And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17
Late at night on Sunday, July 24, a twelve-member Mercy Medical Team landed at Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar. We were there to serve alongside our brothers and sisters in the Malagasy Lutheran Church in coordination with the Lutheran Hospital in Antsirabe.
Arriving at Ivato is confusing. Passengers exit the plane via outdoor steps, which seem rather glamorous and remind me of the airport scene in Casablanca. Once inside the airport, however, it’s chaotic and exciting—there are European travelers on holiday, Malagasy residents anxious to return to their families, airport personnel, baggage handlers competing to help travellers, customs officials, and hundreds of other people all trying to get through security as quickly as possible. It’s exciting and exhilarating, and—if you haven’t experienced it before—a little overwhelming. It was about 3:00 a.m. before we reached our hotel and settled in for the night.
The next morning, we loaded up for the three hour drive to Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar, and our home base for the week. The roads in Madagascar are shared by pedestrians, rickshaws, bicycles, cars, trucks, semis, and carts pulled by oxen. It makes for an exciting ride! After lunch at the hospital guesthouse, we toured the hospital, sorted our supplies and got ready for our first clinic. It was exciting to see the new x-ray machine, purchased by a joint grant from LCMS Disaster Response and LCMS Health Ministry after the old one was destroyed by a lightning strike.
During the week, the team hosted five clinics and treated just over 2000 patients. How can we provide quality health care for so many in such a short time? That’s another blog post. We saw bacterial and fungal infections, pneumonia caused by smoke inhalation from cooking indoors, and many goiters. The typical rural Malagasy diet is not high in iodine, and in many regions much of the diet consists of cassava root, which can interfere with thyroid function.
The village children are always very curious about us and had fun peeking in the windows and calling to the team. I am sure that their parents are scratching their heads as all the children now know how to “high five” and give thumbs up.
Several patients were severely ill, and were referred to the hospital for treatment. One day, parents brought in their son who had a critically infected knee. The minor injury, left untreated, now threatened his leg and his life. The parents were grateful for our offer of help, but refused to follow up at the hospital. They were afraid that the leg would be amputated. There was a lot of prayer at the guesthouse that night, and much thanksgiving the next day, when the family arrived at the hospital and consented to treatment. After surgery and antibiotics, the boy’s leg was saved and he was mending well.
At each clinic, the team also taught dental care and hand washing. With proper hygiene, many of the conditions that we treat can be prevented. The team brought over 5000 toothbrushes and toothpaste with them, enough for every patient to receive one, plus enough extra to leave at the hospital for patients who need them. I think the entire team now knows how to say “toothbrush” in Malagasy.
We treat everyone who comes to our clinics—it’s not necessary to be Lutheran, or even Christian. One lady, when she was told that she needed to be admitted to the hospital, said, “but I don’t pray at this church.” How joyful she was when we told her that it didn’t matter; that because of the love of Jesus we would make sure she got the treatment that she needed.
About half of the population in Madagascar practices animism, or ancestor worship. They believe that their deceased relatives remain in their lives, giving blessings if they are appeased or causing illness and other disaster if they are angered. As part of this belief system, the tradition of famadihana, or dancing with the dead is common in Madagascar. Every few years, the family exhumes their ancestors from the family crypt and throws a party for them to ensure blessings and good luck for the family. On one clinic day, a procession passed our site, singing and carrying the wrapped body of their ancestor. Later, a family that was at a famadihana celebration came to clinic because their baby was very sick and needed immediate treatment. What a blessing that the physical healing provided by our team also creates an opening for sharing the Gospel message! Please keep this family in your prayers, that the saving words spoken by the team and our local Lutheran church partner will take root and bear fruit.
On Sunday, after the hard work of clinic, the team worshipped with over 1000 of our Lutheran brothers and sisters at an outdoor service in honor of women—comparable to our LWML Sunday. It was amazing to see so many Lutherans singing the same hymns and praying the same liturgy that we do, all in another language thousands of miles from our homes.
On the last day of our trip, we visited Andisabe National Park, in the eastern rainforests of Madagascar. Madagascar is an incredible example of biodiversity, with flora and fauna that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. Unfortunately, there is an ongoing environmental crisis as the rainforest is lost to tavy, or slash and burn forestry.
At the park, the team was able to get up close and personal with some of Madagascar’s most famous residents, the lemurs. It was a wonderful end to the trip and a great respite before heading to the airport for the long flights home.
Our team was in Madagascar for only a short time, but our partners in the local Malagasy church provide a permanent presence for those we served. Long after we leave, the pastors and congregations will follow up with those who came to our clinics. Please keep these dear brothers and sisters in your prayers as they share God’s saving grace with their neighbors.
If you are interested in serving on a future LCMS Mercy Medical trip, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to talk to you about it.