When We Feel Helpless: A Brief Summary of SMI 2017

by August 24, 2017


The Philadelphia Summer Medical Institute (SMI) took place June 24–July 15 and is a joint project of Medical Campus Outreach and Esperanza Health Center, a local Christian health center. This summer 23 Christian healthcare students and over 60 rotating volunteer “faculty” (Christian medical professionals) provided free door-to-door health screens and medical referrals in Kensington, North Philadelphia. The teams worked with local interpreters for Spanish-speaking households and referred those who were interested to four local church partners for follow-up and care.

This year was striking in that the teams encountered issues of substance abuse almost daily, a result of the growing opioid epidemic across the nation and in Philadelphia. Over 59,000 people died from overdose in the U.S. in 2016—over 900 in Philadelphia alone.

One rainy night several students found a man in a drugged haze who had just fallen over in the street beside our housing location. After he revived, despite their best efforts and entreaties, they couldn’t persuade him to get into the ambulance they had called. The ambulance was willing to take him, if not to the hospital, anywhere he needed to go in order to get him to a dry, safe place on this wet night. His embarrassment and shame were palpable, telling them over and over “I’m sorry—I’m sorry.” Ultimately he took his bag and staggered away back into the night.

Afterward, the students described feeling helpless over his situation, grieved that they could do little for this man. Why did he reject the help?

The next day we discussed this episode as a group. It’s a hard truth to realize that in their lives, there will likely be many more complex situations where no amount of professional expertise will provide an answer: a patient who must be given a diagnosis of a fatal illness or a patient they may even see die under their care. Even on a personal level, they may experience job loss, illness, or parent a struggling teen.

While we seek practical wisdom and discernment to respond well to each situation, these feelings of helplessness remind us of our own lack of control and of our need to pray, acknowledging that we must give these situations to our sovereign God who knows each detail and offers hope as no one else can.

Most of all, during SMI we were reminded through the testimonies of our church pastors and speakers, through daily debriefings and discussions, and through small group Bible studies of Romans 8–16 that God’s arm is not too short to reach and redeem any situation.

SMI medical student Joe L. wrote in his blog entry, “In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul says he boasts in his weaknesses because they connect him to the power of Christ. ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ And as Jesus warned us, ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’ The helplessness that drives us to Jesus keeps us in Jesus. He is exalted when we allow him to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We were reminded of this on the most personal level: that sinners like ourselves were bought with a price, redeemed, and made new.

By no means were substance abuse issues the entirety of what the students experienced during SMI. They witnessed the faithfulness of the churches and their people as well as the kindness, joy, and appreciation of many community families and individuals.

  • SMI students, faculty, and interpreters knocked on a total of 3182 doors
  • A total of 797 individuals received screens
  • 764 blood pressure screens were performed
  • 693 blood glucose screens were performed
  • 538 BMI screens were performed
  • 79 new positives for hypertensions were indicated
  • 52 new positives for diabetes were indicated
  • 163 received asthma education
  • 88 podiatry screens were performed
  • 40 HIV tests were performed in homes, 97 people requested HIV tests
  • 747 people were prayed with; 1 prayed to receive Christ
  • 93 asked to have spiritual follow-up from the local church

Many thanks to those who prayed for us, volunteered help, supported SMI financially, made meals or volunteered to be faculty. Please read the student blog at smiphilly.wordpress.com to hear more firsthand stories from the students’ experiences.

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