The tragedies in Malawi are not that different from the tragedies in the United States – sickness, car accidents, deaths of children. The shock and the grief are universal. I wrestle to describe how these tragedies are different here. In some ways it comes down to the layers that are missing in Malawi to gloss over the anxiety, ugliness and brutality of it all.
Last week the lay leader’s three-year-old little boy was bitten by a snake when his mother took him outside to pee around 10pm. By the morning his hand and forearm were swollen. When I saw him at the hospital about 12 hours later his little hand was about three inches thick. His mom had not slept at all on the concrete floor by his bed. And they were both tired of trying to keep his arm raised above his head. Within a couple days Jimmy was fine.
But the difficulty is that no one knew if he would be fine, until he was. And sleeping on a concrete floor waiting for friends to bring food, changes of clothes and clean sheets only accentuates the fact that she was in a hospital and the future, uncertain.
No one can – or does – say. “Oh, a snake bite. We’ll give you this and that and you can expect the swelling to go down in 2 days and he’ll be feeling back to normal in 3 days.” Is it that the medical professionals here don’t have this information? Or that medical professionals in the USA make it up and we trust them because everything is neat and tidy and they have paid a lot of money to say so?
I know, I know. I should not write blogs when I’m tired.
But then as we left the ward where Jimmy was staying, the other women I was with stopped me from crossing over to the parking lot and pointed silently. A line of 15 – 20 chitenje-wrapped women were following a nurse carrying a small child wrapped in a sheet. The image of a small foot in a tennis shoe visible from under the sheet is burned into my memory. The mother walked behind, held up by a friend as she sobbed and wailed for her child. All the women followed the nurse and dead child into the mortuary and then just moments later the women walked out again.
The hospital is incomparable to the hospitals I am used to in order, cleanliness, staffing and every way. But there is something I can’t name – holistic? healing? closer to reality? – in the grieving process about accompanying your own child to the mortuary, supported by friends and relatives. Something that our sterile and care-ful culture has removed.
Then yesterday our pastor and his wife took their 4-year-old son, Khumbo, to a private hospital about 20 minutes from here. He has been diagnosed with asthma but I have never heard about any long-term treatment except returning to the hospital each time he can’t catch his breath. With each trip the parents get more worried. And Khumbo is growing to hate doctors.
We left Esther to care for her son. She would eat the food that the women brought for her and try to sleep on the 8-inch square wooden stool by Khumbo’s bed. When people have so little faith in medicine, the only hope is prayer. When doctors and nurses are so over-worked, medicine is in short supply and technology is limited, the best hope is that God will heal. And that is what we pray for.
But then again… on the way home from the hospital we passed a heart-stopping accident. A large flatbed truck was off the road, on its side, about 50 feet from the road. A couple hundred feet later was a mini-bus that had been opened on one side like a sardine can. We can only guess that the minibus tried to pass someone and couldn’t get over in time before colliding with the flatbed truck.
It was difficult to drive after witnessing such an accident. The same reaction to a horrible crash anywhere in the world. But then to consider how few ambulances there are. That the phone network often goes down to call these ambulances. How far they were from the government hospital. And how little could probably be done in an emergency trauma situation like that. Each new realization and limitation hit me as I tried to keep driving and arrive home safely with my own carload full of mothers and children.
In the USA, our certainty in the efficacy of modern medicine may be an illusion. Some might say that our trust in technology has eliminated our need of faith. The clean sheets and hot food and toilets in every room may only dull the edges of the trauma and fear that plague us during illness, before and after surgeries, or in the greatest tragedies.
I know that I am conditioned to take my children to the private hospital where it looks and smells something like the hospitals at home, but I have to admit that amidst all the Clorox and functioning labs there is something missing that exists at Queen Elizabeth government hospital. Where people crammed in together, two children to a bed, share meals and blankets and conversation and prayer.
I pray that everyone will have access to undiluted medicine and working x-ray machines and malaria-free hospitals. But I also pray that everyone will feel free to wail when they are in grief, to rely on friends to hold them up and to pray like they believe God will intervene.