thought about Mary Magdalene and pondered forgiveness and redemption. The day had been full of sensory overload. She fell asleep as she prayed for clarity.

Every day started out pretty much the same. Dr. Henderson and his surgical colleague, Dr. James, started morning devotionals with a reading from the Gospels that they felt was relevant to their stay in Cambodia and what they had seen. Katie loved hearing how Jesus and the Apostles had so much to say about healing the soul. Then, anyone who wanted could give testimony. Katie was buoyed by the upbeat spirituality of her fellow missionaries. They would sing hymns together and then divide up into little groups to work out the details of the day.

When the team arrived at the clinic for the first day of seeing patients and performing surgery, Katie’s mood sank. The line of potential patients seeking free care wrapped around the building and down the block. They only had time to help a small fraction of them. Most of the Cambodians seemed at ease as they milled about the building or squatted on the ground. A few older women spat and fought loudly over their places in the queue. Chickens wandered around the courtyard, pecking at the grass and weeds. The clinic building looked like a post-apocalyptic bombed-out remnant of a long ago war. It had been built before the days of Pol Pot, and the paint revealed bullet holes from the guns of the Khmer Rouge. Katie wondered if a society could ever recover from a civil war where everyone had been forced to kill their neighbors. Even in the choking tropical heat, she could feel a chill along her spine. As she walked past the Cambodians, she took in their stares and wondered what they thought of her with her blonde hair and pale skin. Although she considered herself average-sized for Colorado, she felt awkwardly tall and grossly obese as she passed the rail thin crowd.

Katie was relieved to meet Sovannara, the petite smiling nursing student who was to serve as her translator for the week. She spoke English, French, and Khmer and flitted easily between all three languages. Despite the heat, crowding, and stress, Sovannara always managed to look perfectly put together in her starched white blouses and long colorful wraparound skirts. She always smiled and seemed to have an amazing grasp of physiology and pharmacology in spite of a complete lack of drugs and equipment at the clinic. Katie wondered what her secret was and if she was for real.

Although it took time for them to prepare patients for surgery, they quickly developed a smooth routine to get cases going. They welcomed their patients, checked their vital signs, and started intravenous catheters, all the while explaining to their charges what to expect.

“How do you do it, Sovannara?” Katie asked.

“What do you mean?” Sovannara said, as she pumped up the blood pressure cuff on a patient’s arm.

“Don’t you get frustrated? All of your equipment keeps breaking. You keep running out of supplies. No air conditioning. I’m not sure most of these patients even understand what we can and can’t do for them.”

“It must seem primitive to you,” she said. “I am very lucky. I got to do some of my training in France.” She paused and let the cuff down. “We have much more here in the city than in the countryside. Groups like yours come through to help us. There’s a saying about how you cannot miss what you have not got.”

Katie cringed when she thought of what a to-do her fellow Americans would have made over having to wait and be served in such spartan conditions. The surgeons and anesthesiologists came through, nervously explaining to the patients what to expect and answering questions, all translated by sweet Sovannara.

They had taken care of the first four patients for their hernia and thyroid operations, when a Caucasian man in his twenties came running through the doorway to the preoperative area, carrying a young Khmer boy in his arms. “Please help us!” the panting young man said in a British accent. “This is Sopheap. He’s nine. We’re from the orphanage down the street. He was playing and tried to jump over a fence. Dr. Sokchan saw him and thinks he may have a testicular torsion.”

Katie motioned for the man to put the boy down on a stretcher. She spoke softly to him in English. As she put her hand on the little boy’s wrist, she could feel his pulse galloping like a racing horse on the final straightaway. She knew that the surgeon would have to untwist the spermatic cord to get blood flow back to the boy’s testicle quickly or he would become very sick and die. “We can help him,” Katie said, trying to reassure everyone in the room, herself included.

Sovannara started talking to the boy in Khmer. Although she was clearly trying to comfort him, the language sounded like a series of short abrupt orders to Katie’s ear. The child grimaced in pain, but Katie was amazed that he did not cry. His caramel-colored skin was flawless, and his short dark hair stuck straight up from his scalp like a perfectly manicured lawn. When Katie poked a tiny IV needle into the vein in the crook of his elbow, he did not utter a sound in protest. His brown eyes looked up into hers with a mixture of pleading and stoicism. Katie thanked God that the line had gone in easily and then injected a small amount of fentanyl painkiller. She could feel his tiny body go slack on the bed.

The doctors finally came and took their tiny emergency patient into the operating room. Katie and Sovannara put on hats and masks so they could follow Sopheap into the operating room. The staff moved quickly to anesthetize the little boy and start the surgery. Katie watched as Dr. Henderson made a tiny incision and untwisted the cord, getting blood flow back to the testicle. It turned from a frightening blue marble to a healthy pink one in moments, and everyone sighed with relief. One of the non-medical volunteers standing next to Katie raised his arms in the air and began praising Jesus. Dr. Henderson was too focused on suturing his incision to notice.

When the little boy was finally brought to the recovery room, he woke up slowly but with a gentle smile. Katie had no pain medicine to give him, other than what he had received in the operating room, but Sopheap did not seem to mind. His ordeal was over. He was perfectly content to sit in the lap of the young man from the orphanage and doze quietly. Katie felt deep gratitude and was pleased with herself that she had been able to help. She wished she could call her mother to tell her, but she had no idea what time it was on the other side of the world.

