New Eyes on Extreme Isolation

By Julie McLaughlin

I remember at one point, saying to myself, “What on Earth am I doing?”  Jumping on a cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean to get to some of the World’s most isolated Islands may not be such a good idea.  Literally, if things were to go wrong, I could be stranded for 3 or maybe even 6 months, far away from civilization.  Worse, if I were to be injured or sick, maybe one of those tropical infections that I’ve gotten before, would it even be possible to get out?

Why would a perfectly sane, intelligent, relatively normal gal subject herself to such risks?

As quick as those thoughts came, other ones overran them.  These are not even thoughts, but a reality that comes from deep inside of a person.  It’s from my spirit.  The part of me that believes God is real.  There is a conviction that He loves and cares for all the people of the Earth.  He wants them all to know Him and experience His love that is so practical.

We humans have really messed up a lot of things through our selfishness, ignorance, and greed.  Anyone can see that, but maybe not as many people understand that God is asking us to work with Him to make things more like the way He intended for them to be.

As a full time volunteer with Youth with A Mission (YWAM), it’s my pleasure to work with YWAM Ships in Kona.  Being born in the United States, it’s difficult to grasp that there are still many places in the World that can’t be flown or driven into.  Fanning and Washington Islands are prime examples.  They cannot be found on most maps.  They are a part of the Line Islands, which most people are unlikely to have heard of.  To locate them, you would find Hawaii and go Southwest on the map a distance of what would take you 8-10 days to sail.  They are a part of the Republic of Kiribati which was a country made up of many Islands that I didn’t even know existed a year ago.  These Islands are a part of a region of the world known as Micronesia.

Because I’m the Advance team coordinator for YWAM Ships, I help set up things for our sailing vessels to visit a place.  I meet with officials and make arrangements at the ports and generally my job description is that I make friends.  Since we started targeting Micronesia and the isolated places in the Pacific,  I’ve been wondering how to get there if these places are only accessible by boat.  You need a yacht to get there, so how to you get there in advance of our yachts?  The airports have been closed for decades.  They have little contact with the rest of the world except a few boats that bring supplies like rice and canned meats a few times a year.

We want to reach isolated places because we believe God cares for the individual.  For most Christians, it’s easy to believe that God loves humanity, but it’s a completely different depth of understanding to believe that he knows me personally and cares for every person as if they were a member of His own family, like a son or daughter.

He has a destiny and purpose for each person, but it’s really hard for an individual to walk into the plans that God has for that person to help others, when they are sick from drinking contaminated water.  It’s even more difficult to follow God if you are dying from an easily preventable or treatable disease.  People in remote places can die from something as simple as a rotten tooth.  The abscess can spread into the jaw and into the bloodstream and without antibiotics it becomes a death sentence.  It’s unimaginable for someone like me, whose parents worked hard and spent a lot of money so I could go to the orthodontist and have straight and pretty teeth.

Even though I was asking myself what I was doing getting on a cargo ship where your ticket buys you a spot on the deck of the ship, under a big yellow tarp looking like a refugee, with a spot next to 39 of your new Islander friends where you eat like a local, sleep all together like a local, and maybe get head lice like a local.  It’s a place where islands songs are sometimes sung all night long, both to your delight and displeasure, all at the same time.

What was I doing?  I was following a belief that God is calling us to go to the isolated places and if God is real, which I believe that He is, then I can expect Him to help me and to protect me on the journey which is what I experienced in countless ways.

God continually provided for me friends along the way who connected me with other friends.  I gained very useful information about the ports and places we will take our sailing vessels.  I made connections with Mayors, Councils, government workers, clergy, business people, medical professionals and just friendly people along the way.  We have all kinds of new and valuable information that will help us plan strategically.

Yet, the most valuable thing that I brought back is a new set of eyes.  I have a new set of eyes because these are not nameless faceless people anymore who are experiencing extreme isolation.  These are now my friends.  They are those that I have eaten with, laughed, and huddled together for shelter under a yellow tarp when the heavy rain came down and the seas got rough and they were like my own family members, like brothers and sisters and the way that God actually sees us anyway.

When you go through that, your eyes change, or maybe it’s your heart or perceptions.

Heading to FanningNursesStation

I spent a lot of time with the Medical Assistants and Nurses that work on the Islands.  I looked into their faces and I interviewed them trying to access the needs that we might be able to help with.

“Sometimes we run out of antibiotics and medicine before the supply ship comes….”

“Sometimes a patient is very sick and needs emergency care that we can’t provide….”

“What do you do?”

“We try to find a boat that can take them, but most of the time all we can do is try to make them comfortable and watch them slowly die…..”

While I was in the clinic on Fanning, a cement, 2-room building in desperate need of a light and some white paint for the walls.  The nurse told me she borrowed her husbands flashlight sometimes to examine patients when it was too dark, but it was hard to hold the flashlight at the same time, so she would put it in her mouth while she worked with her hands.  I thought of my simple headlamp that I take camping, which I forgot to bring.  It would have been like gold to this woman.

A young girl and her mother had stopped in.  I would guess she was 11 or 12 years old.  Long pretty black hair and a beautiful girl just crossing the threshold into becoming a beautiful young woman.

The nurse told me that they suspected that she might have leprosy.  My face was the experienced traveler and said no problem, this happens every day, but inside I gasped.  That’s what you read about in Bible stories, not what you meet people who are suffering from.  Certainly you don’t meet little girls who might have it.  Do you?  As they examined her, even though they were speaking in Kiribati, I knew they were pointing out a lesion forming on her jaw.

The nurses were looking through a few medical books that looked like they were from a 1950s library trying to find a list of symptoms the disease.  They looked at me and asked if I knew how to diagnose it.  Only what I learned in my high school biology class….  What would I give to be able to Google even just a few minutes would provide us with some answers, but the internet on the Island is not working.

The nurse asked so politely, “If you are able, do you think that you could bring us a medical dictionary and a field guide like this?  These books belong to the last nurse and she would like them back.”

I thought about this little girl and her family. Have the rest of them been exposed?  What would the stress and strain be on them as their little girl would have to travel to Christmas Island, Tarawa, and then Fiji for treatment.  Would she even be able to get on the boat and how many months would the journey take just to begin treatment and how far would the disease advance before then.

I slipped into self-preservation mode for a second as I wondered if we would be on the same cargo ship going back to Christmas Island.  Was I going to be at risk?  How many other passengers were patients with Tuberculosis, Hepatitis or other contagious diseases?

I looked again at the little girl and quickly my own fears were replaced with compassion.  For goodness sake, you have access to excellent medical care back home with qualified doctors and good hospitals.  You are an adult and think about this scared little girl and her family and stop being so selfish.  That’s what I told myself.

What could I do to help?  All I could really do was pull out my notebook and write down Medical Dictionaries and field guides. And then begin to pray for her and her Mother.

I now as we look at taking our YWAM sailing vessels to these Islands, we won’t be able to fix every problem.  All I know after walking away from my time in these Islands is that we can do something.  It will make a huge difference for those individuals that we are able to help.  If God sees the people of the world as individuals, like sons and daughters, then I want to look at them the same way and if there is some way and help others to see it too.


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