Chapter 13 – Physical Well-Being: Hair Loss, Weight Gain, and Acne (and that’s just the easy stuff)

When you serve a mission, you sacrifice more than your time. You frequently also sacrifice your body.

“[My most difficult adjustment was] Actually, the humid climate of Brazil, walking around and sweating every day, without warm water or even clean water to wash with made. It my face breakout horribly, and it took me quite a while to work through getting my skin cleared up. That was hard on the self esteem.”

While in Argentina, I had a rough go. I kept getting sick and going on antibiotics until one day the church nurse said, “If you keep going on these pills you’ll be an old man when you go home.” Well, I eventually managed to overcome that problem, but it was just one of many. My body underwent a slow breakdown. At about the 14-month mark in my mission I started to lose feeling in one of my legs. My lower back on the right side hurt, and pain shot from there to the heel of my right foot. That pain stayed with me and I lost some feeling in my right leg so that I alternated between periods of extreme pain and numbness. The pain also shot up my back so that my neck always felt kinked. At times the pain in my leg and neck was seemingly unbearable, but I just grit my teeth and kept working. I don’t think I ever told anyone in the mission, though I’m sure some missionaries noticed when I often did not participate in preparation day sporting events. After I got home I went to the doctor and discovered that I had a partially pinched nerve in my hip. Once I got that worked out, I couldn’t believe how good I felt. I had been feeling constant, chronic pain for ten months.

In addition to that experience, I got parasites, food poisoning on several occasions, severe sunburns, and one brutal summer day my companion and I both got heat stroke.

But perhaps the greatest “health problem” I experienced related to my mental health.

On my mission I always felt close to the Lord and felt that he was protecting me and keeping me safe. Yet, I had some psychological trauma and residual fears related to several events I experienced in the mission field – a stabbing and an attempted murder which a companion and I witnessed in my first area, the death of a missionary I was friends with who was hit by a car and killed, the breakdown of one of my companions who cracked under the mission workload, various other difficult deaths of people I was close to on my mission, and being robbed at gunpoint one night on a dark street.

Many missionaries I knew, from all parts of the world, experienced similar pains, discomforts, and traumatic episodes.

A sister in my mission experienced a low-grade fever almost the entire time she was in Argentina. It was not severe enough to send her home – she was able to work – but she was uncomfortable her entire mission.

My brother experienced a severe rash that lasted months, a mysterious skin condition that later turned out to be bed-bugs. He also suffered from severe stress-related hair loss and a neck injury he incurred falling down a flight of concrete stairs. The latter resulted in him not being able to turn his neck to the left or right, but instead he held in a forward position, like a turtle, for six months until he returned home and could see a doctor. When he walked off the plane we literally did not recognize him. It took him almost a year to recover his health.

He and I felt lucky that we weren’t among the “serious” health problems some of our friends encountered – from serious accidents, injuries, and even parasites, to death. It’s a sad occurrence, but every year several missionaries die from health problems and accidents, and occasionally violence.

You may feel the same way after returning home – physically beat up.

Many men and women gain weight on their missions. There are various reasons for this. In some missions the missionaries are fed very well and consume high calorie diets – too high. In other missions, missionaries drive cars and so don’t have opportunity to walk or ride bikes to burn calories. Still others naturally gain weight or gain because of stress.

Others lose weight and can’t seem to put it back on. Some missionaries we’ve known picked up parasites on their missions and that resulted in weight loss and chronic sickness. Others had a hard time holding down or digesting the food they ate on their missions.

None of the forgoing is intended to paint a mission experience in a negative light. These are just the realities of working hard and serving in sub-optimal places in the world.

Whatever you’re experiencing, when you get home you should get it checked out. You will have a hard time moving on in your life if you don’t get your body put back together and resolve any unresolved health issues or psychological trauma that you’re carrying around.

If you’re struggling with a physical ailment or difficulty, don’t be shy about seeing a specialist or seeking out help. It’s common for missionaries to neglect themselves and their health while they’re on missions. I never saw a dentist in my two years in Argentina even though for months I had a very painful toothache. Many missionaries I knew dealt with their problems in a similar way simply because they did not want to see a doctor or dentist until they returned to their home countries.

For two years you may have been neglecting yourself to take care of others; now it’s time to take care of yourself. Your body has to last you the rest of your life. If you’re in good shape, with good health, you’ll be a more serviceable being to your fellowman. You can’t give if you have nothing to give; physical and emotional well-being allow you to give a lifetime of effective service.