by Laurie Elit
Members of the Humanitarian Health Ethics group have varied motivations for their involvement in low resource settings. Some people travel to these settings for academic reasons trying to study the situation in order to improve things. Some travel to provide health care for people who would otherwise not be able to access such services. I was asked to comment on the motivation that has kept me involved in short-term missions. My first out-of-Canada low resource mission was a 5-month stint as a medical student in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Over the years I have found myself in various contexts such as medical educator (Guyana), surgeon (Kenya, Nepal, Haiti, Bangladesh, Pakistan), researcher (Brazil) and implementer of a national cervical screening program (Mongolia). It was in Mongolia that I was asked the same question that Humanitarian Health Ethics asked me to comment on here.
I have learned that we can look at our world from various vantage points (or worldviews). Worldviews change over time and across societies. There are worldviews particular to oral (tribal), peasant (low hot flat coastal areas/high rugged mountains), modern (first global culture or rationalist), post-modern (advanced capitalist, glocal) societies. Biblical refers to the human understanding of the world from God’s perspective as given in scripture. As a physician, I have been trained under the assumptions put forward in the modern and late modern perspective. As a Christian, I continually have to reckon this with the biblical worldview.
In the Old Testament book of Genesis, we start with God creating heaven and earth and all that is in it. When God came to the creation of man, He imparted on man His image. God’s purpose in creation was the relationship with man—each honoring what was important in the other. When man decided his agenda was more important than obedience to the things that were important to God, there was a break in this relationship. God still wanted to be in relationship but man wanted to go his own way. When we get to the story of Abraham, we see a man greatly desiring to be in relationship with God. Based on a call from God to go to a place not yet defined, Abraham left all he had known in the land of Ur. Abraham steps out in faith that God has his best interests at heart. God blesses him with wealth, ultimately with children but God also says that Abraham will be the way God will bless all the families of the earth (Gen 15:18-21, 12:1-3). This blessing could be physical like Joseph (the guy with the coat of many colors) who saves Egypt and the surrounding peoples through storing food in anticipation of the 7-year drought; but, it is more than this. Through the rest of the Old and New Testament, God continues to show man that His desire is for relationship. Much of mankind goes after their desires. But like Abraham, there are others, Moses, Joshua and the like, who choose in gratitude for the things God has given them to turn to God and say, I wish to honor the things that are important to You and serve You.
As a kindred spirit, I recognize that I have been truly blessed to be born in Canada, to have the education and training I have as a cancer surgeon for women (aka Gynecologic Oncology). Out of great humbleness and thankfulness to God for sending His Son Jesus to pay my debt for continually making choices not to live in accord with the way that honors God, I chose to give a portion of my vacation time, my sabbatical time, and my wealth back to the things that I know honor God. These times, for example in low resource setting, although tiring, have an interesting way of filling up my empty soul. I truly believe it is from this source that I am able to continue at my day job in Canada.
Humanitarian Health Ethics is one venue that allows me to work through the ramifications of where my biblical worldview meets with the modern/postmodern worldview. It allows me to be connected with issues in low and middle resource countries through all of the partners even when I am working in Canada. Thank you for the privilege of interacting with many of you.
Laurie Elit, MD, MSc, FRCCS(C) is a gynecologic oncologist with the Hamilton Health Sciences Centre and the Juravinski Cancer Centre. firstname.lastname@example.org