Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Watch out
The boys

Above, you see the titles of the different posts I have swimming about in my head. No, I haven't written in a while. You'll find out part of the reason in the body of the aforementioned blogs. (That I will eventually write). For now though, I have to write in order of importance, and that happens to be something that happened today.
Rewind to last Wednesday with me first. I went to the local hospital to see the kids we are working with. The doctor asked me to come and see a little boy in the ICU. Fidele was emaciated, clearly struggling to breath, and being carefully watched by his worried mama. All eyes were on me as I walked into the 40-something bed unit. Children at different stages of acute illness were sprawled across blood and fluid-stained beds, only separated from the dirty mattress's with a colorful lappa of bright African material. Fidele shared a bed with another patient, I don't find it necessary to elaborate on that image.
I felt the eyes of desperation staring at me. My presence, my attention to just one of them undoubtedly sends the others thoughts into wondering why this boy in the corner is special.

Fidele had been seen at one of our screenings and given an appointment card to come tot he ship for a biopsy. He clearly had cancer, growing so fast it was claiming his ability to breath by pressing on his airway. It didn't look like Burkitt's, but the doctor asked if he could come to the ship for the biopsy just so they could know what they were dealing with. I knew in my heart Fidele was too sick to transport, but I arranged with the ship for the doctors at the local hospital to collect the sample, which I then brought back to put through our process. We planned to meet the next morning at 8.
In typical fashion, the doctor arrived around 10:30 and the biopsy began by 11. Right on time... (On the positive side, I learned a lot about the translator working with me. Turns out 3 hours of sitting on a bench lends to lots of diverse discussion)

I took in the sights of the treatment room where they brought Fidele. As many times as I have walked into an African hospital, I still feel my mind reject the conditions. I suppose its normal, really.
They laid him on a dirty table, graciously slipping the material he was covered with under him. He cried out in pain as they held him down. I found his hand and held it firmly. I tried to calm him by rubbing the back of his hand, feeling the bones sticking out under his dry skin. Once finished, we walked behind him and his mama, splitting up when we passed the pediatric ward so I could go see the other kids.
On the way out I felt a quick conviction that we should go and pray for Fidele.
I'll pray for him the next time we see him.
Go now

I'll pray for him when I get to the car

Go now

We've already walked nearly to the parking lot (my defense: its a long way from the car to the ward!)

Go. Now.

I've had a headache for a week, I'm so hot, this 10 minute procedure has now cost me 5 hours, this is my day off.

Suzanne, go pray for Fidele. Be an example of Me, tell him that I care for him. Show all of those people in that ICU who you serve, who you believe in.

At this point I was already driving towards the gate.
I put the car in park and began the walk back to the ICU. I felt the burden of the situation lifting with each step. I walked back into the ICU and straight to the corner bed where Fidele lay. I felt the eyes on me again, and without a translator, I gestured to the mom that I wanted to pray. A small smile greeted my actions and she bowed her head with me over her sleeping son.

God, I know you have the power to heal this boy. I know you love him. If your will is to take him home to you, please do it swiftly, end his suffering. Amen.

I said my goodbyes and left, wondering if I would see Fidele again.

When I got to the hospital today and asked about Fidele, the doctor told me he had died on Monday evening. I felt such peace in my heart. I knew God was pushing me last Thursday. I fought it with all of the pathetic energy I had that day, there are no words to describe how grateful I am that I listened in the end. I remember when people used to talk about the Holy Spirit, such an abstract thought for me to wrap my head around at the time. Maybe it is for those of you reading too. All I can say, is that when the Holy Spirit moves, you know it. It is an undeniable force when you actually shut yourself up for a second and listen.
God knew He would be calling Fidele home days after I saw him, and maybe the lesson in going to pray for him was just for me. If I know God at all though, I have a feeling He had a very specific purpose to push me that day.

Lesson #1089- When god is telling you to 'go', don't bother arguing, He knows what He's doing. It might cost you 5 minutes, or it might cost you your life as you know it. Its the right choice either way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A lesson in love

I'm tired of starting these posts, the ones where I have to find the words to explain that another child has died. I don't want to tell of another story of hope that ends in tragedy. I don't want to try and describe that again my heart is broken, shattered into tiny pieces that I am trying to hold gently together so I can continue working here. I don't want to think about the parents of this child, how I could just cry for hours just for the pain of their loss.
I don't want to have to say that I am writing this all about Luc.

