Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Visiting Hours - August 26th, 2010

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night with the names of Zambian volunteers and children on my mind. I was surprised to find tears streaming down my cheeks and a soggy pillow so at some point, these thoughts invaded my dreams and caused me to cry. I have to admit, I was relieved. There were a few moments leaving Eva and walking with Loveness and Gitness away from the school in Mulenga, that the tears started in earnest but I did my best to just stuff it down and enjoy my last few moments with my friends. As Sukai joined us, we made our slow saunter through the paths of Mulenga, up to the highway where Sukai and I would catch a bus into Kitwe to visit a boy from Mulenga who was in the hospital. The crowd of children slowly dissipated as we made our way past the small market stands and up towards the highway. Another volunteer, Reuben, met us at the market and we continued towards the upper part of Mulenga together. Loveness and Gitness and I said our goodbyes at the road and then instead of turning back towards Mulenga, they crossed the divided highway with us and the five of us stood in the middle of the meridian and hugged and laughed and shook hands in true Zambia fashion with bus full of people looking on. We got on the bus and wedged ourselves into remaining spaces and I watched and waved my friends out of sight. As we drove into Kitwe, I allowed the hot wind to dry any tears that escaped and focused on the visit ahead.When we arrived in Kitwe, the three of us met James who drove us to the city hospital. I wasn't sure what to expect but what I saw next was something I thought that only my imagination could have procured. The city hospital is considered the "poor man's hospital". From the grounds, it was in the same state of repair as many of the buildings and infrastractures of Kitwe. There was the standard cement wall with security detail at the gate. Uniformed men that searched our vehicle for who knows what on our way in and would be there to search even more stringently on our departure. I asked James what on earth they were even looking for and he shrugged and laughed and said he had no idea. I explained the English saying, "Search me?" when we are at a loss for an answer and he loved the appropriateness of it in this context. We continued onto the grounds and found a parking spot near the building next to a parking spot occupied by an older grandmother in a broken plastic lawn chair. She eyed me up and down as I got out of the vehicle just inches away from her until I smiled and greeted her in Bemba and then she smiled a toothless smile and nodded at me. She motioned to our vehicle and said something that I understood to be she'd keep an eye on it until we returned. She could have been asking me for the keys for all I knew but I nodded and thanked her in Bemba.The building before us looked more like the set of a movie than a place of healing. It was an H shaped building meaning that to enter, we had to walk between two wards towards the main doors. Either side of the walkway were lined with people, all waiting for the 2 pm entry time when visiting hours began. Families with babies brought older children or grandmothers to stay outside as babies were not permitted into the hospital, regardless of visiting hours. Each family had an offering of some sort - fruits, juices, pieces of clothing - things that were not provided by the hospital - to make their loved ones stay a bit more comfortable. We arrived at 1:50 and the uniformed security man at the door eyed me as we approached. Someone from the side called out that it wasn't 2 pm yet and that we needed to wait our turn. The security man then launched into a rant about how he was not to be intimidated and that they should not suggest that he was giving preferential treatment to anyone...meaning me. I hadn't yet reached the steps to the doorway so I shuffled myself to one side and assumed what I hoped was a patient, waiting position. James and Sukai and Reuben were on the steps but Sukai turned to me and laughed saying that I was a good student of Bemba...I was the reason that some were yelling about preferential treatment. Some things transcend language and I didn't want to be seen as expectant of special treatment. A couple of young women stood up from the curb and made their way onto the steps and stood in front of the security man, telling him it was time to be let in. He showed them his watch and made it very clear that he would not be initimidated into letting them in four minutes early. One of the girls grabbed the door and this angered the man. He pushed her hand away and began yelling that she owed him 50,000 kwachaa or about $10 for the infraction. James stepped in front of the girls and then asked the man why on earth he would demand money from the girls. He proceeded to lecture the man quietly and with respect that authority is earned not demanded. Just an aside, this is classic James. James grew up in Kitwe and knows the people of northern Zambia in and out. He is a natural leader that people respect and listen to just by nature of who he is and the way he speaks to others with knowledge and caring. He is consistent teacher who takes opportunities to speak into peoples' lives when others would look away or resign themselves. In the end, the man apologized to James and those of us standing near but still bore the mark of a man whose pride was wounded as he announced that we could now enter. The girls entered in front of me and he made a point of not looking them in the eye as they entered. As we entered the hospital, the stairways and hallways seemingly filled from every direction as families flocked in to visit. We started up a cement staircase and in the throng of people filling the stairwell, I lost my balance and put my hand on the metal handrail. Instantly, Sukai admonished me and said, "Don't touch that! It's the best way to end up in here as a patient!" I laughed but took her warning and assured her that I had plenty of hand sanitizer along. We climbed three flights of stairs and were directed to a ward on the fourth floor and went into the room to look for M., the boy we had come to see. There were about 20 rusted iron beds headboard to headboard, row on row in the room. Each bed was occupied by someone, although