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Our Haitian clinic, destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016

A prescription for prayer: an Atheist’s experience during an Evangelical mission trip

I can’t escape it. Even the air smells of burning here.

Logic will tell you it is the omnipresent practice of burning trash. A local Haitian vodouist may tell you that it is the angry energy of deceased, their spirits occupying the air and making a welcome gust of wind feel offensive.

I inhale deeply and close my eyes, trying to ignore the tingling in my nostrils. As our bus jostles down a rocky dirt road towards the local church that will be our clinic for the day, I try to reflect on how I came to be in this moment.

I, an atheist, liberal medical student, have decided to spend the last week of my vacation month on an Evangelical Christian medical mission trip to Les Cayes, Haiti.

As decidedly the only non-believer on the mission, I stuck to the purely medical work: seeing patients in the clinic, diagnosing their illnesses, and prescribing their medications. That was the reason I came, wasn’t it? To serve a population that was still reeling from a devastating hurricane and hone my diagnostic skills? All around me, I saw my teammates with their heads bowed, praying over their patients. I looked away, the fear of the unfamiliar settling in my stomach. Faith and medicine are two separate, wildly personal and complicated entities, I thought, filling a prescription of chloroquine for a five-year-old’s presumed malaria. I could never do that.

And then I met Julianna.

She was my first patient of the afternoon on that second day of clinic. I was immediately struck by how very elegant she looked, from her wide-brimmed straw hat to the dainty silver cross strung around her neck. However, her sad, expressive eyes were trained on the ground. She was 27 years old — my age — but somehow appears wise beyond her years.

“Bonswa!” I say cheerfully, proud of my limited Creole. “Kijan ou ye?”

Julianna raises an eyebrow and glances towards my translator with a smirk. He chimes in, and I get to interview my patient with his help and a slightly bruised ego.

I learn that Julianna has had abdominal pain for the past five months. She believes she is pregnant because she has felt the baby move around in her belly, despite having no disruption in her menstrual cycle. She tells me she knows this feeling because she has had a baby before — her name was Mariette, and she died last year before she turned one month old. Fever, she whispers, a word that has impacted her life so deeply that she says it to me in English. I nod and lay a hand on her knee, silently imploring her not to say anymore. For her sake. For my sake.

But Julianna remains remarkably stoic. Her eyes stay on mine, even as I begin my exam. My hands travel from her neck, to her back, and come to linger on her abdomen. I pause, feeling the great responsibility of showing this woman, my peer, the most compassionate and accurate care regarding this part of her body that gave her the greatest gift of life — a gift that circumstance cruelly stole back. This part of her body that may now be at odds with her mind.

I feel nothing. My hands palpate deeper — still nothing. My preceptor agrees, and informs me that we happened to stock our makeshift pharmacy with a few pregnancy tests today. We would get our answer.

As I dropped Julianna’s urine sample onto the pregnancy test, I had to remind myself to breathe. She sat across from me, adjusting her skirt as she squirmed in her seat — a nervous habit that I happen to share. We are not so different, you and I.

One minute passes. Two, three, four — and the lines on the pregnancy test remain tellingly absent. I dare to bring my gaze to meet Julianna’s.

“I’m sorry, Julianna” I say. “It looks like you’re not pregnant.”

She gives a single nod, and for the first time since I’ve met her, she looks away from me. She stares out the window at a multitude of children playing a rough game of tag. I am at a loss for words.

Suddenly: “Julianna, are you a member of this church? Is your faith important to you?” The words spill out of me.

She turns back, that same eyebrow raised in intrigue. “Wi,” she says softly.

“W-would you like for me to pray for you today?”

She smiles. “Wi,” she voices a little stronger.

I have never prayed for anything in my life, and quite honestly, I’m not even sure I know how.

Julianna and I join hands and bow our heads in the midst of our bustling clinic.

“Dear…lord,” I start, hesitantly. “Thank you for bringing Julianna into our lives today. You have given her immeasurable strength to endure all that she has faced. Today we pray for her child resting in heaven; for the children you will gift her with in the future; for the health and prosperity of her and her loved ones. In your name we pray, Amen.”

I gingerly look up and find my glistening eyes mirrored back in Julianna’s. “Thank you,” she whispers in Creole. “God bless you for coming to my country. Praise be to Jesus.”

And just like that, she stands up, hugs me, and walks out of the clinic with her head held high, eyes trained on the sky.

This is not groundbreaking medicine. My words to Julianna are not winning any Pulitzer prizes. Yet somehow, this is what medicine is all about. A selfless provider laying aside all differences and recognizing what a patient needs in order to be healed. Keeping the patient’s most treasured values at the core of medical care, not our selfish minor discomfort.

I take a deep breath of ash-ridden air; suddenly, I don’t want to escape anymore. My eyes have been opened to the bigger picture.

For some, the most effective prescription is a simple prayer.