The next day, Katie and Patricia walked the three blocks from the hotel to the hospital after morning devotionals. On the way, Katie stopped to look in a courtyard to watch a bald man in a saffron robe and sandals as he carried jugs of water to a pagoda-like building. The sun’s early rays reflected off the golden paint of the building and broke into a dazzling spectrum of color. Katie thought the man seemed elderly by his slow gait, but his face was unlined, and he appeared to be content, lost in his own thoughts. She could hear the chanting of monks through the morning quiet. Katie was relieved that there was no traffic yet to interrupt the peace of the morning.

“Such a pity, you know,” Patricia sighed, interrupting Katie’s thoughts.

“What’s that?” Katie asked.

“Well, it’s such a beautiful scene,” Patricia answered. “But so many souls at risk. If they don’t accept Jesus soon. Well, you know.” She shrugged.

“Do you really believe that?”

Katie frowned. It was hard for her to imagine an innocent child like Sopheap being left behind to suffer after the Rapture. It was also hard for her to speak up to a woman like Patricia. Katie loved to think of Jesus among the poor and suffering. If most of the Cambodians weren’t poor and suffering, Katie couldn’t think who was.

She worked in preop and recovery all morning, and then Katie asked if she could follow one of the doctors in the clinic to watch him screen patients. Dr. James said he would be delighted to have Katie observe while he worked in the clinic. Everything about him stood in stark contrast to Dr. Henderson. His thick dark hair was combed straight back along his scalp and gelled into submission. He was younger, with chiseled features and dark eyes. He walked quickly, with a light and enthusiastic step, emitting a strange irrepressible energy that filled each room as he entered it. They went from room to room with Dr. Sokchan, the Cambodian internist, examining patients and trying to determine who they could help with their limited resources. They saw twelve patients in under three hours. It was disheartening that they could only help a few of them. The others would have to come back when the next surgical team came through in a month.

In the last room sat a man in his fifties. His skin was dark and wrinkled like a plum in the sun. What few teeth he had looked bad, and his clothes were torn and dirty. Katie surmised that he worked in the fields and had come from his village to be seen. He was emaciated, his skin hanging loosely on his bones. His pants leg was wrapped loosely with twine below the knee where his right lower leg should have been. His wife and two daughters had come with him to take care of him. He had the same thick dark hair and serene expression that Katie had become accustomed to with many of the Cambodians. Dr. Sokchan explained to her that the man had colon cancer and had been worked up by the previous team. The plan was for Dr. James to do surgery the next day and remove the diseased part of his colon. Through a rapid series of questions, answers, and translations, Dr. James took the man’s history and listened to his heart, lungs, and bowels. When he saw Katie staring at the man’s leg, Dr. Sokchan explained to her that the man had lost his leg in a land mine explosion. He lived in a rural village that had been mined during the Vietnam War.

She listened as Dr. James explained and Dr. Sokchan translated what the surgery would do. Once the man’s wife and daughters had a chance to ask their questions about the surgery and recovery, everyone seemed satisfied. After a short pause, Dr. James looked at Dr. Sokchan and then at the patient.

Dr. James said, “Okay. Now that we’ve covered all that, I’d like to talk to you about a man named Jesus. Have you heard of Him?” After all the questions and answers and translations, the room felt eerily quiet.

Dr. James continued to talk about Christ to the man and his family. They gazed politely at him and did not interrupt as he spoke and Dr. Sokchan translated. Although Katie had heard everything that he was saying many times before, it couldn’t have felt more wrong to her now. To this family, the simplest medical care that they could receive was a gift from God. He might as well have been trying to sell them a new vacuum cleaner or a time share in a condominium. Katie felt like she was floating outside of her body, watching this scene unfold from above, paralyzed and powerless to say or do anything that would make him stop. When he finally finished, she excused herself and got away as quickly as possible. She felt light-headed, and her bowels were twisting and turning like restless snakes.

The day ended at the clinic, and Katie walked back to the hotel by herself. The sun was setting, and its rays were orange and pink reflected in the dirt and pollution of the crowded city. She passed the monastery, which was quiet now. She imagined the monks inside, in their robes, sitting on the floor, sharing bowls of rice. She felt no fear as she crossed the busy road, the motos, bicycles, and cars careening about her, as she made her slow progression to the safety of the other side. Although she knew that the drivers would navigate their way around her, she really didn’t care if they drove right over her. She ate her dinner and went to bed early, tossing and turning as she struggled to sleep.

Patricia woke her early the next morning, in her usual cheery manner. “C’mon, Honey. Rise and shine! Time for devotionals. Get ready to save the world!”

Katie turned over on her uncomfortable bed and looked at her roommate through her heavy lids. She smiled and said, “You know, Patricia. I think I’ll sleep in a bit today. I’ll see you later at the clinic.”

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Barbara Fried is a forty-two-year old anesthesiologist and author living in Denver, Colorado, with her husband, two enthusiastic golden retrievers, and more motorcycles than she can count. She has taken writing courses with Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City and Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. This is Barbara's second story accepted for on-line publication. She is particularly interested in exploring how health and medical experiences affect our lives.