For Greeneville optometrist Dr. Brad Emde, the most significant interactions that occurred during his 2017 mission journey to distant Mongolia and its capital city of Ulaanbaatar had only a little to do with the eyeglasses he gave away every day to impoverished people.
“Forget the glasses,” he said Thursday in looking back on the trip that began on Memorial Day.
The results that most matter from that journey, which Emde made in the company of his wife and three daughters (not to mention about 120 other medical professionals, ancillary staff and their family members) had to do with visions deeper than the physical variety, such as the chance for challenged people to see kindness played out in a practical way among them.
One example: a wheelchair-bound man’s chance to re-experience what it was like to be treated with respect that had been long missing from his life.
Emde and his family participated in the mission effort organized by the “It Is Written” organization and ADRA (Adventist Development & Relief Agency) as a way of practically living out their Christian faith.
Dr. Emde, an active Seventh-day Adventist, had been asked to lead a free vision clinic that was just one facet of the Mongolian mission effort. Free dental and primary care medical clinics were also provided to the Mongolian poor, along with free specialized surgeries in local hospitals.
Emde’s vision clinics were usually set up in Adventist church buildings in Ulaanbaatar, a city of about 1.5 million people, roughly half of that nation’s population. Native Mongolians are descendants of the ancient Mongols against whom China, to Mongolia’s south, long ago erected a defensive barrier, the famous Great Wall of China.
While in Mongolia, Emde and family made a Greene County connection. They spent some time with Justin Woolsey, son of Dr. Doug Woolsey and Jeannie Woolsey, and Justin’s wife, Helen, who have been providing veterinary services in Mongolia for many months as missionaries.
“Justin’s small animal clinic was only about three blocks from our hotel,” Emde said.
“One church we were in was in a two-story building,” Emde said. With the assistance of his family and other team members, those who came in for eye exams received their first screening on the lower floor before being sent up to where Emde was working one floor up.
“I was told there was an old man, 88 years old, there in a wheelchair,” Emde said. And though the upstairs work area was already full of waiting people, Emde decided to alter his pattern briefly and go evaluate the old man’s situation right where he was.
He went downstairs and knelt beside the man’s wheelchair to perform an examination.
The old man’s vision problems were not beyond improvement, Emde found, but eye surgeons in the city had declined to help him because he was “too old.” Ultimately, Emde was able to at least improve his vision situation with a new pair of glasses.
The old man afterward had a conversation with the local translator working with the vision clinic. The translator told Emde’s wife, Angela, what the man had said, and she passed it on to her husband later.
“I can’t believe this doctor came all the way across the world to help me when my own doctors here wouldn’t do anything for me,” the old man had told Emde’s translator. “And he came downstairs just to help me when there was a crowd of people waiting for him.”
Then came words that touched Emde’s heart and let him know he had been right to follow his impulse to come downstairs to help the old man: “Just for this doctor to do that restored my dignity.”
It was such moments, as Emde tells it, that let him know how great a sermon is preached through simple kind actions. Kindness is far more impactful, he believes, than are mere words.
As an example, Emde cited the case of the observant hotel clerk.
It was the last of five days of rigorous work for Emde and crew, who had been seeing patients in a steady stream since early that morning. Emde, exhausted, was ready to cash it in for the day and collapse into bed at his hotel as quickly as he could.
There proved to be a delay in that process.
The background: One of the vision professionals on Emde’s team was an ocular surgeon, Dr. Jacob Prabhakar, who came to Mongolia with a supply of instruments and medical devices associated with his specialty.
That cache of supplies was seized by customs authorities at the airport. They suspected that Prabhakar planned to sell the medical equipment on the black market.
Prabhakar, whose “Eyes to India” eye surgery project in his native India is one Emde said he has long supported and promoted, had to work fast to correct the problem. A solution was found in a helpful high-level court justice who stepped in and managed to get the surgeon’s equipment released back to him.
When the weary Emde got back to his hotel, he found that the court justice, however, was in need of a favor in return. His mother needed an eye examination.
Emde was shut down for the day and ready to rest, but instead he decided to do what was asked. He set up his equipment right there in the hotel lobby and examined the woman’s eyes. Afterward, the court justice himself asked for an exam. Emde complied, little noticing the hotel clerk behind the counter who watched all that was going on.
Once he’d finished examining the court official, Emde remembered having overheard someone at the hotel say that a member of the staff was in need of an eye doctor’s attention. Emde inquired of hotel workers, and that staffer was found and brought to the lobby.
Another eye exam for a tired optometrist. And while it was going on, others on the hotel staff lined up to get the same freebie for themselves.
Emde did not protest, and by the time he was finally done, he’d seen well over a dozen new, unexpected late-evening patients at the end of a week in which he’d already seen more than 1,000.
Before heading to bed, Emde had a brief conversation with the hotel clerk at the counter.
“You American doctors are different,” the clerk told him.
Emde remembers wondering instantly what he’d done wrong, and asked.
“No, no,” the clerk told him. “What I mean is, you care about your patients. Doctors here will not even look at you unless you’re healthy or have status. But you just gave the same attention to janitors and kitchen workers that you gave to a court justice.”
The clerk went on to tell Emde that he himself tried to treat hotel customers in that same equitable manner. Emde went to his room, thinking about that.
When he woke up the next morning, it was still on his mind. He looked up the clerk and told him: “I’ve been thinking about what you said about treating your hotel customers equally. That’s not normal. That’s not following basic human nature. Human nature is to do what you said others do, treating people with status differently. I know what it is that is making you treat everyone the same.”
The clerk asked him to tell him, then, what that was.
“That’s God reaching for your heart,” Emde said. “That’s what’s leading you to do what you do. God is reaching for your heart.”
With further talk, Emde discovered that the clerk had come from one of the statistically few Christian families in Mongolia, where only 2.5 percent of the population is Christian. Buddhism and shamanism dominate.
Though raised Christian, the hotel clerk had drifted from his faith.
Emde’s inconvenient acts of kindness in the hotel lobby, though, had called those old roots of faith to mind again.
Those kinds of experiences, Emde said this week, are the best take-aways he has from his 2017 Mongolian mission, one that left behind with the Mongolian people 1,400 new pairs of free glasses, and even more practical illustrations of love in action.