Farewell at the Hospital

Drs. David and Claudia Graham at the mission hospital where they served.

A friend of mine, David Graham, recently returned from thirteen years in Ecuador.  He had served as general surgeon and medical director of a mission hospital, and I visited him there in 2013.  We were on the edge of a jungle and, besides the normal equipment, treatment rooms displayed jars of fearsome snakes and spiders with instructions for the appropriate antivenom.

The hospital, in fact, was established at the missionary base from which Jim Elliot and four friends took off in 1956 in an attempt to make contact with a fierce tribe known as the Huaorani.  Operation Auca ended in tragedy as the Huaorani (known then by the pejorative word Auca for savages) killed all five of the missionaries.  News of the “Auca martyrs” was broadcast around the world, and later their story was celebrated in a series of books by one of the widows, Elisabeth Elliot (who died in 2015), and by Ethel Wallis in collaboration with Rachel Saint.

While working at the hospital, David Graham married Claudia, an Ecuadorian physician who had coordinated health care for four provinces.  For the two of them, 2015 involved a transition to a different country, a different language, and indeed a different culture.  At the end of the year, David reflected on some of the changes that struck him as he returned to his native country.  His insights gave me a new perspective on the U.S. and perhaps will do the same for you.  Like me, I’m sure you have your own mental list of things that annoy and things that inspire gratitude.

For this blog, I’ve adapted the following text from David’s letter:

David Cameron

A surgeon practicing his blowgun skills.

A few of the many things that have annoyed or frustrated me:

  • my first smart phone (they don’t come with any instruction book) which involved much frustration in learning how to use,
  • automated calling machines that ring your house time and again, often looking for people who have listed your number as their own,
  • credit ratings that too often penalize responsible living,
  • everything requiring a username and password (on some sites they must be changed every 90 days),
  • too many advertisements (whether TV, formerly ad-free YouTube, or videos linked to web pages that automatically play and must be stopped so you can read an article in peace), and
  • far too many people on government disability who shouldn’t be, too much intravenous and oral narcotic abuse, too much obesity, far too much material waste in hospitals.

But looking at the cup half full:

  • I love being able to use a credit card (not cash) to make purchases in any store or restaurant.
  • I am glad to once again live in only one country (i.e., following one set of rules, not two), and to live among those who speak my native language.
  • I am so happy to no longer have neighbors whose horrible throbbing music invades my home.
  • I enjoy once again living in a place with four seasons (especially autumn).
  • I am thankful for good health, and I am grateful for love in my life: in marriage, family and friendship.

Five books I read this year made me especially thankful:

  • Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker,
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, I-II,
  • Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking,
  • Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, and
  • Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy

When you read of such tremendous injustice, human cruelty, and unbearable suffering (as the first three books describe) it makes your own complaints about work, government, or people seem petty.  We don’t fear a midnight knock at the door and long jail sentences for political reasons; don’t walk around with our bellies empty; aren’t forced to go out and work in subzero freezing weather (where we will most likely die); don’t sleep piled up next to others on hard sleeping platforms; or worry if the next opening of our jail cell door will mean it is our turn to be taken out and shot.  We also don’t live in a state of constant warfare, which was (and still is) the norm in pre-state, hunter-gatherer societies.  And the tremendous change that literacy has made on previously oral societies has made possible science, history, public health, medicine, and philosophy; it has improved the length and health of our lives, and tremendously expanded our linguistic capabilities, all of which make the lives we lead historically privileged.  I am grateful, truly grateful, for everything.

I must also mention some of my favorite old delights, renewed in 2015:

  • autumn in East Tennessee (the colors, the temperature, the leaves changing),
  • wildlife (We have a family of red-tailed hawks in a tree behind our house, plus neighborhood squirrels, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, foxes, and we have even seen a bear.),
  • Tolstoy’s War & Peace (great every time you read it),
  • Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky album (They give my favorite interpretation of his 1812 Overture.),
  • eating at Cracker Barrel restaurants, and
  • being close to family, and seeing old friends again.

And, finally, some favorite new discoveries:

  • Gold Peake Green Tea (delicious!),
  • Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chip and Caramel Apple Cookies (way better than anything Mrs. Fields makes),
  • Zatarain’s Red Beans and Rice (has a Cajun flavor to it),
  • Giovanni Bomol (Italian pianist—you can look for his videos on YouTube; try ‘Fire,’ ‘Autumn,’ ‘Pirate Attack’ or ‘Las Vegas’ to start with),
  • the music of Two Steps from Hell (e.g., Strength of a Thousand Men),
  • Sling TV (internet streaming for Olympic and specialized sports),
  • Google Maps on Smart Phones (makes big-city driving so easy!), and
  • the soothing screened-in porch behind our house, where it is quiet, and where we can sit in our rocking chairs and enjoy our wooded plot.

