Last week, one of my burn patients died. She was six years old. Cause of death: malaria. It was tragic and unexpected and difficult to accept. She had come to us to have a contracture release so that she could walk again. But she came down with a resistant strain of malaria that eventually made its way to her brain.
And now, the rest of the story.
Last night a couple that works in a city east of here was passing through. We had met briefly once or twice before, but it was Little N.'s hospitalization that brought us together. They were her connection and means to our hospital. So, as they were stopping on the compound to stay the night, I invited them for dinner.
After Little N.'s death, E. and I spoke on the phone. She told me that the family was marveled at how happy Little N. was being in Galmi. And how thankful they were for the care they received here.
But last night, E. filled in a few more details.
- Little N. lived in a very remote village. There are even members of the clan that have never gone beyond its neighboring villages. For her family, Galmi was a big city.
- Little N. was the oldest child of three daughters. In village cultural traditions here, there is a strong fear that evil spirits will take away whatever a family loves the most. So the oldest children are often treated poorly, in an attempt to fool the spirits into thinking that child is not loved. For an oldest son, a family is careful not to be too harsh, but as for a little girl, whose worth is minimal to begin with, life as a child can be full of additional suffering. Little N. was no exception.
- Little N.'s family is Buzu . . . the lowest social class of the Tuareg people. In fact, the Buzu were slaves to the Tuaregs. And to this day, they are considered to be a worthless class. The bottom of society. They are used to being outcast and rejected by others. They are not used to kindness and acceptance.
E. explained these things to help me understand how a grieving father, who just lost his little girl, could take my hand and express gratitude from the depths of his being for the care she received here. She helped me understand that during those few short weeks, Little N. was showered with the acceptance and kindness that her family has always been denied. She had left her village as the world's outcast, and came to Galmi where she was embraced by children who elsewhere, by social ranking, would never have accepted her.
E. shared the family's reaction to my first encounters with Little N:
'And then, [Déborah] just picked her up and carried her! A white woman! She just bent over and picked her up!'
To me it was nothing. She was a sad, but precious little girl who couldn't walk. Of course I would pick her up! But for her family, this simple, thoughtless, act spoke louder than any words I could have said.
You know, as I continue to grieve the loss of Little N.'s life, I can't help but imagine that 2,011 years ago there was a whole crowd of parents who were running back to tell anyone who would listen:
'And then, He just picked my little girl up! Him! A prophet, teacher and miracle worker. . . and He just picked her up!'
You remember that story, in Matthew 19, when the Disciples tried to send a bunch of kiddos away because they felt Jesus had more important people on whom to spend His time. What a good reminder that 'Compassionate Care' isn't handing out crutches or showing a patient exercises. Instead, it is speaking with kindness to the grumpy old men, carrying dirt-covered children, and generously giving away smiles to those physically and emotionally suffering.
Come to think of it, one doesn't have to be in Niger to do that.