Healing Knows no Boundaries

Father Gerald Hammond, M.M.

hammond1Visiting North Korea to bring medical supplies to people with tuberculosis is like being in one of the passages in the Bible where the sick crowded around Jesus begging to be cured.

I serve in mission in South Korea but have made 51 trips to North Korea since 1995 as a volunteer with the Eugene Bell Foundation.  This U.S.-based not-for-profit organization provides medical humanitarian assistance to rural North Korea, where at least 100,000 people are living with tuberculosis.

We do our best to enroll as many patients as possible, giving priority to those who are sickest.  But, unfortunately, due to a chronic shortage of medications, we have to turn many away.  Not everyone who receives treatment recovers, despite our best efforts.

On each trip my emotions move backward and forward, from sheer joy at seeing some patients improve to deep sadness when I hear of the death of someone I have gotten to know personally.  Though sometimes heartbreaking, to be with these dear people in life and death is what being a Maryknoll missioner is all about.

Last year's visit of Pope Francis to South Korea was a great blessing for all of us, especially the people who have suffered so much after the Second World War divided Korea into two countries in 1945.  The pope celebrated a Mass for peace and reconciliation at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, South Korea.  Although North Korea rejected the pope's invitation to allow North Korean Catholics to attend the Mass, I hope his visit will be the spark for the beginning of a move toward peace on the peninsula and for the reconciliation of the peoples of North and South Korea.

The Catholic Church, like other religious groups, is allowed to operate in North Korea only under extremely tight restrictions.  It must work within the confines of the state-controlled North Korean Catholic Association (KCA), which has no links with the Vatican.  There are no known Catholic priests or nuns living in North Korea. According to the KCA, there are 3,000 Catholics in the North, but outside experts put the figure at around 800.  The best Pope Francis could do was to invite to the Mass for peace and reconciliation five representatives of families whose loved ones were kidnapped by the North and 30 elderly Catholics who crossed into the South during the 1950–1953 Korean War.

Pope Francis' five-day visit to Korea was aimed at tending to Catholics here and, more broadly, throughout Asia.hammond2

On Aug. 14, the pontiff met each one of the 14 Maryknollers serving in South Korea.  When he greeted me, he simply said, "North Korea—tuberculosis" and squeezed my arm.

Eugene Bell delegations are allowed to make two three-week visits per year, one in the spring and one in the fall, to North Korea.  We have to accomplish a lot in a short period of time.  Our delegation personally tests each new patient to confirm his or her diagnosis.  Diagnosing has been greatly simplified, thanks to special equipment called Gene Xpert.

During our last trip we were able to visit four new multi-drug-resistant treatment centers, bringing to 12 the total number of centers that the Eugene Bell Foundation supports.  Our work has also expanded geographically and now covers the western half of North Korea, from the city of Sinuiju in the north to Kaesong in the south.  Our rural treatment centers are located anywhere from two to five hours from the capital city of Pyongyang.

Electricity is scarce in the rural areas so we have to make maximum use of daylight, meaning we usually leave the hotel before daylight and do not get back until well after dark.  Most roads are unpaved.

When we arrive at a treatment center—a small village of simple cottages that house patients and staff—we park our vehicles in the widest open space we can find.  Local staff members gather around the vehicles to help us unload boxes of medication and other supplies.  They also set up tables and chairs and help move the delegation's portable diagnostic equipment into a nearby building.  Our digital X-ray machine is set up outside or under a tent, as needed.  Portable generators provide electrical power.  Boxes of patient nutritional supplement are transported by truck and stacked in the courtyard ready for inventory.

While we are setting up for our day's work, a large crowd of people seeking treatment gathers around.  Many have been sick with tuberculosis for years and have failed several courses of treatment with regular tuberculosis medications.  They and their families know time is running out and there is no place else to turn.

hammond3The 1,000 patients treated in our program are all suffering from multi-drug-resistant TB and require at least two years of in-patient care.  Every day a patient has to take six kinds of medications, including some that cause severe side effects.

On every trip we provide each patient a six-month supply of multi-drug-resistant medications.  On average, a patient will receive four medication boxes over a two-year period.  These boxes give patients one last chance at recovering from this deadly disease and help prevent the disease from spreading to their families.

Part of the North Korea trips includes "graduation ceremonies" for patients who have completed treatment.  Usually members of the delegation place necklaces of cranes (a symbol of long life) around the necks of these patients. I am often asked to say a few words of congratulations and encouragement.  I get a big smile when I promise to pray for them. I hope you too will remember our patients in your prayers.

by Father Gerald Hammond, M.M.