a short story by Ermisenda Alvarez
I didn’t weep. You can’t. From the moment they throw you into the deep end of this business you can’t be that impressionable. From early you either strengthen your defences or wallow in cascading waterfalls of tears while nursing your experiences. I wasn’t going to become one of those people and I wasn’t going to weep then because you can’t.
Even with numerous friends and nearly all of my family members wishing me not to go forward with my decision I still did. I remember growing up and enjoying the summer haze with my family at our fortnightly gatherings. They would remind me, “you’re a smart one aren’t you?” followed by, “what are you thinking of becoming when your older?” Before I was able to ever answer I would hear the same word repeated by everyone around me, firm nods followed, “Doctor.”
When I was younger I thought it was somehow my obligation to become a doctor because I was intelligent. When I finally had time to decide what I really wanted to do, I did choose medicine. I didn’t choose it because I thought it was my obligation but because I thought about helping people, people who would not be helped otherwise.
Although I had granted my family’s wishes in becoming a doctor they gasped in horror when I told them I was going to Africa, after I had finished my degree. Long hours had passed as I thought on the decision I was going to make. I knew all the dangers but it didn’t stray me from my decision.
For the last few hours, the medical team I was a part of had been trying to immunise as many children as we could. Among the children we had prepared our site for were masses of people seeking other medical help. Pregnant women who apart from their protruding stomachs also had protruding shoulder blades and hip bones, there were mothers holding ill children who would not open their eyes.
Even with the handful of health practitioners in the medical team we had, we were no match to the situation we were in. We were being swamped by the number of people needing medical attention. I couldn’t imagine the medical team any smaller, thoughts about my parent’s disapproval remerged. The slim salary I made to conventional Western doctor standards was usually invested in providing more supplies. I couldn’t buy new shoes knowing I could buy rolls of bandages we were always short of with the same money.
I called for the next mother and child in this blistering heat, wiping my brow. They sat on the stool and I took out a new, sterile needle. The child stared with wide eyes. The needle that was going to provide this child with a better fighting chance punctured her skin and slid inside. The child did not weep but instead stared at me with chestnut eyes. They were the only thing that didn’t look shrivelled and malnourished about her. I didn’t smile, not even under the mask and I didn’t weep as I thought of the child’s most probable fate.
I saw that same little girl a week later with a severe case of diarrhoea. It was an illness children were easily treated for back home and yet here, it was draining her all of her fluids and energy. I tried to not only clean her but also get her to drink treated water and consume food. Water was scarce all year round, particularly in summer and what you could find was usually contaminated. I needed to get her hydrated again and our precious drug cabinet was low on everything. I slipped on some new gloves.
Instead of wasting priceless seconds I moved to another child who was behind me who needed care. He couldn’t breathe. I cleared his mouth for any debris and began to give him CPR. The boy’s mother chanted a foreign phrase as she rocked waiting for him to come back. But he didn’t. The shrilling shrieks of the mother joined the cacophony of sounds. His body was moved to where the other dead lay for now. The mother’s voice pierced my mind like a knife as I tried to think of anything else but the suffering around me. The heat was sweltering. I drew up my white mask and refreshed my plastic gloves.
I turned back to the little girl with diarrhoea. Her ribs revealed themselves shamelessly through her fragile, malnourished body. She looked like she was two years old but she could have been five or older. Her chestnut eyes begged me to save her as pain and fear glistened in them. In the uncomfortable summer haze I wondered what she wanted to become and where she wanted to be when she grew up. ‘Far, far from here’ I could only imagine her answer being because it was mine for that fleeting moment.
Her hand reached out and gripped mine tightly, a strength I didn’t think she had. I smiled underneath my mask and thought about how she would need that strength to survive from one day to the next. But she didn’t.