Patient Number One was seven years-old and alone. The numbered tickets had been distributed in advance of the clinic day to two hundred patients in this town in southern Haiti. The tickets were a tool to avoid a riot at the door to the church/school, because there had been no doctor in town for years and the needs were great. Pews and school desks had been rearranged to form a registration area, an area to measure height, weight and visual acuity, a makeshift pharmacy, and four examination stations with providers and interpreters.
Number One wended his way through the matrix and arrived at a chair in front of me, a skinny black kid in a sky-blue shirt and navy blue slacks–his school clothes. He spoke only Creole; I spoke only English. Benson, a Haitian interpreter, sat next to me.
I was filled with a kind of altruistic excitement. I was prepared; I had studied the diseases of Haiti that were unfamiliar to me–malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, AIDS, cholera. I had knowledge, skills, and tools to do some good. I was ready to alleviate pain and suffering.
Number One was under-sized for his age and underweight for his height, at least according to the American height and weight charts we had brought with us. But he looked healthy. I asked if there was anything special he was concerned about.
Benson interpreted his reply, “Sometimes he doesn’t feel like eating.”
I asked a string of questions about nausea or vomiting or abdominal pain, then examined him, looking into his ears and his eyes, gently touching his neck and his abdomen, and then listening through the stethoscope, his breath and heartbeats sounding so close.
A pretty healthy kid, I thought to myself. I wrote a prescription for our pharmacy to give him an anti-parasite medicine and a supply of vitamins. As a last question, I asked how long it had been since he didn’t feel like eating.
A minute or two passed as Benson and Number One exchanged words several times. Then Benson turned to me and said with a voice and expression that indicated the story was a common one, “His parents had a very successful little grocery store here. Their neighbors thought they should share more of their good fortune, and when they didn’t, the neighbors killed them.”
Benson shrugged. Number One continued to fix his eyes on me with no change of expression.
And I’m giving this kid vitamin pills.
I get a patient like Number One and I am smacked out of my complacent belief that I am making a difference simply because I am practicing medicine. I wonder if all the children got their vitamins and grew to be strong and bright, would they still kill each other? They’ve been doing it in Haiti for a couple of hundred years; there’s no reason to think it will change now. Why bother with the vitamin pills?
I am tempted to despair, to go home and take care of my own, and let the world take care of itself or go to hell, whatever it chooses to do. But now I’ve heard the boy’s heartbeat, I’ve listened to him breathe, I’ve looked into his deep brown eyes, and he’s no longer an abstraction, no longer Number One but a real boy; he’s flesh and he’s blood and he’s somehow connected to me.
“Jesus told them another parable: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which a man planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and nest in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31-32. NIV)
Everyone holds a mustard seed. It’s that thought that maybe you should make a phone call, make a visit, or make some cookies for someone who needs to hear that someone else cares. Maybe you need to enroll in that course, the one that has no practical value but gives you skills the Kingdom needs. Maybe you have the opportunity to change from the job that pays more to the job that cares more. It’s all a question of how we handle our mustard seed. Do we brush it off and let it float away in the wind, because it’s a little thing and doesn’t really matter? Or do we plant it and water it and wait years for it to grow?
So I give him the vitamins and I give him the anti-parasite medicine, and I see the next patient. And the one after that, and the one after that. And keep going all day long. Because I believe that we are all children of God and we should care for each other, one mustard seed at a time. And I find that belief easier than despair.