Most family physicians would say they feel a call to serve their patients, but Tim Myrick, MD, takes his calling further than most. He left private practice to become a medical missionary, and has spent much of the past 10 years caring for patients in the Republic of the Comoros (a tiny group of islands between the eastern coast of Africa and Madagascar), Tunisia and Jordan.
Hearing the call
The call to be a medical missionary was one that Myrick heard even before entering medical school. “I felt like God was going to call me to do something special, but I didn’t know what it was,” Myrick says. To help affirm the call he was hearing, Myrick made two short medical mission trips, to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, while he was in medical school. “All along, I just felt like this was the right thing for me to do,” he says.
After completing a residency in family practice, Myrick spent two years in family practice, all the while looking for an organization that would send him and his family into the medical mission field. One group in particular, Africa Inland Mission International (www.aim-us.org), seemed like a good fit because of the comparative lack of red tape involved in the application process. That organization suggested a placement in the Comoros, which has a population of about 550,000 and where the state religion is Islam.
FINDING SPONSORING ORGANIZATIONS
Every three years, JAMA publishes a directory of organizations that sponsor physicians who want to serve as overseas volunteers. The most recent directory appeared in 1999 and was accompanied by an article about physician service abroad. Both are available online at http://jama.ama-assn.org/issues/v282n5/ffull/jmn0804-1.html.
Life on the islands
Life became more challenging than expected for Myrick when the hospital’s surgeons left shortly after he and his family arrived. The workload for Myrick and his new physician colleague from Nigeria was enough to astound even a busy family physician. “The two of us shared call every other night and every other weekend for two years,” he says. “Almost every night that I was on call, I was in the hospital, sometimes five or six times during the night. And we saw everything.”
After two and a half years, the Myrick family returned to the United States and began to look for another opportunity for missionary work. He found Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (www.cbfonline.net), an organization that offered a salary and retirement plan to its medical missionaries. Myrick secured an assignment in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, as a medical director of a clinic for children with disabilities. “I arrived to find that it hadn’t been built yet,” Myrick says. “In fact, the thing never opened the whole time we were there. So I had to look for work.” He found it at a hospital, but administrators there assumed that since Myrick was an American he must be a computer expert. He was given computer duties for several months, but soon began seeing patients in two rural clinics three mornings a week.
Now well into his third medical mission, Myrick is serving in a tuberculosis hospital in Mafraq, Jordan. What words of wisdom would he give others interested in medical missionary work? For one, the work never seems to match the job description. “The chances are very good that you won’t find the job that you thought you were going to find once you get there,” he says, attributing it to frequent changes in policy and leadership of government health ministries in developing nations.
Myrick also cautions that you shouldn’t expect to be liked or admired: “Your co-workers may see you as an interloper, coming in to take their jobs.” Similarly, don’t be surprised if co-workers from other nations also view you with suspicion. “You learn that many non-Americans think Americans want to run everything and want everything done their way.”
However, Myrick has found that health care in developing nations often isn’t nearly as dismal as media coverage leads some to believe. “Television tends to show us the worst of the worst,” he says. “In most places, the health infrastructures are better than you’d probably expect.”
For Myrick, the call to care for people is more than a secular vocation; his service is bound in his faith. “My goal is to help sick people and to share the Gospel.”