Full compassion

Lifestyle/Technology | Saul Lim and his wife decided that they were not called to a prudent life

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Plastic surgery in the United States attracts top medical school students and pays top wages, particularly for the vanity work that falls outside the limits of medical insurance: Some who do cosmetic surgery earn $7 million to $9 million per year. But money can't buy satisfaction.

That may be why so many plastic surgeons do humanitarian work, traveling for a week or two each year to South America and other locales to correct cleft palates and other deformities. Plastic surgeon Saul Lim says, "I don't know if there's any specialty with such a high percentage doing humanitarian work." Only one in a thousand, though, gives up plastic surgery's financial rewards to become a full-time medical missionary. Lim is that one.

In February he and his wife, pediatrician Susan Lim, moved with their two young children from Minnesota to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There he is serving as medical director of a 60-bed CURE hospital, the only specialized plastic surgery and orthopedic hospital for children in Ethiopia, and his wife will oversee the medical care of children before and after surgery.

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Some members of their extended family argued against the decision and reminded them that if they stayed in the United States they could make millions and donate heavily to missions. The Lims also thought carefully about their parents' cultural concerns: Both Saul and Susan's parents emigrated from Korea to the United States to give their children greater opportunity, and those dreams were fulfilled when both became doctors. Yes, missions are good, but why give up so much of what everyone had been working toward? And what about grandchildren so far away from grandparents?

Ultimately the Lims went to Africa because God called them to it. On their website they quote John Piper, their pastor in Minnesota, to explain their mission philosophy: "Christ does not call us to a prudent life, but to a God-centered, Christ-exalting, justice-advancing, counter-cultural, risk-taking life of love and courage."

That calling has helped them persevere through initial frustrations and a steep learning curve. Susan Lim discovered the hard way that the electrical wiring in their Ethiopian home was improperly grounded: "I acted as the ground for my washing machine and got a great big zap while taking out wet laundry. I never felt my body or heart vibrate so much." They caught the hazard before their children were injured, but the scare made them more attentive to the work going on around them.

Their Ethiopian pay is $5,000 per month, enough for comfortable living in Addis, but during the first two months after arriving Saul spent his time dealing with plumbers, technicians, and electricians who were working on his new house: "It takes all day because I have to physically be there and watch or it doesn't get done." Long to-do lists lead to frustration: They often "can only do one thing on any given half-day."

By the end of April Saul was able to turn his attention more toward the still-under-construction hospital, with lessons learned during the construction of his house making him a careful overseer of work on the hospital. Four or five containers of donated medical equipment await unloading: "We know what's in them from a spreadsheet, but we won't really know until we open them, and we can't open them until the hospital is completed."

Meanwhile, he's learning to adjust to red tape. In the United States much can be done over the phone, but in Ethiopia "you have to physically go to a government office." His status as an American gets him an automatic bump to the front of the line, but "all these things take time."

As they wait for their hospital to open, the Lims are experiencing an unexpected facet of life in Ethiopia: They are meeting many Koreans and even joking abut eating more Korean food in Ethiopia than they ever had in the States. Susan's father, a retired pastor, has connected the Lims with the Korean community in Addis Ababa, and Saul, who doesn't speak fluent Korean, now plays on a Korean soccer team that regularly takes on a Chinese team.

Material witnesses

Christians beware: For two decades annual TED conferences (technology, education, design) have brought together science and technology gurus who give and listen to talks that are almost always from a materialist perspective. Making the whole enterprise more dangerous, the talks are nonetheless interesting and are now online at ted.com: They are posted under a creative commons license meaning they can spread around easily. Ever hear of a virus?


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