“No, Sister Francis,” she said. “I don’t have foot problems. It’s Sister Newson—she has infected blisters on both heels.” Further questioning revealed that Sister Newson had ignored the counsel about the kinds of shoes appropriate for walking six to eight miles a day and had been wearing open sandals. She was miserable, and the work of the sisters was halted while she recovered.
Serving In An Unfamiliar Place
As parents, we are excited at the prospect that many of our missionaries will speak new languages, learn new customs, and eat new foods. However, neither parents nor church leaders should rely on the few weeks at the Missionary Training Center to provide all the spiritual guidance, cultural information, and self-care skills necessary for our youth to serve and return home in good condition. About sixty-five percent of our missionaries are called to serve in environments with which they are completely unfamiliar.
Several returning mission presidents with medical backgrounds attribute much of the illness in their missions to youthful inattention towards good nutrition and hygiene. These mission presidents and their wives, serving both inside and outside the U.S., identified five problems which seem to be universal in trying to keep missionaries healthy.
Inattention to Disease Prevention
The ages of 19–25 carry with them natural feelings of invincibility—“It couldn’t possibly happen to me.” Actually, it does happen unless care is taken to prevent it.
The number one thing missionaries can do to protect themselves from transmittable infections is to wash their hands—correctly. Many infections are transmitted from person to person through contaminated hands or objects. Missionaries shake hands all day and then go eat. Frequent hand washing with soap and rapidly running water for the length of time it takes to repeat the fourth section of the Doctrine and Covenants would go a long way toward preventing infections. When hand washing is not possible, there are many good antibacterial lotions and gels that missionaries can carry in their backpacks.
Limited Cooking Skills
I noticed that after Elder Parker was assigned to work in the mission office, the smell of popcorn became ever-present. I discovered that popcorn was the main food in his diet. He was actually living on popcorn, garlic potatoes, and little else. He didn’t look well, and he didn’t feel well much of the time. In the process, I realized that Elder Parker’s cooking skills were limited to prepackaged, processed, or frozen foods. In our mission, those types of foods were not available or were far too expensive.
Elder Parker was also handicapped by the absence of fast-food restaurants. These foods, if available, are too expensive for missionary budgets. There are convenient, inexpensive foods available all over the world. Missionaries need to learn to prepare these ahead of time. It is up to families, quorums, and Relief Societies to make sure that our youth are able to prepare simple foods from scratch.
Dry noodle soup preparations and pasta are favorites of missionaries around the world. They are cheap, fast, and don’t require much thought to prepare. Unfortunately, this tends to become the “default meal” for busy missionaries. The nutritional value of these concoctions is inadequate, especially if eaten day after day. But even missionaries with little prior cooking experience can learn to add chicken breast to a package of noodles or a sautéed zucchini to a pot of spaghetti. By adding a variety of meats or vegetables to soup or pasta, a meal can become more nutritious and more flavorful.
My first trip to the grocery store in the Canary Islands was something of a shock. I had never seen morcilla (blood sausage), nispero (a fruit), or tuno (cactus apples). I had no idea what to do with pulpo (octopus). The words were strange. After we stood in a long line, the meats had to be cut by the butcher. There was a different line for cheese and another one for fruits and vegetables. There were hundreds of different kinds of cheeses—everything but cheddar.
When called to foreign lands, missionaries are usually confronted with a bewildering array of new foods, some they can’t even identify. A newly called missionary usually has a couple of months before he or she enters the MTC. This is the perfect window of opportunity to research and practice preparing the foods available in the area where the missionary will serve. The Internet or a library will yield information about regional foods, safe preparation, and sanitation in any area of the world.
One preparation-day morning, I left early to buy some groceries for the mission home. At 9:00 am I came upon a whole district of missionaries headed off to play basketball. I asked if their apartments and clothes were clean and their groceries purchased for the week. The sheepish looks I got were the answer. I offered to make them homemade cinnamon rolls the following week if I came to check their apartments and they were clean. (Elders, I found, will do nearly anything for homemade cinnamon rolls.)
The next prep day, the elders got out their zone-conference handout, “Housekeeping 101: Remedial Cleaning,” and went through it step by step. Some were more enthusiastic and efficient than others, explaining that they had “been taught by their mothers.” They finished by 1:00 pm, ate their cinnamon rolls, and then headed off to play basketball.
Many young people have learned to rely on “appliances of convenience” such as microwaves, ovens, freezers, clothes dryers, blenders, and toasters. Those appliances are not found in missionary apartments in many parts of the world. Could your son or daughter eat healthily without relying on frozen foods and microwave ovens? If a washing machine is not available, could he or she wash by hand and hang clothing on a clothesline?
Poor Nutrition and Hygiene There is a tremendous physiological change when a missionary enters the mission field. Young people who have been sedentary suddenly find themselves walking or riding bikes for eight hours a day. Rapid weight loss will follow unless dietary changes take place. A missionary who has kept himself in shape by strenuous workouts and high-carbohydrate or high-protein diets will discover that the exercise he gets in the field is less than he is used to.
Unless dietary changes take place, the missionary will soon gain weight. In some cases the weight change may be an advantage, but in many cases it is a sign that something is out of balance.
One transfer day, our two assistants moved into an apartment vacated by two other elders. I got a call requesting the use of my washing machine since the water truck hadn’t come and the assistants refused to sleep in the “dirty sheets.” They dropped the sheets off at the mission home and I washed them once...twice...three times. When the elders came back to pick up the sheets, Elder Albor said, “These are not the right sheets.”
“Yes, they are,” I replied. “They were just so dirty you couldn’t tell there were flowers on them.” Missionaries need to understand that sheets and other bedding need to be cleaned often. In some parts of the world, bedbugs, fleas, nits, and other vermin abound. These creatures will sleep in that dirty bedding along with the missionary.
“If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.”
The goal is for missionaries to leave for the field in good health and return in the same condition—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The best health policies involve prevention. It’s impossible to keep a missionary healthy without his or her commitment, cooperation, and obedience, and without prior preparation at home.
The missionary committee and Church leaders have made missionary service as safe as possible with recommendations tailored to fit each mission. Prepare ahead, be obedient while serving, and remember the counsel, “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” Having a healthy mind and body will help ensure that your mission is successful and productive.
Help at Home
What can we do as families and Church organizations to help missionaries leave and return in good health?
• Teach the principles of good hygiene and nutrition and help our youth to understand the consequences of neglecting these practices.
• Teach the importance of good hand washing and safe food-preparation practices. Instruct youth to use paper towels in the kitchen to prevent disease transmission and a food thermometer to check meats for safe temperatures.
• Teach how, and how often, to clean bathrooms and kitchens.
• Mentor each prospective missionary, preferably in the “window of opportunity” between arrival of the call and departure for the MTC, to practice hands-on skills.
Teach the qualifications needed to serve and the practicalities of independent living.
Utilize home, family and personal enrichment meetings to help mothers and grandmothers understand the skills their missionaries will need with regard to good nutrition, simple food preparation, safe food-handling practices, and prevention of infection.
• Make sure you know and use these skills well before you leave.
• Check the library, Internet, extension divisions of universities, and the information supplied by mission area medical advisers and mission presidents for safe regional practices.