|One of the medical missionaries with a group of children in Ghana.|
June 23, 2011. Ellen Miller, a Registered Nurse, has been
on 16 medical missions since 2003, traveling to Brazil’s Amazon
jungle, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ghana, Africa. Each mission has left
its mark, not only on the communities her teams helped,
but also on her own heart.
In the most recent
mission to Ghana this past April, Miller was part of
a team of 17 Helping Hands medical missionaries from the
United States, India, Thailand, Luxembourg, Cameroon, and Ghana itself. The
missionaries worked with the St. John of God brothers, who
have a clinic site in the village of Sefi-Asafo in
the northwest part of the country. Split into a surgical
team and a primary care team, the missionaries attended about
1700 patients in a week of intense work.
video of the mission can be viewed here.
spite of the impressive numbers of people cared for during
just one week, Miller emphasized that the real focus is
on individual people.
“It´s not about numbers,” she said. “It´s one
on one, caring for people. You keep close to the
In some cases, being close—even just being present—is an
important part of the mission. Miller recalled one of her
missions to the Amazon jungle where the heat presses in
with an almost palpable weight. Exhausted, hot, and a bit
discouraged, she sought refuge for a few minutes in a
chapel. There, in the silence, she found herself wondering how
much of a difference she and the other missionaries could
really make. They were in a remote location reached only
by boat—in fact, the government boat that travels to the
island makes the trip only once a year. It seemed
like there were so many needs and nowhere near enough
|A group of the missionaries from the Ghana medical mission.|
As she sat down to talk to God, one
of the villagers—affectionately dubbed ‘the bird lady’ because she always
had a Tucan with her—sat down next to her.
6,000 miles to take care of us!” said the bird
lady, her eyes shining. Then she began to tell Miller
about all of her physical ailments and problems.
listened, Miller became vividly aware that the mission was not
about the medications. It was something much deeper.
“I realized that
what we’re bringing is hope. It’s health care, yes, but
it’s also the message that someone cares enough to take
care of them. It’s the message that God has not
|A medical consultation at the primary care unit.|
forgotten about them,” she said. “It’s your presence that counts.
They’ll tell you so many ailments… where else do they
get someone to listen to them like that?”
Healing through presence,
through listening—this is also part of the mission. And the
wonderful thing, said Miller, is that the missionaries are also
healed. Many have wounds of their own, often less obvious
on the surface. Most often, the healing is a gradual
process. But sometimes the mission acts as a tipping point
and there are swift, dramatic changes.
Several years ago, Miller invited
a fellow nurse from her hospital in Bridgeport to come
with her to Guatemala. The other nurse had lost her
son to an untimely death some time before, and she
seemed to be growing thinner, burdened by a weight of
sorrow that never seemed to lift.
After the mission, the woman
came back so glowing with joy that many of her
fellow nurses and doctors back home noticed and commented on
it. Something about being surrounded by smiling children, and having
the means to help them had brought healing to her
heart. So she signed up for another mission, this time
to Africa. Then she signed for a third, in Guatemala
|"One of the things I learned was that to help people, you have to look at the heart."|
again. She was not Catholic, but she was in love
with missions, in love with helping the poor.
this is the essence of missions: helping the poor by
giving what she has.
“One of the things I learned
was that to help people, you have to look at
the heart and the externals are left behind,” she said.
mission changes you forever,” she said. “It gives you a
way to share your faith and your skills. You have
knowledge and you can use it to help people and
In some cases, the simple act of going on
missions can save marriages and spiritual lives as well. Miller
remembers a mission in Mexico when they went door-to-door, giving
out rosaries and talking with the people about their Catholic
faith. One of the women missionaries had given out rosaries,
one per family, even though she was not practicing her
faith. Shortly afterwards, she started praying the Rosary, then returned
to the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist. She said
the Rosary saved her marriage and brought her husband back
to the Church with her. Now they are in full
communion with the Church, and have since baptized their child.
|"During the work day, the missionaries see all kinds of illnesses."|
“What would have happened if we hadn’t gone?” Ellen wondered.
So much begins, she said, with a simple invitation. In
Miller’s case, the invitation came from a Legionary priest who
saw her in her scrubs every Saturday at the Regnum
Christi mornings of reflection. Looking back on how much good
the missions have also done her, she said, “I always
try to ask people to come on the missions, because
if someone hadn´t asked me, I never would have gone.”
the same time, she acknowledged, in her case there was
already a hunger to do something more, a desire to
express gratitude to God in a concrete way. Each soul
has his or her own story, and Miller’s path was
marked by difficult personal circumstances thrust upon her without preparation
or explanation, so that prayer became her source of fortitude
to make it through, one day at a time. It
was the recognition that God had pulled her through those
years, sustaining and blessing her, that made her want to
give him something back. Serving the poor was her way
of saying “thank you” to God.
A day in the field
average day on the missions begins with the alarm set
|A local mother carrying her child.|
for 5:30 a.m. After morning prayers, Mass, and breakfast, the
missionaries split into the surgical team and the primary care
team and head out to their mission site, where they
work from 8:00 to 5:00 with a half-hour lunch break.
After their day of work, they take a short rest,
then get together with the team to share experiences from
the day. Dinner follows, and then a talk. During the
Ghana mission, the medical director, Dr. Holland, gave a series
of 45-minute talks on topics such as contraception and natural
family planning, theology of the body, non-negotiable moral issues (such
as embryonic stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, and
same-sex marriage). There was a “Stump the Priest” session with
Fr Steven Liscinsky, LC. After the talk, the Blessed Sacrament
was exposed for a time, then night prayers.
work day, the missionaries see all kinds of illnesses. In
Ghana, malaria is a common ailment, so they screen for
symptoms and treat those who need it. Malnutrition is also
a particularly difficult problem, especially when it afflicts children and
babies. The surgeons spent the day in the Operating Room
at the local hospital, and the primary care team diagnosed
sicknesses and distributed medications.
Miller and the other nurses and
doctors collect vitamins and analgesics all year round before each
trip, which is also a way of sharing the mission
with others back home. Many people from her home parish
donate money or medications, while a teacher at a Bridgeport
school enlisted 175 school children in a vitamin drive. Miller
also puts up pictures of the mission in an album
in the adoration chapel at her parish, and has made
posters to share the news with parishioners after Sunday Masses.
In fact, as a result of the missions, her home
parish has adopted a sister parish in a poorer area
that ministers mainly to Mexican immigrants.
Through all of these
efforts, people are learning about the mission and joining in,
sensing, perhaps, that giving hope and healing to the poor
brings blessings of its own.