Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A preeminent teacher of teachers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, missionaries, biographies

How much can we do for our Savior?
  How much for our dear fellow man?
The way to do more than we're able
Is Jesus within to enable;
  Thus we can do more than we can.

This lovely hymn by Albert B. Simpson expresses an amazing fact. With God's help, we can surpass the limits we place upon ourselves, and do "more than we can". I wonder if it is possible to do more than what Dr. Glenn W. Geelhoed has done in more than forty years of medical missions. One thing he knew he could not do, he could not condense tens of thousands of pages of his notes and diaries into a compact book without taking a huge amount of time away from his passion, which is serving "any patients, anywhere, as long as they are unable to pay." So he got a co-author.

Dr. Geelhoed and Patricia Edmonds are co-authors of Gifts From the Poor: What the World's Patients Taught One Doctor About Healing. It is a good collaboration. I read through the book almost as rapidly as I do a good novel, but learned much more than I could from any novel.

In contrast to many medical missionaries who focus their efforts on a single country, or region, or place—often living there for years or decades—, Dr. G, as he is often called, goes everywhere that few others go: South Sudan, central Congo, Ecuador, remote provinces in the Philippines, or the Himalayas, for example. He doesn't go alone. He takes along other physicians, medical students, and people who might like to be medical students…and warns one and all that they will be expected to live among the people they serve, not in a fancy compound with running water and reliable electricity. Those who will assist in (or learn) surgery are advised to bring a battery powered headlamp. When you are halfway through a hernia repair and the lights go out, you can't stop and wait for them to go back on.

For a man who has single-handedly accomplished more than the average large clinic, we might presume he has the right to a certain feeling of pride or self-worth. While he does have a stubborn streak (part of his professional equipment, in my estimation!), his singular characteristic is humility. Thus the title of the book. From his patients he has learned more than he could ever teach: thriving amidst deprivation, strength through suffering, communication where there is no shared language, and a multitude of clever ways around the barriers we usually permit to thwart us.

Whenever he arrives in a place, his entourage quickly multiplies. Around the bed or table or operating platform, to those he has brought along will be added a few local people who are learning how to carry on when he has gone. He disdains the notion of dropping from the sky, performing opaque miracles, and vanishing without a trace. The world's "bottom billion" have seen too much of that already. He prefers to leave behind a cadre of folks who know how to suture a wound, perform a lumbar puncture (if anesthetics are available), fix a hernia or goiter, and deliver a baby by C-section; people who know not just that this or that antibiotic may help, but why, and how much to use; doctors (if possible) or trained helpers who can continue to improve the lives of their fellows.

This he does with the 30-40% of his time that is spent "on the road". What of the rest? He is on faculty at George Washington University, a position not without responsibilities. He lectures, both at GWU and increasingly elsewhere. He stays in shape (he has run marathons on all seven continents, Antarctica included). He hunts, though usually "on location" to help feed the people. Much time is spent planning and arranging the next trip (or the next three or four). And he does devote time to family.

Nobody is good at everything. As it turned out, "family man" was pretty low on his list of skills. His marriage failed when his two sons were young, and he raised one while having only limited access to the other. Now that they are grown (and in their 40s) he is closer to them both, and to his grandchildren. But at age seventy he has yet to slow down, though running a marathon takes an hour or two longer than it used to. What he is best at is teaching. Not just teaching skills, but teaching attitudes, and above all, teaching teaching. This Bible reference ought to be in the book, because it describes him exactly:
The things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. –2 Timothy 2:2, ASV
Except, he teaches both men and women. He practices transformative teaching. You must get out of your comfort zone to learn. He'll get people so far out of their comfort zone they learn as they learn how to learn even faster and better!

He has received a number of awards, and he is rightly proud of them, but he is proudest of the people he has met around the world, particularly among those "bottom billion", who have given him the gifts from the poor, the gift of receiving and trusting him before they knew he could be trusted; the gift of hospitality in their poverty; the gift of remembering well what they were shown; and most of all the gift of loving and smiling in spite of their deprivation and loss.

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