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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Bearers of Hope and Healing
A nurse shares her experience of working with the poorest of the poor on Helping Hands Medical Missions.

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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.

A YouTube video of the mission can be viewed here.

In 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 people.”

Spiritual healing

In some cases, being close—even just being present—is an important part of the mission. Miller recalled one of her
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A group of the missionaries from the Ghana medical mission.
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 medications.

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.

“You came 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.

As she 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
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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
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"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.

For Miller, 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.

“The 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 save lives.”

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.
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"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.”

At 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

An average day on the missions begins with the alarm set
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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.

During the 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.



Related links

Helping Hands Medical Missions
St Rafael Guizar y Valencia Missionary Center

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Sponsored by the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement, Copyright 2011, Legion of Christ. All rights reserved.

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