Two medical stories caught my attention today, both of which bring to mind some well-known dominical imperatives from the Gospels.
The first story is Proud to Be An American, by Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld. It’s the cover story in today’s Parade magazine (not yet available online). The story recounts how a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USS MERCY, treated hundreds if not thousands of impoverished Indonesians after the tsunami.
The MERCY sailed along the islands of Indonesia and East Timor, providing treatment both aboard ship and in makeshift clinics ashore. The mission was staffed not only by the medical and support crew of the MERCY, but also by more than 200 civilian doctors and nurses (selected from among some 3000 volunteers) embarked in the MERCY through Project HOPE.
The mission, and other U.S. tsunami relief efforts, garnered major goodwill for the United States among Indonesians. The article’s author, Dr. Rosenfeld, called for the U.S. military budget to be increased to support more missions of this kind.
The second story is Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NY Times. He tells of an illiterate Ethiopian woman who became one of the world’s foremost obstectrical fistula surgeons purely by on-the-job training. He uses her story as a jumping-off point for a call for more aid to improve maternal health in the developing world:
[A] teenage girl, often malnourished and with an immature pelvis, tries to deliver her first baby. The fetus gets stuck, and after several days of labor it is stillborn - but some of the mother's internal tissues have been damaged in that time, and so to her horror she finds herself constantly trickling urine or sometimes feces from her vagina.
Soon she stinks. Her husband normally abandons her, the constant trickle of urine leaves her with terrible sores on her legs, and if she survives at all she is told to build a hut away from the rest of the village and to stay away from the village well.
Some girls die of infections or suicide, but many linger for decades as pariahs and hermits - their lives effectively over at the age of about 15.
Fistulas were common in America in the 19th century. But improved medical care means that they are now almost unknown in the West, while the United Nations has estimated that at least two million girls and women live with fistulas in the developing world, mostly in Africa.
This should be an international scandal, because a $300 operation can normally repair the injury.
A major effort to improve maternal health in the developing world should be a no-brainer, for it could prevent most fistulas and reduce deaths in childbirth by half within a decade, saving 300,000 lives a year.
We can’t afford to do everything that’s needed in this world. But it’d sure be nice to find ways to do more.