Mission to India and Nepal: learning to serve with adaptibility

The group of Union College faculty, students, and alumni traveled 10 hours by bus to enjoy sight-seeing at the Taj Mahal.

Their first lesson began with a storm in Delhi. Pastor Rich Carlson and 32 medically inclined Union College alumni and students were traveling to India and Nepal in May to use their skills to help and heal. But instead of landing in Delhi and enjoying a day of tourist activities, they experienced what Carlson calls "the name of student missions: the A-word." Adaptability. Their lessons in adaptability began with a prolonged flight due to the storm and an emergency-refueling stop in Pakistan.

When the mission group finally arrived in India, their day of sightseeing had been used up by the storm. "No one complained," said Carlson. "But that's just our kids." The group did get to hurriedly visit the Taj Mahal, enduring a 10-hour bus ride for less than an hour at the world-famous tomb. If they were disappointed about missing other sightseeing opportunities, they didn't let on.

Every other year for 23 years, Carlson, vice president for spiritual life, leads a group of students and medical professionals on a medical mission trip. Groups have given immunizations along the Amazon River in Peru, built wells and toilets in the Philippines, and pulled teeth in Kenya, serving in many other locations along the way.

Because student missionary calls are most often for teachers, deans or orphanage attendants, Carlson began the trips to provide medical attention for people in need around the world. "Students going into medicine did not have missions opportunities," Carlson said. Short-term trips give mission experience to students hoping for a future in medicine. In the years since, Union's nursing program has begun an annual Frontier Nursing class trip to Nicaragua. Through one social work student's 10-month missionary experience in India, the social work program now sponsors the Springs of Life Orphanage there. These are only two of the many ways Campus Ministries succeeds in involving every department on campus with its own ministry. "We've done our job," said Carlson. "When they don't need me anymore, that's a good thing!"

The unexpected detour to Pakistan and thwarted tourism plans were only the beginning of the adjustments the group made while in India and Nepal. While on previous trips groups have worked independently to provide medical care, this time they were working with two local organizations: Mother Theresa's orphanages and houses for the infirm and dying in Calcutta, and Scheer Memorial Hospital in Banepa, Nepal. Carlson explained that it is more difficult to work in someone else's system; local medical providers and administrators did not know the skills and training of the student and professional volunteers who had come to help.

Alan Brokenicky, physician assistant student, went to India and Nepal expecting to use his medical skills to help sick people get well. Instead, on his first day in Calcutta, he found himself assigned to spoon-feed a man in Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying. The man, he estimated, would probably not live another week; everything Brokenicky had worked to learn about medicine was useless to save the dying. But instead of being disappointed at his assignment, he realized his purpose. "The only medicine I could offer was time, touch, smiles and putting food and drink to his mouth," he said. "We each function as God's hands when we do what is right and particularly when we take advantage of opportunities to serve others."

Brokenicky said his greatest contribution to the house of the dying was not directly with contact to patients. "One of the tasks I was assigned was separating the urinary catheter bags to make them easier to grab just one in a hurry," he said. "I figured out a new way to fold them, wrapped with a rubber band, that the nuns were extremely happy with."

Other trip participants, many of them doctors, nurses, dentists, dental-hygienists and physician assistants, found themselves doing similar tasks along with changing diapers, playing with babies and sponge-bathing the infirm. They were told by administrators at the "Mother House," the nuns' headquarters, that they would only be needed for half-days. The nuns soon recognized the group members' enthusiasm and skill and requested them to return in the afternoons, even allowing them to serve in a local clinic. "We made our own little niche," Carlson said. "That is so typical of our students."

After five days of service in Calcutta, the group moved on to the Scheer Memorial Hospital in the Kathmandu Valley of eastern Nepal. Participants expected their medical skills to be much more helpful in the hospital setting, but once again found administrators unprepared to fully use their skills. They jumped into the hospital setting, however, asking what they could do to help and observing physicians making rounds.

The Adventist hospital, located an hour east of Nepal's capital city of Katmandu, operates out-clinics in rural locations as far as an hour and a half away. These clinics kept the dentists on the trip busy pulling teeth and the doctors, physician assistants, nurses and medical students treating respiratory problems and skin conditions.

Several of the trip's participants intended to substitute teach children at the local school. Their help would free the teachers to receive instruction from Laurel McClelland, Union English as a second language (ESL) professor, about teaching their students English. Instead, the teachers were on strike, burning tires and blocking roadways, leaving students without teachers. "The strike wasn't even on our radar," Carlson said. McClelland developed ESL materials to leave for their use when they returned to the classroom. The group also left money for the new ESL lessons to be laminated for long-term use.

None of the trip's participants had done exactly what they expected to do when they boarded the plane bound for Delhi; instead, they learned how to adapt their ministry to their circumstances. "Those on the medical team might not have made as big of an impact as we would have liked," said Brokenicky. "But I think we were all able to touch others' lives through kindness."