WELL is a new book by Sarah Thebarge, author of The Invisible Girls: A Memoir. I received this book from FaithWords/Hachette Book Group in exchange for a review.
Thebarge studied medicine for the express purpose to help underserved populations in developing countries. After a personal health crisis delayed this dream for several years, she finally arrived in Togo, West Africa in July 2015 for a three-month stint in the Hospital of Hope. The book covers the author’s physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles while working valiantly to save the lives of desperate people.
Educated at Yale School of Medicine as a physician assistant, Thebarge felt well trained to heal people. She worked in clinics several years before leaving the U.S. She believed she was ready for the international adventure she had dreamed about for so long.
Within a week of arriving at the Hospital of Hope, I had filled my notebook with everything I didn’t know about practicing medicine in Togo.(p.49)
Lack of equipment, medications, and even clean water caused her and her team to be innovative at times. And other times, to watch helplessly as life slipped away right before their eyes. Frequently, the author remarked painfully to herself that the recent death, the suffering could have been cured or prevented in America.
The stark contrasts of the haves and have-nots that existed between the African and Western worlds rocked the author’s faith in God. Deep, probing questions she grappled with were sprinkled through the book. Some were implied and others were spelled out in the narrative:
- What is the proper role of white missionaries/global workers in non-white cultures?
- Is it possible for a place to be literally God-forsaken?
- What is the right attitude and motivation of the helper toward the helpee?
- Is prayer really effective?
- Why does God, no, why do we allow suffering?
- Is love enough?
- What does death teach us?
- Which is more important, to try or to succeed?
An Advocate for Women
For decades, Thebarge engaged in reading and debating the issues surrounding women’s rights. She wondered what value females possessed, particularly through the filter of male-dominated cultures like in Togo and other Muslim communities. Thebarge recognized the limitations of a foreigner to change long-held traditions and hidden rules. She comforted herself with the knowledge she was in a unique position to aid women and girls as a female practitioner.
She chose to see the ninjas patients, the burka-covered women brought in by male family members who determined what procedures would be allowed. Thebarge radically presented two conditions to the accompanying men for helping their women:
- that the patients be allowed to speak for themselves
- they be permitted to remove clothing that prohibited proper medical evaluation and treatment.
Her persistence offered dignity and value to her female patients.
Female genital mutilation and sexually transmitted diseases passed from the husband to his many wives enraged Thebarge as she witnessed the pain and humiliation silently endured by her Togo sisters. Many were so disfigured by the consequences of these occurrences that marital sex and childbirth became more difficult than normal. The author did all she could to alleviate the suffering but often had no choice but to coach them through their extreme pain.
Answers Come Through the Struggle
After surviving life-threatening cancer and related complications in her late twenties, Thebarge fought for her life again in Togo. Malaria racked her body and caused her to wonder if she would return home alive or in a body bag. While surrounded by daily encounters with death and dying and her own intense illness, she questioned again if Togo was God-forsaken and if by coming there she was God-forsaken also.
The author reported transparently her troubled-observations of the world order and invited the reader to consider her own responses. Bright spots of interactions with children and successful, sometimes miraculous medical endeavors balanced the harsh realities throughout the book.
By the time Thebarge left Africa and returned to America, she discovered a few answers to her internal debate. Other reflections would have to wait for her body and soul to recover. The final chapters delivered sweet resolutions to her heart’s cries and encouragement for the reader.
Making the journey with Thebarge to Africa and back in Well was captivating, especially having personally lived in a developing country built on Islamic culture. Her writing skills and the short chapter book format contributed to the ease and enjoyment of reading Well. This work will undoubtedly join her other books as a bestseller, especially for women readers wanting to be inspired. Or for anyone interested in medical practice overseas and learning about unfamiliar cultures.
Gail Goolsby, MA, MEd is a lifelong educator, including past leadership at an international school in Afghanistan. Gail and her pastor husband of 39 years live where the wind blows over the prairie in south Kansas. She counsels and coaches using God’s Word to help others learn to live well.