The screening centre opened this last Monday in Toamasina, Madagascar. This year it is different to other outreaches because we have a screening centre open from Monday through to Friday for four weeks, instead of trying to see everyone on one massively amazing but exhausting day. This gives the people in Madagascar time to hear the word, time to travel to us and more time for us to spend with them as we ask why they have come. It has still been a very busy week, with the opening on Monday seeing about 2,000 people turn up and many since.
I have been at every screening day for the last few outreaches. It is a day that I love and look forward to with great anticipation. I love connecting with the people, hearing their plea for help, giving them hope when I can say “Yes” to the next stage of the selection process and even when I have to say “No, we can’t help you, sorry” I feel such compassion that I don’t forget to pray for them, even days later.
On Tuesday I was unexpectedly able to go and screen potential patients in the line. My involvement was unplanned but I had been hoping and praying that I could have an opportunity to go. Most of the nurses available were helping out with security, so it was a big surprise to be asked to help screen.
The mornings here begin super early with the sun being up and already bright in the sky by 5am and darkness sets in at 5:30pm! Tuesday morning we set out in our Landrover, the sun hidden behind rain clouds that intermittently dropped rain on our heads. My white uniform shirt was clean and fresh, my black skirt and shoes reminding me of last outreach’s patient selection day and how many hours I had stood on my feet. Today would be different.
The rain came and went over the next 30 mins, at one point I thought we might get drenched but thankfully it stopped before our white shirts went see-through!
I worked alongside a translator seeing person after person, asking why they came today. I heard all sorts of medical problems, headaches, sore eyes, blocked sinus’, sore throat, stomach-aches, lumps in breasts, enlarged prostates, pelvic cysts and more. None of these things can we help. I did see some people that I could send through to the next stage of selection; hernias, cataracts, bowed legs, small mandible tumours, burn contractures, women with fistulas and lipomas.
The people stood calmly in line, patiently waiting for their turn to be seen. They seem to be quite reserved and very respectful of each other. Umbrellas were up, firstly to shield from the rain and then for the sun, as it later beat down upon us.
As I walked the line looking for orthopaedic patients, I looked into the peoples’ eyes, greeting them and smiling and seeing many smiles in return. There were mamas with their little cerebral palsy kids in their arms. As I saw them and spoke to them, oh how I wished there was something we could do to help them fit into this society. Conditions like this are not understood here and there is certainly no help for the families. There are no support services and no support groups for mamas to talk together about their life journey. I wish we could do more.
After only a couple of hours screening patients in the line, we had given out 150 potential patient tickets and each of those patients needed to be processed through the history team. We retreated behind the fence of the hospital before telling them that we were closing the line for the day and that they could return tomorrow. We retreated just in case they couldn’t take the information peacefully. We were able to walk along the inside of the fence reminding them that we could not help medical sicknesses but that we only did certain surgeries to help. One man spoke up wondering how were they to know what could be helped with surgery and what could not? I felt it was a valid question and needed a good explanation but I was unable to stay for long as the people continued to press in close to the fence to hear and I was told by security to move on. We just had to tell the people to return if they had questions.
I find every year there are patients I meet on this day that stick in my mind for months and even years to come. This time was no different, although the Malagasy people seemed to take the answer “No” much more easily than any other country I’ve been to. With each medical case that I see and do not know or understand what the sickness or tumour is, I wish that I could give them an answer, a diagnosis, a hope for future health. The best I can do is pray from them as I say “Sorry, no, we cannot help you.”
Our hospital will admit its first patients this coming Monday afternoon and surgeries begin on Tuesday. I can’t wait to meet my new friends, to see bowed legs straightened, cleft lips repaired, smiles returned and hearts healed.