Another day has passed, another shift ended, another story unfolded throughout the day, tugging at my heart.
The last three days I have been working day shift as a nurse. I mean, actually as a nurse looking after patients on my own, not being in charge and not showing anyone how it’s done. I have hung NG feeds, measured medications, changed dressings, cleaned mouths with mouthwash, encouraged patients to eat and drink, checked blood pressures, heart rates, temperatures and documented it all in their notes, but the most important part of my day has been sitting down beside the one who hasn’t smiled yet and sleeps all day, to figure out what his story is.
I love getting to know my patients. I like to ask who is in their family, what they do for work, where they live, what they like to do in their time off. Some patients automatically engage and are easy to chat with and interact freely. There are others who sit in their beds, eyes downcast, frequently sleeping, staring out from blank faces void of emotion. These are the challenging ones. This is where I often find translation and a cultural barrier frustrating. I want to just sit down and have a good heart to heart, ready to hear their struggles or frustrations. Instead I have to channel all my carefully worded questions or encouragement through another person who doesn’t say what I’m saying word for word and is also filtering it through their own culture. Somehow it all usually works, although the conversations look different from those you’d have at home.
Today my challenge was simply to find out more about one of my patients so that we can love him as best we can in this place while he is away from his family. He had been laying in bed most of the morning with his blankets pulled up to his nose or over his head. (Many of them pull their blankets over their head and it’s quite normal at night time to see this.) Patients and caregivers around him were laughing and playing games and he just lay there under the blankets in his bed, almost as though he was in another world.
He had been admitted to the ward a few days ago and had the first stage of several surgeries completed. From one side of his face, you would never know anything was wrong, but from the other you could see that noma, a facial flesh eating disease, had eaten away one whole side of his nose and under his eye, leaving his eye with no support and tears constantly dribbling down the scarred remainder of his cheek.
He said he lived with his parents and had one younger toddler sibling, but that he didn’t miss his family. He had only been to school up until the age of nine when he had gotten sick and now that his face was distorted he couldn’t concentrate for long because his eyes hurt. He told me that he worked his own farm, growing beans, rice and peanuts, alongside zebu, chickens and goats. He sold his produce in the local market. I wondered if it was him that sat at the market stall. Did he hide his scarred, disfigured face? How did the people treat him? What sorts of comments had he endured in the nine years since his face had changed? I told him that he would be here for a number of weeks and that we would get to know him, he could get to know us and that if he wanted to learn how to read or write or even play the guitar we would do what we could to help him. He took the information in, nodding his head.
My friend and co-worker Amy, brought over a new packet of foam stickers with farm animals, fences and barns. She handed him a sheet of blank paper and he sat up, interested and immediately set to work. Minutes later he’d put together a little map of his farm at home, with numbers on the animal stickers of how many of each he had. As we asked him about it and exclaimed over it, a smile lit up his face. The little boy from the bed next to him also came over and joined in the craft he was doing on his bed.
Later on Amy blew up a balloon and in good humour drew one of the patient’s faces on it, dressings and all. She drew one for each patient, then batted the balloon to them in their bed. The whole side of the ward was laughing and commenting in Malagasy at how each balloon face looked. When she finished his and hit it across the room to him, a big smile spread across his face. These small moments seemed triumphant. He sat up in bed, cautiously interacting with the day crew who had been translating the conversation with him. As I watched him over the next couple of hours, he smiled and laughed and played, not all was fixed but for a few moments there were no troubles written on his face.
This boy has many weeks of life in this hospital ahead of him as he endures a few more surgeries and the healing in between. I’d love it if you kept him in your prayers. I can’t wait to see the way his life will be transformed, not only physically but by the constant medicine of laughter and love. When you pray for him, call him Hery.