“Why have you come to see me?” family nurse practitioner Jenny Byrd* gently asks a woman named May*.
Without a word, the thin, frail woman lets her wrap fall to her waist. Tears roll down Byrd’s cheeks as she stares at the rotting flesh on the woman’s chest — large tumors in her breasts and lymph nodes have erupted into open, festering sores. May’s left breast is one solid, baseball-sized tumor, her stretched skin ready to burst.
Byrd, who has worked at the busy North Africa and Middle East clinic since 2008, knows there is little she can do for the 32-year-old woman.
“[The cancer] smelled rotten, looked rotten and broke my heart at the road we would walk ahead…,” Byrd said.
Beneath May’s stoic demeanor and her bright-pink laffaye, a traditional dress for the region, are a storm of problems. May’s husband, who took a second wife after she fell ill, has kicked her out of the house and forced her to leave their village. Neighbors whisper that an evil spirit or omen is attacking her — or perhaps Allah is punishing her. Leaving two of her children with their father, she and her youngest son now live as outcasts with her parents.
For the next four months, Byrd gives May hospice care — visiting her hut twice a day to treat her infection and help ease her pain.
May is one of millions of women around the world who lack access to or knowledge of good health care. Issues routinely treated in America are life-threatening for women overseas: fertility, depression, pregnancy, AIDS, childbirth, rape and gynecological issues to name a few. Male-dominated cultures also leave women with minimal education. Many of them live in poverty and are regarded as property.
Over the next few weeks, Byrd feels burdened to disclose that she is a Christian; she prays with May and shares bits of the Gospel, but Byrd must use caution witnessing in a Muslim society. She also is concerned whether she can clearly explain God’s Word in a new language.
Amid Byrd’s uncertainties, the Lord awakened her late one night with this message: “Why have you not told her about my Son?”
The Southern Baptist worker rationalizes her reasons for not sharing — she might be kicked out of the country, she doesn’t speak the language very well, someone could retaliate against her family — but the Lord tells Byrd not to worry, simply obey.
“The next day as I was seeing other patients and working, the Father would give me a line at a time as to what I was to say to May,” Byrd recounted. “I would stop and write it down then continue on with my work. By lunchtime, He had told me every word to give to May.”
After work, Byrd makes her way to May’s home — a small, grass hut tied together with strings; a plastic mat on the ground is the bed for the entire family. Nearly 30 people are sitting around visiting May and her family.
As Byrd approaches, fear grips her heart.
One visitor is wearing snow-white robes — typical dress of a Muslim religious leader in the area. He sits at the edge of the group, speaking to no one.
“How am I to be so direct about Your truth when so many who oppose You are here?” Byrd quietly asks the Father. She receives no response — God has already given her the answer.
Byrd enters the hut to tend to May’s wounds, aware the visitors close by can hear their conversation.
“May, if you were sleeping and in the night had a vision and was told to do something, what would you do?” Byrd begins.
Immediately, May responds, “You better do it or else trouble will come.”
Emboldened, Byrd continues.
“God spoke to me last night and told me I had to tell you about Him, His love for you, His plan for you and His healing for you.”
May listens intently as Byrd shares the Gospel. Then, with the exact message God has given her, she tells May that God wants to know her decision.
“I choose to follow Jesus!” May exclaims.
Typically, those from Muslim backgrounds take many times of sharing, and even dreams and visions, before they believe in Jesus.
May continues to receive hospice care from Byrd for the next couple of months. She grows daily in her faith in Christ, even as her body wastes away.
“Many days, she exhibited a faith far beyond most believers who’ve known truth their entire lives,” Byrd said.
One August afternoon in 2009, Byrd receives the phone call from May’s father she has been dreading. “She’s dead” is all he says.
Islamic culture dictates a body must be cleaned and prepared for burial within 24 hours, so May’s family obtains a linen garment and prepares soap and water to wash her body. A Christian, or “infidel,” is never allowed in the room with the body, but May’s family asks Byrd to help clean and dress their loved one.
A village woman who also is helping removes May’s bracelets and flings them across the room in typical mourning behavior. Byrd retrieves May’s most treasured bracelet and slips it on her own wrist. When May’s mother sees this tender act, she sends the other woman away — Byrd alone has the privilege of preparing May for the grave.
“I was in complete peace as I worked with May’s body one last time,” Byrd said. “I knew she was in heaven and pain-free and cancer-free.”
May’s life and death challenged Byrd to become a bolder witness — even now as Muslim religious leaders visit her clinic — and to have a childlike faith, expectantly waiting on God.
“I did not know what to do for May,” Byrd said. “… All I had was our heavenly Father, and ultimately that was all she needed. She left this earth with complete and total healing, inside and out.
“May continues to challenge me. … We all need to be faithful to the task of bringing healing to broken hearts, broken people and to our broken world.”
*Names changed. Laura Fielding is a writer with the International Mission Board. Southern Baptists’ World Hunger Fund (www.worldhungerfund.com) often helps provide for food needs associated with Southern Baptist health care ministry. For information on specific health care projects through Baptist Global Response, a key IMB partner in health care initiatives, go to baptistglobalresponse.com. BP