NIne Priests, two doctors, one doctor’s wife and one art teacher go to North Korea. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it is no joke. It is the beginning of a journey like no other. Prior to my departure, my nerves were like that of exposed wires. The thought of where I was about to go and what I was about to do, sent sparks of electricity through my soul.. The idea of going to North Korea and visit the TB clinics had been on my heart since my first year at Seoul Foreign School, six years ago. But it had just been on the surface, now it was really sinking in, and I was terrified.
My first impression of North Korea was gray. I guess that is the art teacher in me, assigning a color to an event. A color that drastically contrasted with my emotions. I was overwhelmed. The color of overwhelmed would be all the colors, but on a spin painter, spinning out of control.
Why was North Korea so gray and overwhelming? Perhaps it was the four hour, bumpy, and mean bumpy van ride out into the countryside that began at 4:30 AM. Perhaps it was because of my first world luxurious of many morning cups of coffee and access to wayside rests had been denied. Perhaps it was the armed soldiers at the city limits of Pyongyang. Perhaps it was the piles of coal all along the roadside or the lines of people walking, riding bikes or guiding an animal. Where were they going? All this before the sun had even started to crest on the horizon. Gray and overwhelming at the same time.
As we arrived at the clinic, two hundred people were waiting for us. They sat on rows of benches, all facing one direction, as if waiting to be entertained. Faces gray with illness. Even with the chill of the October air, cheeks were not even the slightest bit pink. They watched as we unloaded our vans with generators, scales, plastic vials, rubber gloves, masks, and most importantly, medicine. They weren’t waiting to be entertained, they were hoping to be cured of the Tuberculosis that was invading their lungs. The drill was the same at every clinic. Wait for your name to be called. Be weighed, measured, photographed, cough up a bit phlegm and then wait some more. Wait again for your name to be called. These people already knew they had TB. They were waiting to be offered one more chance to be healed. So many people. So many faces. Young and old. Men so weak, that their wives have to carry them on their backs. Others so weak that they could only walk a few steps and then have to squat to rest. I asked God to help me focus. To help me not be overwhelmed, to give me my game face. I am one of those people that can be brought to tears over a dog food commercial. I needed some big time distraction. There she was. In the sea of gray, was the girl in the red sweater. She was wearing the color of strength and determination that was needed to be healed. She was wearing the color love. It was my job to love her and pray for her. I prayed for her all day and still do.
As my time in North Korea continued, the gray slowly starting to slip away. As I started to study the faces of the patients, I started to see other colors. Bright colors reflected in patient's faces who were being weighed and measured and photographed because they no longer needed medicine. They had been cured of Multiple Drug Resistant Tuberculosis.
For six years, I had been folding paper cranes alongside my students at Seoul Foreign School. I had been told that when a patient is cured of MDR, there is a graduation. Each patient is offered a garland of colorful paper cranes. The paper crane is a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times and also of peace. The perfect symbol in this situation, at this place and time. At the end of the day, as names were being called, all were being offered the hope of being cured. Some were just beginning the journey, others were about to embark on another journey. A journey of health and hope. It was as if someone was adjusting the color saturation. Some of patients where just a tint of color, while others reflected the full spectrum of hope. I felt privileged to bestow these garland of colorful cranes on individuals who had endured the eighteen months of treatment. Eighteen months of being away from family, suffering debilitating side effects, and the “what if” this medicine does not provide a cure. Dongdaewon is just one clinic of many that Eugene Bell provides medicine for. Seoul Foreign School provides medicine for just some of the patients there.The people at these clinics are the bravest and strongest people I have ever met. I feel honored to have met them and witness a small part of their journey.