at times it was difficult to see who was in the bed as they covered their faces in sleep or distress as we entered. I followed a few steps behind James and looked for M. not knowing if I would really recognize him after a year of not seeing him and the toll that his illness was taking on his body. We walked slowly from bedside to bedside, searching the faces of boys to see if he was in the room. There were two empty beds at the end of the ward, pushed against the wall with a bag of belongings on each. Sukai stopped in front of the beds and looked for the charts. I steeled myself against the idea that we were too late to be with M. and read the names on each of the bags. Neither belonged to the boy we were visiting. We left the room the way we had entered and by now, bedsides were filling with families and friends and the room was coming alive with sounds and smells. James stopped an orderly in the hallway and enquired about M's whereabouts and we were told to search the wing on the other side of the hospital. Following James again, we made our way through the crowded hallways and onto the other ward. This one was smaller, 12 or 14 beds lining the walls of a smaller room at the end of the ward. As we entered the room, James recognized M's grandparents sitting alongside a bed by the window and there on the bed, sat M. He was coloring slowly in a very large Bible coloring book. He had started at the beginning of the book and was somewhere near the middle and was precise in his work. As we gathered around his bed, he looked at each of us and then just went back to his coloring. He was very swollen from steroids, I would never have recognized him on my own. He was covered from head to toe in tiny water blisters so that just holding his hand felt like a tremendous risk. Reuben brought him a hat which he placed on M's head and got a glimpse of a smile. M's grandmother and grandfather were very happy to see us and to have someone to speak with. They lifted the mattress of M's bed and pulled out a large brown envelope containing M's xrays. He had been in the hospital for over ten days and at one point, it seemed he would not return to Mulenga. His breathing was laboured and his lungs were not functioning at all. When we looked at the xrays, even to our untrained eyes, you could see why. There were white lines throughout the xrays on both of his lungs. Both of his lungs were working with less than half their normal capacity. Even sitting up and coloring, M's breaths were shallow and laboured. The morning before we arrived, the doctor had consulted the grandparents and said it seemed the steroids were finally making an impact and they were looking forward to an improvement in the coming days.Reuben got up and I sat down next to M. Sukai poured him a cup of the juice she had brought for him and he was happy to drink it. She gave him a toy truck ('Mater from Cars...not that M. knew who that was...) and he examined it seriously and then was surprised to hear the noises it made. I showed him how Mater drove faster in reverse on the window sill and it earned me a small smile. James asked M. if he remembered his friend, Adrian, from Canada and we got the first real smile of the day. He nodded and said "Yes"...James explained that Adrian and I are friends and I told M. that I was going to give him a big hug from Adrian. I wrapped my arms around him as gently as I could and gave him a firm hug and he hugged me back. I told him that it was from his buddy in Canada and he smiled and said, "Yes". As I sat beside him, he rested his hand on top of my open hand and we sat that way for about half an hour. I looked out the window at the view from M's room and it was surreal...a building that had been built prior to 1967 and had probably not been updated since then...tattered curtains streaming out of open windows across the courtyard and broken pavement leading out to the parking lot.I thought of my own boys ... M. at 10 nearly as old as my Aidan...and wondered how I live where I live that if my child is sick, the care he gets is so superior and yet I live on a continent that struggles to define adequate health care. Don't get me started. As we left and I said goodbye to M., I had a lump in my throat that felt like burning coal. I couldn't cry but I wanted to. We left the hospital and the woman in the parking stall and the guard at the gate and I still could not cry. We dropped Reuben off at Mulenga as the sun was setting and I watched the village that I love fade into the night and I still could not cry. We went back to James and Sukai's and encountered a party, and suddenly there was no reason to cry. The house was full of friends and we had a braai (bbq) out in the yard and Sukai and the boys wrote and performed one of the funniest rap songs I've ever witnessed...and the night was full of laughter and friendship and fun. Once everyone left, I packed the last of my bag for my 5 am departure to catch a bus for Lusaka and I was simply too tired to cry. I spent a few minutes with James and Sukai just reminiscing our days together and celebrating some of the amazing things we'd been part of and then they gave me the most beautiful gift - a dress made by Chrispin in Mulenga for me. It was gorgeous and it was surprising and it makes me look like an African mermaid which made us all laugh. We woke early to make it to Kitwe in time for my bus and I got loaded up quickly and suddenly it was goodbye and I was wedged between others for a four hour marathon of Nigerian movies with English subtitles. No place for tears either. One fast transfer to a taxi in Mundave and straight out to the airport and then on to South Africa and a week of new places, experiences and adventure.So this morning, as I woke at 5:30 to a gorgeous red sunrise, I sat on the front steps watching our dog sniff around the yard...the tears began. This afternoon, as I walked on the riverbanks with my boys and watched them splash in the water, they began again. In WalMart buying school supplies. In the backyard drinking coffee. I wonder if I'll make it through work tomorrow. There's relief in the tears, that I still feel as deeply as I did the first time...that I haven't become used to the things I experienced even the second time around.Tears come when they want, with no regard for visiting hours.

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