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Working for the Great Physician

Dr. Richard McGrath came to YWAM Ships Kona’s fall 2017 medical outreach in Kimbe, Papua New Guinea, well qualified for the stresses of medical work done under less than ideal circumstances. His job as an ER and intensive care physician in Sitka, Alaska for the past several years, followed over four decades as a general practitioner.

And at the age of 74, many physicians are looking at retirement. Not Richard McGrath.

Joining the YWAM Ships Kona’s vessel, the m/v Pacific Link’s medical outreach team is far from his first adventure of this sort. “I’ve gone with other Christian organizations to do medical work.”  

Fourteen of them, in fact. “I’ve gone to China, Mongolia, Thailand, Cambodia and one year I went to Burma, which is now Myanmar. In Burma, I was allowed to go into the very remote hospitals where no other western doctors had been allowed before. I went to each place for one week to teach and see patients. We often had to hike for a day or two [to get to these places].”

McGrath helped many people during his two weeks in PNG. Still, some of the hardest things for him to deal with was that sometimes, nothing can be done for some patients. One mom came to him with her baby, its head was grotesquely swollen from encephalitis. McGrath encountered patients with diseases and problems so advanced they needed specialists and a quality of medical care unavailable to them.

“It’s difficult emotionally and all you can do is pray for them and hope that God will come and help them through a miracle.”

Yet when you get to be part of one of those miracles, the gratification is tremendous. On a day when medical clinics had been canceled, McGrath decided to go exploring, Eager to see what lay at the top of one of the mountains above the town of Kimbe, he found his way with the help of some locals who pointed out the path zigzagging its way up through the dense jungles.

Then McGrath met a man who showed him all the way to the top and then took him back down for a visit at the man’s home. It was that meeting that turned out to be a divine appointment.

When the man’s wife, 32-year-old Josilin, returned from town, she just “happened” to point something out to McGrath. It was then he noticed she suffered from a genetic abnormality known as accessory breasts; an extra breast hanging from each underarm. Not only were they embarrassing but they became swollen and painful with each pregnancy. The local hospital had refused to remove them because they did not consider it medically necessary surgery.

When McGrath explained that he was a doctor and asked if she would like the accessory breasts removed, she answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

“So one evening shortly afterwards, we went up the mountain with the nurses.”

The outreach medical team consisted of McGrath, family nurse practitioner and outreach coordinator, Rhonda Hamilton, two nurses, and two members of the medical outreach’s media team. The conditions in which the team found themselves made the surgery challenging indeed. The family lived in a “very poor hut” with no electricity and a water supply a twenty-five minute walk away. The room where the procedure was to take place shared the space with the family’s cooking fire, leaving the air stifling hot and smoky.

When the time came, Josilin lay on a tarp spread out on the partially dirt floor. The medical team placed a sterile surgical mat underneath her arm and cleansed the surgical site. By this time, the sun had gone down so the only focused light available came from flashlights and a head lamp. McGrath knelt to do the surgery, utilizing careful application of local anesthesia. While he worked, one of the nurses wiped away the sweat that rolled down his face. “I took out the breast tissue completely . . .there was more there then I expected. She did very well with local anesthetic.”

Rhonda Hamilton sent many prayers skyward during the whole experience. She sang some worship songs in pidgin as McGrath painstakingly sutured the wound. Meanwhile, one team member kept the couple’s children busy outside the hut by leading them in their own set of worship songs.

The team was only able to remove one breast that night.

McGrath urged Josilin to stay home and rest for several days. However, when the medical team returned for a follow-up two days later, they found out she’d gone to her job as a cashier at a local store the day after the surgery.  When chided for not resting, her answer was sobering,  “No work, no pay. No pay, no eat.” The team was gratified, however, to see that her wound was clean and showed no signs of infection.

A couple of days later, Josilin passed out shortly after local anesthesia had been administered in preparation to remove the second breast. She appeared so frightened by the experience that McGrath decided to cancel the surgery.

Josilin confessed she’d had nothing to eat all day so the team found her some food and the young mom ate heartily. Sadly, no time remained to try the surgery again because Dr. McGrath’s time in PNG had come to an end. He needed to leave the next day. Still, Josilin had been blessed to have one of the troublesome breasts removed and to know that a loving God is aware of her need and cared enough to guide an American doctor to her house.

Opportunities always exist to make a difference in the lives of people like Josilin, to show them they are not forgotten, to demonstrate for them God’s heart for the hurting and the needy. Dr. McGrath adds, “Practicing medicine in the U.S. is rewarding but to get a truer, deeper reward, you need to do medical missionary work with the extremely poor who have no opportunity to receive care otherwise. After practicing in America for more than twenty-five years, this [experience] has given me more satisfaction in my heart and mind than the first twenty-five years.”

By Cheryl Weber
YWAM Ships Kona Volunteer

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