Jenny Thompson on the challenges and encouragements of a non-mission hospital elective.
During summer 2015, I spent four weeks of my final year elective based in Mater Dei Hospital on the beautiful island of Malta. Malta has a population of approximately 400,000, an average temperature of 27°C in the summer, and is renowned for its clear blue waters, rich history and cultural events. However, 98% of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and Protestants are very much in the minority, with only a handful of evangelical churches on the island.
When asked where I was going on my elective, many friends were surprised that I had not done what they described as the 'Christian thing' and applied to go to a developing country or to a mission hospital. However, at this stage of my training, it did not seem like the right decision for me. I don't regret my decision in choosing to go to Malta, and am thankful to God for the opportunities and experiences I had there.
I was based with a firm in acute medicine for the duration of my time in Mater Dei, and quickly felt integrated within the team. During our six-hour ward rounds (acute medicine being a misnomer, as most of the patients were in for several weeks or months!) we discussed topics as diverse as Northern Ireland's turbulent political past, the migrant crisis, saints, festivals and the best places to visit on the island. Within days of starting my elective, I was struck by how central religion is to the Maltese.
There were regularly nuns or priests ministering to patients on the ward, and often I noticed crucifixes above beds, or icons of saints in alcoves throughout the wards. On my second day on the ward, I observed a priest performing the last rites for an elderly patient. To say this was a culture shock would be putting it mildly!
My consultant quickly worked out that I was not Catholic, and we began talking about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. He asked me if I would consider myself religious, and I was able to explain to him that I was a Christian. I was grateful for the opportunity to talk freely, and to better understand their religious beliefs, as well as explaining my own. When the F1 asked me on a Monday morning what I did over the weekend, I was able to tell her where I had explored on the island, but also that I had attended church on Sunday. Again, she was interested and I had the opportunity to get to know Abigail well during my four weeks there. My firm were friendly and understanding, and open to discussing church and religion on a daily basis over the hospital staples of coffee and toast.
I was hugely encouraged during my time in Malta by attending an evangelical Baptist church, which was just around the corner from my accommodation. There were 50-60 people at their services, the majority of whom were residents of Malta, but I also had the opportunity to meet other tourists. It was a real blessing to be able to worship with them on a Sunday morning, and to hear about their church planting efforts on Gozo and how God is working in Malta.
Despite the encouragements, I did find my elective a challenging experience too. The majority of staff spoke English, however many patients were elderly and therefore consultations were carried out in Maltese. Thankfully they tended to revert to English for much of the medical terminology, so I could understand most of what was going on, and my consultant translated when necessary. Malta is not a rich country, despite its bustling tourism industry, and many conditions are managed using equipment or medications which have been superseded in the UK NHS. The hospital was understaffed, and I was frustrated that I could not do more to help during my time there. I was also frustrated that my discussions about religion and Christianity with my firm remained at a superficial level, and I was not able to explain the Gospel fully to them. However, I know that God was present in those conversations, and I know he can do immeasurably more than I ask or imagine.
I would encourage those who are planning their elective to consider a non-mission setting. The challenges are different, and it might not be an obvious choice in order to serve God on your elective, but it was a valuable experience for me. God encouraged me during my time there, providing me with Christian friends to go with, and a welcoming evangelical church. My faith was strengthened, and I learnt to rely on God more as I discussed my beliefs with my firm, and also as I adapted to a different healthcare setting. Mater Dei Hospital itself is modern, the staff are welcoming, and it offers a wide range of specialties. As Christian medical students, we have a unique opportunity and privilege to share the gospel during our electives, and residents of countries such as Malta need to hear about Jesus' ultimate sacrifice just as much as those in developing countries do.
'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'