19 March 2014

Desperate Measures

Over the weekend, another of my long-stay burn patients died.  When she was admitted six weeks ago, her sister informed me that she was 130 years old. 

I double checked a few times to makes sure this wasn't just another language error on my part.  Nope!  I had heard correctly, 130!  

I used my mad-skills in the art of chiniki (bartering for the best price possible with a vendor at the market) and eventually I got her down to 80.

The right side of her face was badly burned, but from the unaffected side, 80 was an estimate I could work with.

As I continued through the WHO international burn registry data form that we are piloting, I began to ask very specific questions about the cause of her burns . . . she had been burned in a house fire, but her story was incredibly unique.
Hausa homes in rural Niger look very different from homes in the West.  We call the building on the property the 'house' . . . Nigeriens call the whole walled-in property the 'house'.  Our 'rooms' are adjacent and connected by hallways.  These houses have several (often) solitary little buildings that are the 'bedrooms'.  We have an indoor space for the 'kitchen' and the 'bathroom', and even a 'living room' or 'lounge' or 'parlor' for relaxing and entertaining.  For most Nigeriens, these spaces are located outside of the mud-brick 'rooms' in the open areas of the 'house'.

Often, up on the roof of one of the 'bedrooms', Nigerien families store sheaves of fodder to dry in the sun . . . feed for the livestock kept overhead, free from the wandering sheep, goats and chickens.  

I've heard of it happening before, the dried out millet and sorghum stalks catch fire . . . and most often the family doesn't have the money to replace what was destroyed . . . which means they will have an even more difficult time of keeping their animals alive.

My patient didn't know for sure that this was how the fire in her house started, but from what she could gather, this was her best hypothesis.

You see, she wasn't home when the fire broke out.  She was at a relatives house, elsewhere in the village, visiting for the day.  Upon hearing the news of the fire, she rushed home to find her bedroom engulfed in flames.

Everything she owned was in that tiny room.

80 years of life, up in flames.

But it wasn't her 'stuff' she was worried about . . . this Little Old Lady's world does not include an ATM . . . nor does she receive monthly social security checks.  Every franc she had to her name was hidden inside that tiny room.

My patient spent her entire life well below the poverty line . . . this fire would leave her with literally nothing.

She made the only choice she could . . . and she went into the burning house to retrieve her small savings.

From the moment she recounted the story to me six weeks ago, I have replayed it over and over in my mind.  And in the days since her death, I hear the same question running through my head: What does that desperation feel like, to run into an burning building in order to have what is necessary to survive?

Hers was not a case of greed . . . or the selfish pursuit of riches.  She was risking death in order to live.  She knew without the money inside her burning house, she would not survive.  

She had no other option.

Everyday, optionless people pass through the doors of the therapy gym . . . choice is a luxury in Niger.  One many don't have.

So here I sit, reflecting on my six weeks of interaction with this gentle tsowa . . . torn between an overwhelming gratitude for a daily life of options . . . and a sense of compassionate responsibility to be abundantly generous towards those God brings across my path.  

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