Article taken from CBF’s Spring 2009 Newsletter (pdf)
Each year, the Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger receives and evaluates applications for hunger funding from worldwide ministry partners. Unique to the next round of funding is a request for support for a riverboat ministry in Southeast Asia which provides critical medical care for impoverished people who live along an extensive river system. TBOWH funds will underwrite the costs of medical supplies in 2010. The following text is excerpted from the latest issue of CBF Fellowship and tells the story of the remarkable mission of this boat and crew:
For one medical worker in Southeast Asia, the adventure story of a lifetime takes place on a riverboat that doubles as her transient home and a health care clinic. Despite daily challenges and setbacks–including a perpetually failing generator and local doctors attempting to shut the ministry down–she and the crew persist in their mission to improve the quality of life for people who generally have little access to health care.
Karen, one of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s field personnel, ministers to small farming communities along a river in Southeast Asia. With a background in environmental science as well as medicine, she is uniquely positioned to care for the sick and provide health education.
"Most of their health issues [are] related to environmental issues," she said. "[The villagers] are almost completely dependent on the river water for drinking, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, going to the bathroom, fishing, and irrigating their rice paddies and other fields!’
Since many of the villages have no road access, the river is often the primary means of transportation. It’s also where industrial plants dump waste. "With raw sewage and chemicals in the water!’ Karen said, "this river is the number one source of illness and disease."
However, most people can’t afford the fuel needed to boil their water before drinking it. "Conditions are harsh and the level of poverty is extreme," said Karen. "Most families live on less than $1 a day, which the World Health Organization calls ‘the poverty that kills: If a family member gets sick, the family must literally decide between seeking medical attention for that individual or feeding the rest of the family for the week."
The most common conditions that Karen treats are routine issues such as coughs, colds, runny noses, ear infections, dental problems, stomach problems, scabies and lacerations. "We see a lot of infections that can be easily treated with antibiotics or even just good hygiene but have become debilitating or even life-threatening due to the poor conditions in which most people live," Karen said.
Sometimes, the riverboat team sees more serious cases. One mother brought her 9-year-old son to the boat to be examined. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and an infection in his lung. Karen saw that the boy was admitted to a hospital and assisted the family in completing the necessary steps to qualify for a free medical program so he could continue treatment after discharge.
"I am continually awed and humbled by their stoic acceptance of hardship," Karen said. "People who live along the river are used to not having health care. They habitually live with chronic and debilitating illness as just a normal part of life."
The staff on the medical riverboat often serves as many as 150 people a day, and village leaders offer fruit and fish as tokens of their gratitude. "We spend a considerable amount of time educating patients as to the nature of their illness and ways to prevent a reoccurrence," Karen said. "In the villages where we have been working for almost a year, we have seen a decrease in the severity of illness. There are young children who have regained function of limbs that were previously useless and adults who are less likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack because their blood pressure is under control and they are eating healthier."
For Karen, the riverboat ministry is an attempt to reach out in a tangible way to share the love of Christ. "I always think of Matthew 25:35-36, which says ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.’ To really show people what Christ looks like," she said, "we must explore ways to help people obtain their most basic and critical needs."
To this end, Karen and her co-workers are working to address the root causes of poverty at many levels. In addition to providing free basic medical care on the boat, they are building water filters in the villages for clean drinking water and operating an experimental farm looking for ways to improve agricultural practices to boost economic stability.
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