There had been teams at the selection site all night maintaining order and pre-screening patients; we didn’t want to have too many people sleeping in line for something we have no hope of being able to help. In the past patients would start forming the line the day before and that is what we were expecting this year – but, once again, Congo is teaching us not to compare her people to those in West Africa. As we arrived on site and walked out to see the line, there were just a few hundred people there and the pre-screeners hadn’t had much to do in the night. My heart sank just a little as we surveyed the scene and called for assistance in rearranging the chairs. It’s while we were standing out there, around 5:30 am, when we watched as the floodgates seemed to open and people desperate for hope and healing began to pour in by the hundreds. The line crew was a bit overwhelmed but all remained orderly as the line continued to grow by the minute and I made my way back inside the compound.
My job was to work alongside the Communications and Executive teams to take care of VIP’s and Media. We weren’t sure who or how many to expect; we had plans for ‘in case the President comes’ and everything else down the line. We would see all manner of VIP’s, from government officials to ONG directors to Hospital directors and surgeons just wanting to see how we do this thing called Patient Selection. We had been given the heads up to expect much more VIP and Media action than in past years and that remained true. We’re extremely protective of our patients and will not let them be exploited or photographed, their carefully protected privacy invaded, and the Comms team did an amazing job with them. I welcomed in various VIPs and gave about a dozen tours of the whole site, trudging through ankle deep sand to get from one building to the next.
They kept me on my toes until the last wave departed around 2pm. Thanks to my morning of tours I had gotten to see the patient flow in its entirety and I’m amazed at the teams that organize this. The patients kept coming, they came by the thousands, it was apparent after just a few hours that this would be our largest screening day in history.
After my last tour I hopped around and helped out wherever I could. For a while I stood out and interacted with the line crew. It was incredible how the line just kept growing and the people just kept coming. The need here is staggering, and I just shook my head at my early morning thought of what if they don’t come? It began to get hot in the afternoon and when you combine heat, hunger and exhaustion with a few thousand desperate people in a small area, that’s pretty much a recipe for disaster. But they were calm; the line continued to creep along while crew entertained children and the Academy students passed out water bottles.
I made my way inside and stood alongside some of my friends who were pre-screening. They greet every patient with a smile, looking into their eyes and the eyes of their children, offering the unspoken reassurance that we are for real, we can be trusted, we see them and hear them and want to help them. For some of these patients it may be the first time they’ve come out of the shadows to reveal their hurts and their shame and their fear, you can see the vulnerability in their eyes and gestures as they respond to the question what brings you here to us today? They point and they speak and the words are translated to the nurses, who in turn shoot up a quick prayer for wisdom as they investigate the problem further. For many patients they know the answer is no immediately, but out of respect for those who have stood in line for hours and waited for years for this moment, they look and touch and ask more questions. At one point a translator got called away briefly so I stepped in and put my French back to work – and this is where I met my one.
|(photo courtesy of ali's blog, not the patient i'm writing about, but another dear one)|
Everyone has their one - their one patient who really deeply impacts them. Deb has one and Ali has one and so does Jay and I promise that all of the 300+ crewmembers who helped yesterday have at least one. I was translating for a dear nurse friend who welcomed up a mama who was carrying her little boy. His legs weren't exactly right but we knew from the first glance it wasn’t something we could help on the ship; our surgical options are limited and we have to say no to a staggering number of hopeful people. As my friend explained and I translated to the mama that we couldn’t provide the surgery her son needed, the sadness that took over her features and dropped her eyelids was evident. She pleaded with us, with hope and heartbreak and exhaustion and hunger and hurt all passing from her eyes into mine as I explained what I could and said I’m so sorry, mamma. I’m sorry we can’t help. You’re a good mamma and your son is precious, I wish I could help you. I’m sorry. As she gathered her son and the pieces of her broken heart up off the floor and walked away, I nearly lost it. My nurse friend put her hand on my shoulder as I gasped for breath and wondered aloud how do you do this – all day long? She wistfully smiled and said with wisdom and grace and strength from God. Then she took up her clipboard and raised her hand and greeted the next hopeful patient with a smile.
I had another one, a beautiful little girl who jumped into my arms. She was two years old and a delight to hold and play with – but it was clear as day even to my non-medical eyes that we couldn’t help her, either. She had Downs syndrome and couldn’t walk or talk and her mamma held her out in hopes that we could do something. I’m sorry, mamma, we can’t help her. She stayed in my arms as I walked with her mamma down the hallway, as many nurses and other crew smiled at her daughter in my arms and she playfully smiled back and clapped. She’s beautiful, all these people say so; I translated their words to her tired mamma. She looked at me and said she doesn’t walk, she doesn’t speak. She doesn’t play with the others. I put my hand on her shoulder and said I know, mamma. I know. But she’s beautiful, a beautiful child of God, and you love her well. She took her daughter back into her arms and walked away with a little piece of my heart in her hands.
It’s hard to say no but it’s incredible to say yes. I got to send several smiling patients on to the next station; no promise in their hands yet but the hope that it might come. After prescreening they go to registration and then get their medical histories taken; then they get to see a doctor who will give the official yes or no and many, many patients left with that coveted patient card. We saw bowed legs and cleft lips and tumors and burns and all types of problems that we can treat; we also saw a staggering number of children with Cerebral Palsy, Downs, and other malformations that we can’t. As the shadows of the evening started to settle in we moved Land Rovers to use as giant lights; prescreening continued by flashlight. Eventually, though, it was too dark to continue in a place where there is no electricity, and we tiredly passed out follow up information for everyone still waiting, packed up and headed out.
Approximately 16 hours after I crept out of my cabin I stumbled back up the gangway, my feet caked with dirt and my body exhausted. I slept long and hard and this morning found this sign on the hospital forward office door:
I know that’s my heart as well as God’s towards every single person that worked yesterday, and for those of you who prayed for us and thought of us from afar. Thank you, friends, for being a part of their stories.
(line photos courtesy of our communications team, more will come as they are released)