We left Benin last year as his cancer started to rear its ugly head again. The swelling was coming back, making his eyelids puffy at first. We left him in the hands of a doctor who is one of the best I have ever met, a true gift from God. I have been in touch since leaving, hearing updates about how Luc and Rachelle were doing. While away last week I got the email that I hated to read about Luc's cancer which they suspected had spread to his brain. The pain of that thought alone makes me ill.
There was talk of coming to Togo, I even talked to the oncologist we are working with here about treating Luc as Benin had run out of options. I was so afraid to be the one to make the call. Potential false hope verses the pain of accepting there is nothing else that can be done for a 4 year old is not a decision anyone should have to face. I thought I would let the doctors talk, and made contact with the one in Benin.He responded by telling me he thought Luc and his family was already on their way to Togo, on their way to the ship in order to seek help.
My mind raced as I tried again and again to contact them as I have been trying to do since getting to Togo. I prayed for the phone to work.The next calls went through.
The translator reached Luc's dad.Where are you?
Benin?, Good, and Luc and his mother as well?
The look on the translators face was all too familiar. Again, my heart fell.
"I'm sorry, Luc died Monday"
The rest of the conversation was the usual. Tell them I am so sorry, tell them I am praying for them. etc, etc, etc... It feels so fake when you have to say it over the phone through a translator. But then the dad said something that made me wince.
"He wants to come see you, here in Togo"
We arranged for the whole family to come for dinner and church in 2 weeks. I told them to take a taxi, we would pay for the ride.This grieving family, who probably just finished burying their son, wants to come see me. I don't think I will ever be able to put the emotion that evokes into words.
In talking about all of this to people, I think I figured out why certain kids and their deaths affect me more than others. Its amazing, each one has a different significance all its own. I narrowed it down to the lessons learned through each child. The way God used them each individually to speak into my heart.
Luc's lesson was the sweetest, which also makes his death one of the hardest. He taught me to love with abandon, when I saw his cancer come back I was filled with fear.
Not him, God. Please, not him. Spare him. I love him too much.

The day of that lesson, we had several hours to kill waiting for one of the doctors. All morning we played. Open the car door, close it. Figure out the keys, lock and unlock. Open the window, play peek-a-boo, close the window.
I had reservations the whole morning. It would hurt too much when I had to leave, I wanted to retreat, not face the inevitable pain of possibly loving him even and ounce more than I already did. Maybe if I didn't have any more fond memories it would be easier.
Closing off ones heart is a slippery slope, and I think this was the closest I had ever come to it.

When we left the appointment, Luc grabbed my hand joyfully and skipped beside me. He snatched the blooming flowers off their buds and threw them in the air like confetti. We jumped over the cracks in the sidewalk, and he beamed at me with his sly smile.
Right then, in His perfect timing, God spoke to me."Be like Luc. Live in this moment"
I didn't think it was possible to love someone anymore than I did Luc right then. My heart was so full. To love like that means you can't fear the consequences, you love as if you will never lose, like there isn't a threat of heartache. It is divine love with a source that is not of this world. Only God can enable us to love like that, otherwise how could you reasonably pour everything you have into a child that may likely die.
My last visit with Luc...

Luc's and his family lived an hour from the hospital. His dad was one of the sweetest men I have met here. He came to every appointment, followed us in the car with his bike each time we drove to the hospital, and visited Luc and his mama during their stays every evening. In the car, Luc always turned around multiple times to check if his 'papa' was behind us. He would wave frantically, and always find a wave and a smile in return from his dad. He never took his eyes off that little boy.

Luc and his mama...Every time, without fail, when I saw Luc, he would run at me with all of his might. He didn't hesitate or slow down when he got near to me. He wasn't afraid of hitting too hard. He ran, full out, with everything in him.
One evening when I had called to check on him, he asked to speak directly to me. All I understood was
"allo, Suzanne!"
When I inquired the following day about what he said, his mom laughed and retold the story of Luc telling me it was a good idea to bring him chocolate the next day. I brought him m&m's every day I saw him after that.
I loved Luc. My heart does ache, the pain comes like a stab in the side at times. A memory of him will flash through my mind and nothing will stop the tears from coming. My comfort in this is knowing where he is, playfully laughing in a place where this is no pain, no fear, and where he is loved by the one who created love. The one who is love, knows nothing but love.
God used that little boy to speak to me, knowing I would never listen any other way. I am thankful for his life and the privilege it was to be a part of it in the short time I knew him.

Because of Luc, I am not afraid to love, regardless of the circumstance.

Friday, April 9, 2010


It does seem a bit screwed up to celebrate a child having cancer. I honestly feel the need to explain myself every time I smile when I hear the word Burkitt's.
Sometimes it just feels good to know there may be a chance. That little thing called hope.
I mentioned Kossi the other day, the 11 year old who has a tumor pushing out his left cheek. They confirmed him as a Burkitt's patient after we had already brought him to the hospital and promised results via email to the doctor there.
While there, when I saw Gerald's face, I melted. Well, not right away, at first he was sleeping with his face wedged firmly between the mattress and the wall, but when his mom pulled him out of his slumber by his arm, I saw it, then the said melting occurred. His tumor is drastically smaller. His right eye is now open and fixes on you as he tries to decide if he remembers if you are on hugging terms or not (for 4 years olds this can change from week to week for the first month or so)

I said during all of the preparation that if God only brought us one kid, just one, I would know that it was all worth it. I am not trying to add more weight to Geralds story than necessary. I mean, he's awesome (clearly) but please understand I am just trying to show you the significance of having this unfold in front of my eyes. On the days when life here is beyond frustrating, I think of how we found Gerald. After a long, drawn out afternoon of hitting every wall possible, the weight of it all is shed when I chase Geralds little brother Denni, a naked 2 year old running for his life from the yovo, all while screaming in delight, mixed with just a hint of terror (You know that feeling when you're bring chased, even playfully)
When the task of doing this job seems overwhelming (read: my brain is smoking), I let myself dream of the hugs from Luc I loved so much. When I think there is no way it will all work, I remember how Rachelle used to slip her hand into mine at every opportunity and tuck her face sweetly into each hug. Oh, how her spirit touched my soul.

