CENTRAL ASIA (BP) -- Flies circle the sparsely equipped operating room in remote Central Asia. One lands on an instrument tray, strutting the length of a scalpel seconds before the previously sterile instrument slices beneath skin of Jalal Hossein*.
"Allah!" the 28-year-old mullah (Islamic teacher) moans through a haze of local anesthesia that has failed to kill the pain. The lead surgeon calls for more light, but three of the four bulbs in the operating room's lamp are burned out.
Cutting-edge medicine it's not. But at the moment, the hospital -- and Hossein -- have at least one advantage: the man behind the scalpel is Dr. Doug Page*, one of the finest thoracic surgeons in the country.
"Put that bad boy in there," Page coaches a national colleague who is attempting to insert a catheter into the protective sac surrounding Hossein's heart. These are teachable moments for Page, 56, a soft-spoken, Southern Baptist doctor who came to this rugged corner of Central Asia with his wife Alice* to be Jesus' heart, hands and voice among a people in desperate need of physical and spiritual healing. It's a brutal place to practice medicine, let alone share the Gospel.
"There are so many walls here," Page says. "There are walls around every house and there are barriers between families. ... There's fighting between villages and tribes. This isn't just fisticuffs fighting -- this is blowing up homes, setting booby-trapped mines, children being maimed, crops being burned, livestock stolen. It's ruthless."
During the past several years, Page has scrubbed in for hundreds of surgeries at the hospital. The facility, with 60-plus beds, is dirty and poorly equipped. But as the largest of only three hospitals in an area more than twice the size of the state of Georgia, it's also the best chance of good health care for more than 350,000 people who call this province home. That's roughly one doctor for every 15,000 individuals.
Though those numbers are staggering, Page believes the need for the Gospel is even greater.
Islam dominates the religious landscape. Estimates place the number of Christians here at fewer than 2,000, and most national believers are forced to keep their faith a secret.
Hardship and risk
Obedience to God's call hasn't come without sacrifice. By 7 a.m. the next day, Page is eager to begin morning rounds at the hospital. But first he swings by the office to check email.
"Just another day in paradise," he jokes with his driver, Farooq*, as their SUV bounces violently across a series of Hula-Hoop-sized potholes -- a minor inconvenience compared with the overwhelming hardship of daily life here.
The Pages live in a mud home with spotty electricity. Winters are especially harsh, with temperatures dropping below -20 F -- cold enough to coat the walls inside their house with ice. At the hospital, Page regularly treats patients for diseases rarely encountered in the U.S., such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis and dysentery. He has amputated limbs from landmine victims, removed handfuls of worms from patients' intestines and helped nurse malnourished children back from the brink of death -- all while patiently and persistently seeking God-given opportunities to bear witness for Christ.
But cultural and political animosity toward the Gospel means those who share Jesus do so at great personal risk, including prison, kidnapping -- even murder. Vehicles must be checked for explosives; razor wire protects the walls around the Pages' home.
"They're locked into a system of righteousness based on works. ... They have no hope of salvation. They have no understanding or sense of grace or forgiveness," Page says. "Famine, disease, injustice, abuse of women and children, human trafficking -- all of these things relate to that darkness. ... And they've been enslaved for hundreds and thousands of years like this.
"It's a kingdom of darkness. I think Satan is very powerful here."
Most of the town's few thousand residents survive as farmers or shepherds, but years of drought and conflict have withered harvests, dwindled herds and upended livelihoods. Less than 25 percent of the area's households have access to safe drinking water and fewer than 10 percent have adequate toilet facilities. More than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; one-third of all pre-school children are underweight.
Mohammed is one of them. Just 18 months old and severely malnourished, he was brought to the hospital suffering from pneumonia and an infection in his right thigh. He winces in pain at the slightest touch, his squeaky cries broken only by a thick, wet cough. "I'm sorry," Page says softly as he listens to the boy's breathing. "Poor little guy's struggling. ... He may not make it."
'What Jesus did'
The tone in Page's voice reveals a tender heart. Dealing with the hardness of life here takes its toll, he admits. But worse than a patient's death, he says, is witnessing their suffering -- especially that of women and children.
"It's a culture of men," he explains. "The women are basically property."
But even in the midst of overwhelming need, lives are being changed. Page regularly treats patients outside the hospital, free of charge to those who simply show up at his front gate. Alice works closely with a group of women she's befriended and runs a handicraft program to help them earn extra income.
"This is what Jesus did when He was on earth. He healed people. He went out of His way to touch people, to feed people," Page says. "And He says that when we do these things, it's like we're doing them to Him."
Page also has seen one person place his faith in Christ: a man nicknamed "Paul." Like his biblical namesake, Paul once verbally abused believers. Through months of heart-to-heart conversation, he eventually gave his life to Jesus.
But those sorts of triumphs are few and far between. Given the stakes involved in becoming a believer, receptivity usually starts in small ways -- with a prayer.
After lunch, Page strolls through the hospital's courtyard and passes little Mohammed, the malnourished 18-month-old, waiting in the sunshine with his grandmother for an X-ray. He stops and talks with the grandmother about Mohammed's condition, explaining the importance of the formula they've prescribed to fight his malnutrition. Then he seeks the grandmother's permission to ask for some extra "help."
Page kneels in the dirt, holds Mohammed's tiny hand and prays aloud for the child in Jesus' name. Despite Page's prayers and the best care the hospital staff could offer, Mohammed died within a few days.
"We're not indispensable to His plan," Page says, "but at least today if this little team that's here wasn't here, there wouldn't be any evangelical witness here. This place would be totally, totally dark. It's very dark, but there's one little, little, little candle light burning here. I feel very responsible to stay here and keep that burning for now."
*Names changed. Don Graham is a senior writer at the International Mission Board. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.
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