PY_at_deskReading through David’s lists, I couldn’t help contributing some of my own petty annoyances:

  • updates from Microsoft that make other devices, software programs, and macros either obsolete or incompatible,
  • panels of sportscasters, news commentators, and morning-show hosts who sit around giggling and interrupting each other,
  • our crazy way of choosing a President, by lining up a dozen or more candidates in a “debate” to see who can come up with the cleverest zingers,
  • electronic “keyboards” on iPads and smartphones that don’t include the characters I want,
  • the whole notion of communicating through texting, which uses the least convenient keyboards and the smallest screens,
  • the huge servings in American restaurants, contributing to obesity and food waste,
  • hard plastic packaging that cuts your fingers when you open it, and
  • soft plastic packaging: ziplock bags that neither zip nor lock like they’re supposed to.

And yet whenever I return from an international trip, I feel a wash of gratitude for the good old U.S.A.  Compared to virtually anywhere else, we have low taxes, an abundance of freedom, an emphasis on consumer rights, checks and balances on corruption, good (though expensive) health care, and a reservoir of basic human decency.  Every time I’m involved in an accident, or pull over with car trouble, some good-hearted soul stops to see if they can help.  In some other countries, they would stop to rob me.

If we could just figure out a better way to choose a President…



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8 responses to “Born in the U.S.A.”

  1. ajc says:

    Was reading your book. Have not quite recovered from my church experiences. You mentioned the guy who started hospice. I think hospice has kind of gotten off track. They routinely now take people off every thing that keeps them comfortable (including oxygen) and overload them with morphine patches to speed up the process. I am afraid of them.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Hospice services vary a lot from place to place. My wife worked as a chaplain in one, and they did everything possible to keep patients comfortable. The founder, Dame Cicely Saunders, had a very compassionate program in place which included spiritual care. More recently, hospitals have seen hospice as an alternative profit center. You’re right to be cautious, but the original vision is compelling.

  2. Keith Treman says:

    Philip, I just subscribed to your posts! I am looking forward to reading your spiritual wisdom on a regular bases.

    Please send my best to Janet. I had the opportunity to work with her at Lasalle Street Church in Chicago with the senior program. She taught me how to serve with dignity and joy!

    Faith, Hope and Love to you both and your ministries wherever they take you!!!

  3. Started reading your blog after Colleen’s recommendation:) Thank you for your ministry and burden for others. Here is a very new and big annoyance for me:

    Everywhere I go (it seems) someone is asking for a donation of some kind. I love giving, but my resources are not limitless, haha. My kids school: catalogs and fundraisers. I go to the grocery store, get practically attacked by someone at the entrance to sign up to sponsor someone or something. At the cash register, “would you like to donate $?”. The list goes on. A knock at my door, selling something! Maybe because I don’t want to say no, I want to give, but sometimes it’s just too much! Anyways, just wanted to contribute my two cents (no pun intended). Thanks again for all you do!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I understand. I guess the alternative is the European model, which depends on the government to take care of what the US handles through compassion and private charities. Each system has its weaknesses, and you point out a key one for us.

  4. Carrie Graham Koens says:

    As David’s youngest sister (by some 18 years), I can speak for the family in saying that it’s so convenient to have him just a text message away! It’s lovely to be able to spend time with he and Claudia over a family meal, and to have them within “let’s meet for lunch” distance.

    Our parents encouraged all 5 of their children to go where the Lord led them, whether that was off to the Philippines (our older sister), over to Tanzania (our middle sister), wherever missionary aviation needed a mechanic the most (my husband and I), down to Ecuador (David), or right here in the mountains of Tennessee (our brother). Over the last few years we’ve all found ourselves settled closer to home (though not without our moments of wanderlust), and for the first time in my 34 years of life, all 5 of us are now within a 3 hour drive of my parents. To say that they are happy would be an understatement, though they continue to make it clear that if God should move any one of us to once again follow Him to the 4 corners of the world, they will be just as happy and supportive.

    Whatever the future holds for any or all of us, right now we’re all enjoying this season together, and are thankful that David and Claudia can now be a regular part of that.

  5. Philip Fennell says:

    Thank you, Philip, for all that you do for the body of Christ. I have been privileged to have many stellar mentors over the years via their writings (Os Guinness, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and so many others). And you are certainly one. Your nuanced insights and grace-filled wisdom have been a constant encouragement. And being another Philip from Georgia, I have a ready reminder that brings you to mind in order to pray for you.

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