As the train carried him homewards, the young Greek doctor thought back on the words of the veteran missionary speaker from South Africa: ‘Healthy people walk vertically and look horizontally, but sick people lie horizontally and look vertically.’ Francis Grimm, founder of Hospital Christian Fellowship, had been challenging his audience to see why sick people were more open spiritually.
As he pondered this wisdom, Dr Demosthenes Katsarkas sensed God challenging him with an ‘impossible’ task-to start a Christian hospital in a land where evangelicals were a very small minority, seen as heretics.
A hospital run on pro-life principles, staffed by believers, with the highest professional standards, was a great idea, but totally impractical, Dr Katsarkas was told by all his friends; hospitals were a task for the Greek government. Not even the Orthodox Church ran hospitals.
Nearly thirty-five years later, St Lukes Hospital in Thessaloniki is second only to the main hospital in Athens in numbers of open heart surgeries. Fifty to eighty operations are performed daily in 20 operating theatres, as much as many large state hospitals do in a week. Still a small hospital by most standards, with 220 beds, and a total staff of 500, St Lukes has become highly respected, and many doctors in the city choose to use the operating theatres there over other hospitals.
Romkje and I visited St Lukes last week, accompanying Dr Chris Steyn and his wife Elize (of the Hope for Europe healthcare network), to present the leadership and staff a HOPE Award for their outstanding vision and service. As we waited in the reception area, we observed the hustle and bustle of patients and family members coming and going, with little awareness of how or why this particular hospital had ever been established.
Dr Katsarkas, now approaching 75, explained to us in his office, in between constant telephone calls, letters thrust under his nose for signing, or verbal requests from staff entering his open office, how his dream had eventually become reality.
While many hospitals in Europe today gave lip service to the Hippocratic Oath to do all to save life, St Lukes was known for its commitment to pro-life ethics. Originally, the oath had to be taken by all entering training for the profession, which meant that only those already committed to such ethics were trained. Today, the oath is taken after training, and often as a formality.
Medicine was a field where much corruption was to be found. Doctors and nurses were expected to meet patients’ requests rather than operate from ethical standards. Medical personnel often yielded to the temptation to add unnecessary items to operations to get extra percentages from the medical suppliers. Unethical sexual liaiasons were also more widespread than acknowledged between medics and patients.
That evening, in a formal ceremony with performances by choir, piano and violin, we presented the HOPE Award to Dr Katsarkas, his wife and staff, and the executive vice-president of AMG International, the mission that sponsored St Lukes from the start.
St Lukes is one of three hospitals that jointly received the 2008 award, along with the SGM Langenthal Klinic in Switzerland, and the Barcelona Evangelical Hospital.
The next day we drove two hours to the east for a rendezvous with a contact from the Women in Leadership network. Vicky and her young friend Theodora were waiting for us to show us through the ancient ruins of Philippi, where Paul planted the very first church on European soil.
Along the Via Egnatia, we followed in the footsteps of Paul and Silas to the market place where they had been dragged before the magistrate (Acts 16) and sent to prison. We were shown the cell where-tourists are told-the missionary duo sang hymns until the earthquake liberated them. Our guide confided that it was unlikely that that had been the actual prison, within the city walls.
Then on to the river, where on their first sabbath in town, Paul and Silas had met Lydia and other women gathered for worship. The place is still remarkably untouched, with no signs or tourist stalls, simply a natural fast-flowing stream in the Greek countryside. No-one observing Paul meeting Lydia would have guessed that this was the start of a movement that would shape the whole of Europe! That was a day of small beginnings.
As was Dr Katsarkas’s train ride.
Till next week,