Sometimes Missionaries Get Sick

Sickness in a third world country can be scary. Last September I watched my husband battle a 103 degree fever and a pain level of 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 (meaning the worst pain he had ever experienced). He was sick for about two weeks, and I was scared. I remember just standing there in the room, staring at him, with no thoughts whatsoever.  I hated watching his temperature rise and his pain increase to unbearable levels, regardless of the medicine I had given him. I felt so helpless.

I wondered what happens when your head pain gets to the level of a 10. Can it get worse than 10? Does your brain explode and you die?? (Yes, a little bit of over-reactivity still wheedles its way into practically every health issue I face.)

We had asked all our prayer supporters to pray for us, and it’s a good thing we did, because most of the time I had absolutely no words to pray. Sometimes I could get out a feeble, “God, help!” But for the most part, I had to depend on the Body of Christ to pray for us, because I literally couldn’t pray myself.

We never really knew what caused his severe illness last year, but the most likely diagnosis we received from doctors was viral meningitis. He was sick again the next month with a freakishly painful ear infection and then went the entire next year without being sick. Not even once.

But when September rolled around again, he became very sick. Again. What started as slight discomfort on a Tuesday night degraded into a full-blown fever, headache, and nausea by Wednesday morning. Those were the exact same symptoms he had experienced the previous year. I dreaded repeating last year’s ordeal. Another high fever, more worrisome head pain, another lengthy recovery time.

Those are the times I’m especially thankful others are praying for us, because I can’t possibly think of anything to say to God. Not that I am angry at Him or blame Him for the illness. I do, after all, live in a developing tropical country, which means we can contract rare tropical diseases that place a strain on our bodies. It also means that conditions aren’t exactly hygienic anywhere we go. Open sewers anyone? Men peeing on the side of the road? Children defecating on their front porches during potty training?

On the second day of illness, Jonathan went to the doctor for blood tests.



Often a blood test is the only way to differentiate among the many diseases that can happen here, as the initial symptoms of malaria, dengue, and typhoid can be similar. The next day we received a diagnosis of typhoid fever and immediately put Jonathan on the antibiotics he needed. His fever and pain improved relatively quickly, but his fatigue lingered.

When my husband is sick, I get discouraged. In the middle of it, it feels as though he will never get better. I’m worn out, taking care of all the children and the house by myself. I don’t sleep much at night because I’m awake worrying about him. I don’t sleep much at night because I wake up every 2 hours, when he does, to give him more medication. Sometimes I feel like I need a vacation to recover from him getting sick.

I freely admit that tropical diseases are one of the yucks of missionary life.

This is something I didn’t truly understand about missionary life before I came here. I didn’t realize that no matter how hard we scrub the house, that no matter how often we wash our hands, that no matter how well we cook our food, that we will still get sick. I didn’t realize all sorts of strange un-American illnesses happen here. Or at least, I didn’t realize they would happen to me (perhaps by virtue of the fact that I didn’t want it to happen to me??). I didn’t realize how scary some of the symptoms could be.

I don’t think the prospect of this kind of sickness would have stopped me from coming, but I’m sure I would have been more nervous about moving (as if I weren’t already nervous!). Now that I’ve settled into my life here, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t know. I would still have come.  And I would still come today.

But I know now that missionaries can’t make it through illness without help. We need doctors’ help. We need God’s help. And we need His people’s help. I’m thankful for all three.

6 thoughts on “Sometimes Missionaries Get Sick

  1. as your mom I suppose I knew it was possible any of you could contract one of those diseases, but with the shots and the precautions Jonathan assured me you all would be taking, I don’t think I really thought about it myself! haha. And can totally understand that you couldn’t pray. I’ve thought of that before, when you are smack dab in the middle of a really bad situation, crisis, etc., when you think your heart would be pouring out all kinds of word prayers, somehow you can’t. and I don’t know why that is either! I know I’m so thankful for all the many, many people praying for you and the family there. It’s very comforting for me.

    Back in the 1980s in Germany when your sister Katie was just a baby she was really sick with a very high fever and some other yucky symptoms and the doctors weren’t sure what she had, probably some virus that they get over there that we didn’t in the States and so I didn’t have any immunity to pass on to her. I remember thinking as I would hold and rock her that “This is the 21st century, surely if it gets any worse there will be something they can do, we will go to the hospital, get some medicine, etc. because as of that time they hadn’t given her anything. I don’t remember how many days it lasedt, but it was more than just one and I remember being very afraid.

  2. I remember my son when he was 22 and he travelled to The Third world and contracted a still unknown illness, it took 2 weeks of pumping antibiotics into him and hospital treatment before we realised they were not working. I handed it over to God with a lot of prayer and REALLY trusted in His will and he improved within 24 hours. He is now working in the Australian outback where he is really happy. I guess what I a trying to say trust in Gods will and plan for your lives. In The Philippines they have a great trust in God and through all their suffering they say “what will be, will be, it is Gods will” and things always seem to work okay. I enjoy following your mission work and hope someday to make it to Cambodia

  3. Elizabeth, I experienced that lack of words today. A family member , Julie, 46 years old, has been in a terrible motorcycle accident (massive brain injury) and will be taken off life support in the next few hours. As I sit with my family, and especially Julies own children (one is engaged, another is expecting Julie’s first grandchild in February), I don’t know what to say except, “Please, Lord, help.”

    • I’m so sorry, Sarah. This is such a tragic event for your family. Praying for the engaged one and the pregnant mom. Such a hard thing for everyone, but especially for those two. Love, Elizabeth

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