Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A simple touch

Upon successful outcomes of surgery, our VVF women here dance. They are clothed in new, vibrant dresses and their heads are wrapped like you would expect if you came across African royalty.
I hesitate to re-tell their stories here. The only thing I can guarantee is that I won't come close to recapturing the emotion in the room last Sunday. With a lot of these posts, the resounding theme seems to be found in glimpses of perspective.

The ceremony starts with all of the women proudly walking into our crowded wards. The women still healing, and those struggling with complications, are all there watching from their plastic chairs or freshly made beds with hopeful expressions.
They are introduced one at a time and asked to share their story.
"This came upon me 4 years ago"
"I have had this sickness for 10 years"
"I have been wet for 20 years"

Here's where it gets hard for me. I don't come close to fully understanding how horrible life is for these women. My thoughts in trying to understand barely skim the surface, I imagine. After laboring in pain, trauma being inflicted on so many levels, these women are left leaking urine. All of the time, day and night, they are wet.
Many dehydrate themselves intentionally to try and fix the problem. The result is even more putrid smelling urine.
They don't have sanitary solutions here. Just like babies wear diapers made from scraps of cloth and black garbage bags, these women have limited options.

One started her story, captivating her audience at once.
"They told me the baby was dead."
All around the room I looked at the faces of women who shared this part of her story. They lowered their heads, some nodding in agreement.
"After 4 years I realized my sickness wasn't going away. My husband left me, my village made me leave because of the smell."
More nods.
"In my tenth year I read in the bible about a woman who suffered from disease for 12 years. Jesus healed her. I told God this will be my story too. If I am not healed in my 12th year, I will throw my bible away"
Myself and a few others raised our eyebrows in reaction to her bold statement.

"It was the 12th year, in the 3rd month. A man from my church came to me and said he felt God telling him to help carry my burden. He said he would like to do my laundry for me. All of it."

I wasn't expecting what happened next. In that instant, I watched the women around her fix their gazes. Some gripped the corners of their dress with all their might. Others immediately stained their cheeks with tears.
The woman continued her story, and as each detail unfolded, I watched the shoulders of the other women tighten, pulling forward. It wasn't the shared pain they cried about, or maybe not entirely. From what I could tell, it was the simple display of compassion from this one man in the story that they cried for.
"He covered my bed in plastic so it could be washed more easily. Sometimes though, sometimes it was just too hot and I chose the floor instead."
My stomach twisted in knots watching these women react with such emotion. My own eyes blurred with tears thinking about this woman in front of me sleeping on the dirt ground, soaked in urine, with one person in 10 years to help her. My heart screamed inside of me for the others, all the others who know this same pain so intimately.

Please, for one minute, scratch the surface with me. We complain about heat waves while these people live in constant high temperatures, the humidity always at an uncomfortable level. We have a million products and commercials to match for things that make us look, smell, and appear more attractive. These women are soaked in their own urine. We try and plan our weekends and complain about having nothing to do while these women lie by themselves somewhere on the outskirts of society, the lowest of the low even in the eyes of the people who are supposed to love them no matter what. They reek of stale urine, a smell stronger and more rancid than ammonia for those of you who have never encountered it. They are full of shame, and the world has failed them in the worst way.
My bet is that I wouldn't last a day in their shoes. What about you?

It was in the 10th month of her 12th year when she heard about a ship that was doing surgery. She found a way down to the city and to a screening. She faced a long line, twisting down the dirt streets. She waited, she talked to God, she boldly stood her ground. She was one of the chosen women that day. As she spoke, we saw a redeemed woman. The parts of her covered for a long time with shame were uncovered.
She looked beautiful.

She spoke to us, proclaiming her healing, in the 12th month of her 12th year. She approached Jesus and in faith reached out her hand to touch Him. She knew He would heal her.
Hebrews 4:16
"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

Oh my, how many lessons can be learned in this one example (if I can speak for myself). The first being that it doesn't have to be someone literally compared to a leper, an untouchable person, to appreciate a gesture of kindness. Regardless of what you believe, or if you think there is only one source of love, reach out to someone. The second, for those of us who do believe, is to be confident. Be bold, be courageous. Ask and be in a posture of expectation that your prayer will be answered. If you don't believe, ask simply for God to reveal Himself to you. There is nothing to lose, but there is so much to gain. So much.

Simply reaching out to touch a person, or stretching your arm out towards Jesus has profound implications. Someones life, maybe even you own, will never be the same.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Joy Restored

Any outsider may see our daily life here on the ship as strange. I observe the occasional overwhelmed looks on the faces of new arrivals as they try to take it all in that first week on board. I try to think back to when I first arrived, how I felt, how things looked. I was so filled with joy watching the Africans, working among them. The energy of the children and the sleepy gaze of a baby never failed to make me smile, they still don’t.
I have been working through a lot of things in the past couple of weeks in regards to where I am in my relationship with God. Over the last two or three days I finally feel that contentment of not only being in the right state of mind, but all is well in my heart, my soul feels good.
And now I’ll tell you about it…

I came to work on Monday evening, my shift started at 2pm. Shortly after we all gathered our reports and set off for our tasks, the music started.
The drums and shakers were only overtaken by the voices of all involved. The songs are all familiar, a result of being in West Africa for over a year. The women were dancing as they marched up and down the halls of deck 3. Many carried their catheter bags, the plastic clip dangling from their extended fingers.
Most appropriately a 3 year old was leading the pack of women. The son of one of thepatients, he marched with purpose, clapping off-beat, drool saturating the front of his shirt. He has a classic look, one I have seen many times as a pediatric nurse. His head is disproportionally small, his movements, although subtle, are spastic at times. He doesn’t speak despite his age, and his muscles are clearly underdeveloped. He almost certainly has high functioning cerebral palsy, a condition which can be the result of interruption of oxygen during birth.
He is a walking miracle. An off-beat, slightly spastic, miracle (which happens to be one of my favorite varieties).

Many of these women with VVF (vaginal fistulas caused by traumatic, prolonged births) don’t have a child to claim as their own. Most women come through our doors with stories of stillborn babies. As if constant leaking of urine, being an outcast, and losing everything at once isn’t enough for one person to endure…
Seeing this little boy march, knowing his mama was behind him somewhere in the parade was enough to carry me for months, I only had to recognize it and accept it as the gift it was.
Walking back into A ward, I was greeted by the face of Akossiwa’s mama, they were visiting after a post-op appointment. My eyes fell on little Akoss, her fro of black hair now neatly divided into tight braids. Her fat baby brother had that look I talked about, the one where you would think he was a little drunk, if he were old enough to hold his own cup, that is. I lifted Akoss in her small purple dress into my arms. We sat for a while, her legs crossed at the ankles, and I silently thanked God for the afternoon, for my life.

Yes we look strange, dancing up and down the halls amongst women in hospital gowns yielding full catheter bags. Yes, it’s overwhelming at first trying to take it all in. If you let it though, this experience will change your life. It will bring you joy, or restore the joy which has been elusive for a little while.