The woman at the toilet block,
The woman in the dark room, silenced by shame,
The woman who sings her papaya song at the port gate,
The long conversations with Ettiene about n’imports quoi,
The chats with port workers about the holes in their teeth,
The visit to Stephane’s clinic and homemade weight room,
I became an Intensive Care nurse because of a blanket. One single blanket.
I had been working in an emergency department. Whilst trying to remove the bathroom light chord that was tightly wrapped around a teenager’s neck and simultaneously explaining that hanging herself in the bathroom was really not the best idea, a beautiful and slightly confused woman asked me for a blanket. I was understandably busy. Suicidal tendencies don’t tend to be something that you can brush under the carpet well. I ran around making phone calls, taking bloods and alerting doctors of the ongoing trickle of unstable patients at the door, whilst all the while keeping a fixed stare at the bathroom light chord and the patient opposite that kept fitting.
She asked me for a blanket several times.
She never got one.
As I cycled home from my shift I suddenly remembered the women and the blanket. She had broken her hip and couldn’t leave the bed and was probably still cold. She was a distraction to my busy-ness. A distraction in-amongst my unending treasure chest of priorities, emergencies and casualties.
For some reason, 10 years on this has always stuck with me. It seems like a small irrelevant story, but for me it was a sign that I was drifting from my personal priorities and standards. Because I wanted to be distracted.
Intensive Care for me was a place where I could juggle all my tasks at one bed space for one person. I could have long in-depth conversations about the importance of life to someone that wanted to die. I could cover someone in a blanket when they were cold whilst making sure they received life-sustaining treatment. I could see the distractions and be distracted (when imminent death wasn’t looming of course).
I’ve learnt that in the distractions, you find beauty. The things that take you away from your mission can in turn become your mission. Over the last few years on a floating ship next to Africa I’ve learnt how to embrace distractions. The outcomes of those distractions always surprise me.
Minette was a distraction to my day. I was desperately trying to get a Malagasy nurse to give a crap about human dignity. A young girl sat completely naked on the hospital corridor floor with her dehisced cesarean section scar open and oozing for all to see. She had lost her baby. The nurse carried on with her duties and walked past her as if she was a poster on the wall she’d seen a hundred times. She seemed perplexed when I firmly asked what the hell she was doing ignoring this girl who was in her care. I was frustrated and close to tears when the manager asked me to see Minette. I could have screamed “no” in her face. I wanted to scream “no” in her face. As the reluctant nurse walked the 25yr old back to her bad and helped her get dressed, I met Minette. That was one of my favourite distractions. She was not a teaching project, not a Mercy Ships candidate, she didn’t fit into any of the boxes.
I love things that don’t fit into boxes.
This week I was reunited with Leontine. A woman who a few weeks ago, sat in a dark hospital room shut away. I was told twice as I walked around the local hospital running my errands and following up with previous education participants that the Urology Manager was looking for me. I had never met him, but he apparently knew me by name, knew I was coming and had scheduled a meeting with me and Leontine. I was taken to his office and he marched me down the black narrowing corridor; electricity had been out for most of the morning. He explained that the lady I was going to see had a vaginal fistula that his team had tried to fix twice. She was now hopeless and incontinent in his words. Up to this point – the marching point – it’s all slightly irritating. I have my agenda, my errands my people to see and for some reason I must achieve it all in as little time as possible, as though I’m racing against another version of myself in an alternate universe. Africa can’t completely change a person; or so it would seem.
But, then there she is. Once I shake someone’s hand, the distraction is over and the new mission begins. Leontine described how she had a botched abortion 3 years ago after meeting an irresponsible man (which could mean anything); I listen, she continued. She wasn’t like fistula women I had met before. She was wearing Vlisco fabric – the most expensive and stylish in Benin. She had a handbag and things on the bed, all portable, no bed sheets, no pots or pans for cooking with. Her shoes where on her feet, not under the bed.
Then the realisation set in: this women had come in just to see me. She wasn’t an inpatient.
She held my hand as I took her information. I made my diagnosis in my head and took her details back to the ship. She said “please help me” three times. I hoped that I could. Luckily spaces were available and I was able to call her myself with an appointment on the ship with a Surgeon. She phoned me a few times in the meantime to make sure all was well and then 4 weeks ago she received surgery. Leontine’s been dry ever since. A success.
She grabbed me in the corridor a few days after the surgery and I didn’t recognise the massive smile she was wearing, but true enough it was her doing her exercise for the day.
She is a very beautiful and welcome distraction in a busy and pressing world that often doesn’t make sense.
I am learning that the distractions to our plan are some of the most interesting things that happen to us. So be distracted when you can, embrace stepping to the left of your fast paced agenda… who knows what your new mission could be or what your adapted agenda could hold.
Image: Leontine at her recent dress ceremony, loving life