I have the best job in the world, in my opinion. These kids teach me more than any book ever could. I gain more insight into life in one afternoon spent with them than any theologian could offer.
So yes, you cold say this one picture affects my life in astonishing ways. This one picture, this one disease, has changed me forever.
And that is cause to smile.

Remember Gerald before?

Well, here he is after just one dose of chemotherapy. What a difference a week can make...

And most importantly (again, in my opinion) Gerald and I are on hugging terms.

1 Corinthians 13:13
"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The journey

I've been trying to search the distance from Togo-Amsterdam-Boston-West Palm beach Florida...and back, but even Wikipedia is coming up short this morning.
Last week I had the absolute privilege of traveling back to the states for my best friends wedding. I had agreed to be one of her bridesmaids well before I knew I would be staying long term in Africa, and instead of trying to split my time between her destination wedding and home, my family came down to Florida and we had a week together before her wedding and our flight back to Africa the following day.
Whew. Deep breath.

My second brush with transitioning to the 'first world' was easier, I think. I knew what to appreciate and what not to get hung up on, at least.
The first news from Africa was of Anicette. I felt so far away, my emotions seemed misplaced sitting at the table of my parents time share.
The following day I heard from Becca about our Burkitt's patient, Michael. His mama took him from the hospital and they were nowhere to be found. Even if they are found, we will have a fight ahead of us to get him back into the program at the local hospital, which we'll do...if we find him.

Earlier in the week I had received a vague email, in French, from the doctor in Benin I have stayed in touch with regarding Luc and Rachelle, my Burkitt's patients from last year. In response I asked him what exactly he was asking me.
I hated his reply;
"Luc is no longer responding to the Doxirubicin. We believe his cancer has spread to his brain. Is it possible for him to come to the ship?"
Again, my heart fought for ground as my arms rested on the cool glass of the dining room table.

I felt so guilty earlier this year saying to someone that being home brought further affirmation that I am supposed to be in Africa. I felt like that was betraying my family, that maybe I am supposed to hate being away, but willing to sacrifice, but that's not the truth.
I do miss them terribly. Seeing them, then saying goodbye, hurts quite badly. I had such a sweet week with them, and honestly I have to fight at times to have the proper perspective about being away because I love them so much, I love being around them. However, that doesn't mean I don't belong here in Africa.
When we landed in Ghana, still hours from the ship, I felt contentment settle in. I sighed when I felt the warm air surround me. I marveled at the stars, their simplicity and beauty never cease to amaze me. I slept as the taxi driver sped through the winding roads, waking occasionally to bright lights belonging to the customs officials shining into the car at the various checkpoints on the road.

I went downstairs this morning to check on a potential new Burkitt's Patient, Kossi. He is 11 and has a smile that makes my heart leap. His mama's smile is equally big, just minus several teeth. Last night we had a big dinner with all of the doctors we are working with at the hospital in town. We brainstormed with them on ways we can help improve their current system and conditions on the ward. I am back and life is in full swing again.

This morning as I tried to tame a wild 4 year old in the corner of B ward who was set on clamoring past me for a chance at something to eat when all I wanted was a hug, I wished I could find words to describe what I felt.
True joy. Unexplainable, undeniable, unfathomable joy, is found here. In this place, at this time, Africa is where my heart is. When I pick up a little boy with severely clubbed feet who wraps his legs around my waist and squeals with delight, I feel it. When I wake up in the morning, only able to hope we can help little Kossi in bed 6, I know I am supposed to be here, living steps away from where he lies.
Seeing a picture of Gerald (coming soon! promise!) after only 1 dose of chemo, his face drastically improved, I gain a glimpse of understanding into God's plan for my life.
My sister loves the phrase;
"There is joy in the journey". After the past week, and now after 2 full days back, that statement seems to be coming to mind over and over today. And I can't stop smiling.

There is a joy in the journey
There's a light we can love on the way
There is a wonder and wildness to life
And freedom for those who obey
And all those who seek it shall find it
A pardon for all who believe
Hope for the hopeless and sight for the blind
To all who've been born in the Spirit
And who share incarnation with Him
Who belong to eternity stranded in time
And weary of struggling with sin
Forget not the hope that's before you
And never stop counting the cost
Remember the hopelessness when you were lost
There is a joy in the journey
There's a light we can love on the way
There is a wonder and wildness to
And freedom for those who obey...
-Joy in the Journey, Michael Card