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Culture Q&A

Eric McLaughlin

Walking in the dark

Living amid pandemics, violence, and medical shortages in Burundi

Walking in the dark

Eric McLaughlin (Illustration by Mark Fredrickson)

Dr. Eric McLaughlin is a family medicine doctor at Kibuye Hope Hospital in Burundi, where he has served with his wife Dr. Rachel McLaughlin, an obstetrician, for the last seven years. I spent several weeks with them at their rural teaching hospital, which in recent years has grown tremendously in patient volume. Rachel is constantly on call to perform C-sections. Eric faces regular malaria epidemics and treats a host of other internal diseases, with little diagnostic testing available.

Through Serge, an international missions organization, the McLaughlins are focused on training more Burundian medical specialists. Eric’s book, Promises in the Dark: Walking With Those in Need Without Losing Heart, lays out Christian principles for facing overwhelming need. In February robbers attacked and nearly killed fellow missionary George Watts, who works as a hospital administrator.

Here are edited excerpts of my interview with Eric.

Talk about 2020 in Burundi. It feels like the hardest period of time that we’ve known since we moved to Africa 10 years ago. It’s not just the isolation; it’s the multiple things that have hit us.

What happened to George Watts? On Feb. 22 armed robbers came into our housing area and went straight to the Wattses’ house. They stabbed and strangled George and tied up his family, looking for money. They didn’t find the big haul they thought they were going to find and left. But they were just inches away from taking his life. Members of our team treated George. He needed IV fluids.

How did your team react? Kibuye has felt like a haven for us, so there is all the violation that comes with that. Multiple members of our team were traumatized. I can’t remember a time where I’ve felt so relieved and grateful and full of grief all at the same time. Our home got violated and our teammate is in bad physical shape, and yet I’m so thankful he wasn’t killed, that the gun they brought with them didn’t go off. If x or y happened, things could have spun out of control. But what a ridiculous thing to say: out of control. Was the Lord in control of the situation or not? It happened one way; it didn’t happen the other way.

What’s happened since then? A razor wire fence surrounds our wall now. After the attack the governor of our province, the police and military commanders in our region, everyone, came to Kibuye: a great show of support. But it remains to be seen what the harvest is going to look like in Burundi this year.

How do you face all these difficulties? Psalm 77 stood out to me in some times of prayer surrounding the robbery. It’s a classic psalm of lament. It says, “When I meditate, I groan,” instead of “I find peace.” It talks about not being able to sleep, not having appetite. It says, “I’m going to look back and see what God has done in the past.” The psalmist points to the crossing of the Red Sea, and paints a picture of lightning and thunder and terrifying circumstances. And then at the end of it, it says, “Your way was through the water, your path through the sea, but your footprints were unseen.”

People rebel against helplessness, and there’s an extent to which that’s good.

What advice do you have for people in the West feeling helpless amid this pandemic? People always ask us about the coronavirus and being in a limited-resource setting. The good news is we’re not overwhelmed by being overwhelmed. We’ve lived through multiple malaria epidemics already. The world as a whole feels like it has entered into my world in Burundi, in terms of the amount of uncertainty. I don’t have everything I need to have. I’m making decisions I feel like I shouldn’t have to make. That is the world of African medicine all the time.

What comes next? This is a virus we didn’t know existed months ago: An incredible amount is unknown. How can we see down the road, whether decision x or decision y is the right decision to make? People rebel against helplessness, and there’s an extent to which that’s good. God has given us the tools to fight against something like this that causes disease and destruction. But our knowledge is so imperfect.

What do you do with that imperfect knowledge? I have known more helplessness in my medical work than almost all other American healthcare providers. As a Christian physician who is often helpless to do what I would like to do, I have to trust that there is a bigger story about what is going on, that we’re not alone in this fight, that God is present in His love and He’s for us. And that we are not the end of the line when it comes to taking care of this world, or taking care of the person in front of us. Work as if it all depends on God.