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child and doctor

Clinic of the Great Physician

Practicing Medicine for Jesus

Robert Paeglow, MD

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Life was good when the call came. My wife Leanne and I had struggled through many years of poverty and now stood with our young family on the verge of a successful middle-class life. The thought of plunging back into poverty by accepting a call to study medicine was the last thing we would have planned.

But God had another idea. He apprehended me through a vision that led me to repent of my comfortable lifestyle and history of underachievement and that gave me a burning passion to become a doctor. Still, attending medical school seemed not only crazy but impossible: my previous academic record did not even qualify me for an interview.

But again God had another idea. I was not being plunged into a feel-good story about a poor kid who made something of himself. My journey into healing ministry was to be God’s answer for the poor, those whom no one else cared about, and anyone else he wanted to bring across my path. I couldn’t escape his voice within me: “These are your people, go and learn how to care for them.”

The divine nature of my call was underscored by my miraculous acceptance into medical school. Looking around at my classmates in those early days, I realized that while they deserved their seats, I didn’t. I was there solely as a result of grace. It was God’s grace that allowed me, and my family, to endure the ordeal called medical school and residency. It was by his grace that I graduated at the top of my class.

And I believe it was God who led me, as a fourth-year student, to minister in the refugee camps of post-civil-war Mozambique. As I wept for the starving people there, my commitment to care for the poor was hardened in the furnace of affliction. I thought that this international work would be my life’s mission until July 2000, when I spent a month in Kenya and Uganda. In less than a month I saw seventeen thousand patients in our makeshift clinics in the bush. After working thirty-nine days without a day off, I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. “Take me home,” I cried out to God. “I have nothing left to give!”

God replied with the vision of a clinic in West Hill, Albany’s poorest neighborhood. I was going home to the neighborhood where I grew up. The vision was to invite worshippers and prayer warriors into the office to create an atmosphere in which God’s healing would flourish. My job was to provide primary and mental health care, and to offer healing prayer to any who would receive it. My offer of prayer has been declined only five times in over seventy thousand patient visits.

The work in West Hill has been arduous and glorious. At times we were so broke that if it hadn’t been for some miraculous infusion of money we would have been forced to close. I hired Leanne as my nurse because I didn’t have to pay her; I couldn’t afford to hire anyone else. I worked the better part of eleven years without a salary. But God has been true to his promises, and the miracles of healing and provision we have witnessed are too numerous to chronicle here. We grew and prospered through the struggle, and in 2013, Koinonia Primary Care Clinic became a state-certified diagnostic and treatment center. For the first time, I was even paid an almost reasonable salary. Life was good!

But recently, after working for fourteen years at Koinonia, I found myself becoming irritable and short with my patients. I had become jaded and cynical: all the times I’d been lied to, ripped off, and taken advantage of had worn me out. God’s original call had been overwhelmed by a series of internal and external problems – at least that’s how I justified myself.

It was in this state that I heard my pastor preach a sermon about “Jesus, friend of sinners.” As I listened I was convicted by the Holy Spirit, cried, repented, and vowed again to seek the Lord in every encounter with my patients.

Two days later that conviction was put to the test when the personification of anger and hostility showed up for an appointment. This patient (I’ll call her the “Dragon Lady”) had been dismissed from a couple of other practices because of belligerent and hostile behavior. We had even received phone calls from her previous doctors warning us about her. During her first visit, I had struggled to be patient with her angry glare and uncooperative attitude, and it had taken all the grace I could muster not to dismiss her from the clinic immediately.

Now she was coming for follow-up, and my newfound conviction was about to be tested by fire – dragon fire. I secretly hoped that she would be a “no-show,” a common occurrence in the stressed inner-city environment, but these hopes were dashed when her name appeared on my electronic schedule. I must confess that I was more concerned with my own well-being than the health of this particular patient, and I felt the presence of the Spirit being overwhelmed by my human weakness. I sent the medical student to see her first in hopes of softening her up, and retreated to our break room to pray.

An angry stare nearly stopped me cold when I entered the exam room, but somehow I began to feel compassion mixed with my aversion. I was able to sit next to her and treat her with care and concern in spite of her hostile responses to what I thought were simple, straightforward questions. At times I had to resist the temptation to get angry, but it seemed easier than on our previous encounter.

doctor and patient The author with a young patient at the ­Koinonia Primary Care Clinic in Albany, New York
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After finishing the physical examination I began to type up her prescriptions and dismissed the medical student to retrieve them from our office printer. Now that she and I were alone in the room, an uncomfortable silence settled in. As I prayed for the student to return quickly, a question popped into my mind. It was a simple enough question – I could have looked up the answer in the patient’s records – but I felt the Holy Spirit compel me to ask her.

“Do you have any children?” I looked into her eyes and saw her countenance change from anger to sorrow.

“Yes, I have three living children,” she responded. “And one child who died.”

I struggled to ask the obvious next question, as I wasn’t sure what kind of door I was opening. “What happened?”

“It was nine years ago. I had an infant son. I brought him to bed one night and during the night I rolled over and suffocated him. I killed my baby!” Her anger turned to hysteria. She sobbed, and wept, and sobbed some more. She continued to cry out, “I killed my baby!” almost with a shriek.

I sat next to her, grabbed her hand, and said nothing. I felt compassion well up inside me, and I too began to weep. I tried to imagine what it must be like for a parent to lose a child. I thought of my own four children and how I had even prayed at times, “Oh God, please do not let me live to see my child die. Please take me first!” The thought of being responsible for your own child’s death was more than I could fathom – let alone the guilt, shame, and horror of carrying this for nine years without knowledge of atonement. It must have been torture of the most excruciating kind.

She wept for five minutes that seemed like an hour. When she had calmed down enough to listen, I asked her, “Do you know that Jesus can forgive you? That he paid the price for our sin and that we can be free of guilt and shame by trusting in him and asking for his forgiveness? Would you like to pray with me to receive Jesus and his forgiveness, right now?” She nodded her head through her tears, prayed with me, and received Jesus’ forgiveness. She walked out of the exam room a new woman set free by the healing power of the blood of Jesus.

Once again I was blessed to see Jesus reach out and touch someone in a miracle of transformation. I have often wondered if anyone had ever taken the time to listen to this woman’s story before, to sit through her hostility to get at the real root of her “disease.” Perhaps I too never would have gone there if I hadn’t recently been reminded that Jesus is a friend of sinners – and the only real hope for healing for people like the Dragon Lady and me and all our neighbors in West Hill.

Images courtesy of the author.

doctor and baby
Contributed By Robert Paeglow, MD

Robert Paeglow – “Dr. Bob” to his patients – founded the Koinonia Primary Care Clinic in 2001. He also runs Care from the Start, a partnership with Albany Medical College’s family practice program to bring medical students face to face with the health effects of poverty.

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