At George Fox University, conversations about “purpose” and “human flourishing” are commonplace with our students. While we are certainly concerned with whether or not our students are adequately prepared for their chosen vocation, we are equally concerned that they understand why they are here. One of the scholars I most admire is Francis Collins, a noted scientist and one of the main individuals behind the human genome project. In addition to his work as a scientist, Dr. Collins is a deeply committed Christian. I was recently rereading his work, The Language of God, and found one story particularly meaningful.
In the summer of 1989, Dr. Collins and his college-age daughter volunteered to serve at a local hospital in the village of Eku in the delta of the Niger River. Their visit enabled a group of long-serving missionary physicians to get some rest and attend an annual conference. As he was thinking about the trip, he wrote: “I was aware that my own medical skills, dependent as they were upon the high-tech world of an American hospital, might be poorly matched to the challenges of unfamiliar tropical diseases and little technical support.”
The conditions were much worse than expected. There were not enough beds, and patients were sleeping on the floor. Their families took the responsibility for care and feeding since the hospital could not. Patients came to the hospital after suffering for many days with progressive illness – and usually only came to the hospital when all else failed. The experience was hard for Collins to accept. “It became abundantly clear that the majority of the diseases I was called upon to treat represented a devastating failure of the public health system. Tuberculosis, malaria, tetanus and a wide variety of parasitic diseases … While I was there I grew more and more discouraged, wondering why I had ever thought that this trip would be a good thing.”
One afternoon a young farmer came into the clinic with progressive weakness and significant swelling of the legs. Dr. Collins took his pulse and noted that it disappeared every time he took a breath. Although he could not confirm it by testing, he was sure that this was the result of a large amount of fluid in the pericardial sac around his heart. The fluid was essentially threatening to choke off his circulation and take his life and was probably the result of the development of tuberculosis.
Although Dr. Collins could treat the disease with drugs, the man’s condition would not improve quickly enough to save his life. The only solution was to take a large bore needle and draw off the pericardial fluid surrounding the heart. In the United States such a procedure would only be attempted by a specialist with the right equipment, neither of which were present in Eku. Dr. Collins communicated the risks to the patient, and when he agreed to move forward, Collins proceeded. The procedure was successful and Collins drew roughly a quart of blood from the young man’s body – success!
Dr. Collins noted that, for a few hours after the surgery, he felt a sense of elation. But over the next several hours the “gloom,” as he calls it, returned. “The circumstances that had led this young man to acquire tuberculosis were not going to change … The chances for long life in the Nigerian farmer were poor.”
I could imagine Dr. Collins asking himself, “Why did I risk saving him in the first place?”
The next morning Collins went to the bedside of the young man and found him reading his Bible. His condition had improved substantially. He asked if Collins had worked at the hospital very long. “No, I am just visiting.” Then he said the words Dr. Collins said he would forever remember: “I get the sense you are wondering why you came here. I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me!”
As he stopped and reflected, Frances Collins thought, “I was stunned. Stunned that he could see so clearly into my heart, but even more stunned at the words he was speaking … With a few simple words he had put my grandiose dreams of being the great white doctor to shame. He was right. We are each called to reach out to others. On rare occasions that can happen on a grand scale. But most of the time it happens in simple acts of kindness of one person to another. Those are the events that really matter … I was in harmony with God’s will, bonded together with this young man in a most unlikely but marvelous way.”
Often we are too caught up in the “big things” to realize the significance of “divine moments.” God placed us here to make a difference in the lives of the people we touch. Our promise is to “Be Known.” The reality is that you can get an education anywhere. But here, at George Fox University, it is our vision to provide students an opportunity to gain something much deeper – a life – to see as God sees. For a moment in 1989, in the heart of Africa, an internationally known scientist and doctor gained insight into his soul. He began to see as God sees, and he brought healing and grace to a young man who also gave him deeper insight into Dr. Collins’ own purpose for living.