Friday, March 9, 2018

Phantoms

"May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true
You walk a lonely road
Oh! How far you are from home"

At about 3:40 in the morning on Monday I got a call from a medical student visiting Kudjip about a patient in the Emergency Room who needed prompt attention for a hand wound sustained during domestic fighting.  Just as I hung up the phone, the ground started to shake.  Several minutes later, after taking shelter with the kids under a sturdy bed, I went up to the hospital.

After clamping some arteries and stabilizing the hand for later surgery, I got breakfast back at the house and then returned to the hospital.

After a few minutes a nurse asked me to come to the ER to evaluate a child just brought in.  When I arrived at the bedside it was obvious the child, a boy of about 5, had passed away some time before.  His mother was upset but alongside her grief she wore a face searching for answers.  In fact, the reason they came to the hospital was not to get care, but to ask, "why"?  What had caused her baby to suddenly stop breathing and die so suddenly?

I could have given many answers.  He had a distended abdomen - perhaps there was a congenital malformation that caused an intestinal rupture.  Perhaps there had been an unknown injury that worsened in the night.  From a big picture, the absence of routine well child care and preventive services could be to blame.  Ultimately, why would any child of 5 die, other than the lingering effects of a fallen world still groaning for its final redemption?

But what that mother really wanted, I think, was for her child's life and death to have a reason.

Throughout that week we heard news on the quake.  A strong 7.5 on the Richter scale that hit west of us with reports of homes being swallowed in avalanches.  Much of the international news media covered the quake for a day or so before quickly moving on to other topics.  After the initial "unconfirmed" death toll it seems that, sadly, the lives of those affected by this catastrophe will resume being "invisible" in their struggles to most of the world.

"How many are sicker ... of whom, the first takes knowledge, is the sexton that buries them, who buries them in oblivion too!  For they do but fill up the number of the dead in the bill, but we shall never hear their names till we read them in the book of life with our own"
John Donne

Wasana Village, Photo MAF

My mentor, Dr Bill, wrote a book some years ago titled Until We All Have Names, chronicling the stories of just some of the thousands of patients he has seen.  Stories and lives that have no birth certificates, no forms of identification, no accolades other than the powerful testimony of lives colored by incredible endurance.  As a hard world went by, like those who were swept away last week in numerous avalanches, they made no headlines.

I used to think my blogs and stories from this mission hospital represented a battle against this anonymity - that I could give names to the people that much of the world saw only as phantoms.  But I think I understand things differently.  Each of them has a name, a purpose, a reason and incredible value that may not be fully known this side of Heaven.

When the night is overcome
You may rise to find the sun

So while the world takes a fleeting glance at an earthquake in one of its remote corners, numbering the dead briefly, we press on trying to know and, at times, bring healing to those whose names will one day be accorded their rightful place.

A patient evacuated to Kudjip by MAF from the earthquake area


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