09 July 2017

The Most Important Visit We've Ever Made

On a typical, business-as-usual day in early July 2013, I walked into the Bloc Opératoire to help with the dressing changes of our burn patients.  As I pushed through the swinging doors which divide the Surgical Ward from the Operating Theaters,  I met a three year-old that would greatly influence the color and texture of my entire experience at Galmi Hospital.

F. was sent for treatment at our hospital from a centre about an hour and a half northeast of us.  She had already been an inpatient in that facility for five months, but half of her burns were still open, unable to heal.  While at Galmi, she underwent several skin grafts and endured repetitive surgeries to carefully cut through the scars that were developing around her eyes.  For a year she battled the heat, wearing a specially fabricated face mask to combat the scarring process.

Our efforts bore some success.  But not enough.  And now, four years later, in addition to bearing evidence of her wounds across her face, she is manifesting the reality of her emotional scars.

Because of the nature of her injury, F. was burned more extensively within her nasal cavity than we initially realized.  This resulted in a narrowing of her nasal passage.  The contractures of her lower eyelids and cheeks continue to prevent her eyes from closing.  She has battled chronic upper respiratory and eye infections for four years.

But she has also has battled the stares of strangers . . . and the mocking of neighborhood children . . . and the comments of adults in her village.

Isolation.  Stigma.  Nightmares.

In April, F. and her granny traveled nearly 5 hours (the first two on foot) to come see us.  The nightmares were getting worse and she had started to respond physically while asleep.

She and Granny stayed at the hospital for three nights.  While with us, F. slept in complete peace.

We spent time together and even met with a psychologist who has come out to work with us for six months.  On his recommendation, we made plans to take the trek and go visit her at home.

We woke up before the sun and made our way with some very vague directions:

  • Take the road 45 minutes till just before the post office.  
  • Head north until you reach the end of the pavement.  
  • Find someone to ask how to get to a-village-that-starts-with-the-letter-K-but-I-can't-remember.
  • When you get there, ask how to get to the village that is having their market today.
  • As you enter that village, find the home of the village chief.  That's where they'll be waiting.
We found Granny perched on a fallen tree trunk in front of the village chief's hut.  She too had risen before the sun and had walked two hours from their village to be certain she would be there when we arrived.

Granny has always expressed gratitude for all we have done to care for F. over the years, but today was different.  We had come to visit . . . we had come to demonstrate our care for her whole family, and her appreciation seemed to come from a deeper place.

As soon as we passed through the very busy marketplace we took a left and headed further north.  The road changed from dirt to sand and Maiguida had to get creative with sharing the tracks with ox carts, donkeys and camels as we went against the flow of traffic of those heading towards the market we just left.

We arrived to find a tidy little village (mostly empty because of the market) and a home that was packed with family members who had gathered to meet us.

When we had finished greeting every one, including the village chief who had stayed behind from the market just for our visit, we sat down (men in the chairs, women on the mats) to chat.  A laundry list of Granny's new aches and pains were delivered.  We discussed the news related to trying to get F. reconstructive surgery for her nose and eyes.  And a relative was instructed to remove her hijab to reveal a dermatologic condition that it was hoped we could cure.  I asked some questions, took a photo and promised to discuss it with our surgical team and would phone back if we could do anything.

We were given water to drink and a gourd of foura produced.  Foura is a drink made of powdered millet and water . . . sometimes it's fermented . . . this time it was laced with tanka, a hot chili powder.  F. had risen early to pound the millet to make the foura fresh for us.

She was different in her village than when she is with us at the hospital.  At home, F. seemed to try to hide in the crowd; in the hospital, she is confident and engaging.  Watching her in her own context I couldn't help but feel that somehow we had failed her, not done enough to holistically help her.

But we don't have a network of survivor support groups, counseling services, or a plastic surgeon who can rebuild her nose and release the pull on her eyes.  The struggle between "what is" and "what could be" is just as real as it was when I first arrived in Niger.

As we sat together on a mat in the sand, in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, I began to tell F. and her Granny and their entire family about a man named Jesus who cared about people who were different, people who were outcast.

Driving back through sandy tracks and across empty river beds I watched this desert nation through the dirty windows of our truck.  Farmers sowing their hope into a millet field, children drawing life from a well.

I don't know if our visit had the intended effect on F.'s community . . . to draw attention to her value rather than her scars . . . but we were there.  We sat with them, on their ground, in their house.  We had made the long trip to say "You are more important to us than all the people waiting for therapy at the gym today."  We affirmed our friendship and defined it by their cultural standards.  We were given gifts of okra, eggs and even live roosters.

By showing up at her house, in her village, we honored F. in a way that most would consider her to be the least deserving.

But I guess, in a way, isn't that what Jesus did for us?

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