Different kinds of happy

Some days it’s just not your day. Today opened that way – A fidgety and restless night’s sleep preluded waking to an uncharacteristically overcast morning. I’m stiff and sore as I crawl out from under my mosquito net and yawningly make my way for my morning yoga ritual to the river tukul – so called because it is raised up a few feet on stilts and thus affords a pleasant view of the river a few feet beyond the compound fence. Today the river is as sullen as the sky though, a dull stoney grey – as above so below – and as I look over towards the east I see that the cloud cover is concealing the sunrise which I normally love to begin my day watching. Yoga this morning is brief and perfunctory – more mechanical then meditative and I still have uncomfortable kinks in my back when I head to the breakfast table. Grump.

As if to add insult to injury one of the bats in the toilet tukul poops on my head just before I leave for the office.

The OPD is the same as ever when I arrive there at nine – full, busy, and as always just teetering along the edge of chaos. A couple of the senior staff on both the MSF and Ministry side are on leave at the moment, so I’ve somewhat uncomfortably taken on a general floor management role that I feel vastly under qualified for, but am muddling my way through anyway. I walk past the registration queue and deliver a few boxes of Bioline malaria tests* to the laboratory. These things are pretty amazing – a single drop of blood onto the test strip and just like on a pregnancy test, a small watermark creeps up the viewing window and within 5 mins you have a your result. One visible line – negative. Two visible lines – congratulations, you’re malarious!

The challenges come thick and fast today – medication in the dispensary has run low, patient registration cards have run out, three people have forgotten their pens… oh bother, I forgot to bring the spare ones. I take a deep breath and step over the squalling children in the Therapeutic Feeding Centre to borrow from their stock. Here however a new set of issues assail me – some of the Ready to Use food that we dispense for the kids seems to have gone missing. My heart sinks. I take note of the numbers and then head out again, the new problems playing on my mind. A couple of cases are brought to me:

Teenager, sky high fever – clothes off, cold water sponging, paracetamol, Bioline malaria test. Next.

Another fever. Same treatment.

A snake bite victim. How long ago? I ask. Over a week. Most likely a dry bite then, no envenomation, not emergency but still a potential infection risk. Tetanus booster, oral antibiotics, dressing room.

A toddler is bought to me – a vague history of vomiting and slight fever. No diarrhoea. No urine today either.

Huh?

My ears prick up – in this heat, even a short period of vomiting can make young children life-threateningly dehydrated. No urine is not good – and given that there are no such things as nappies here infant urine is generally a hard thing to miss. Although it’s happened before that an older sibling had already dealt with a wet baby that day without telling mum.

I take a look at the proffered child- a bit lethargic, not playful, but still vaguely interested in breast feeding. So some liquid is getting in at least. I undress the copious layers of clothing and gently pinch the skin on the belly to check for turgor – if it springs back, great, if it’s slow we need to treat urgently. It’s slightly delayed – but not terribly so. So moderate but not severe dehydration by our protocols. The malaria test was negative. I um and ah – It’s always best not to site an IV unnecessarily if we can coax the child into taking oral fluids. I elect to treat here rather than sending the family to the already busy MSF ER. Can we keep trying breast milk and rehydration solution here in the OPD for a couple of hours first? I’d feel better if we definitely saw urine. And if the kid’s hot then keep all those clothes off him!

There’s a chatter of translation. The mother nods her assent and is led off to the stabilisation room. I’ll check back in an hour.

As I turn away pondering my decision I thump my shoulder hard into the solid metal dispensary door. A feature of life here is that if you trip or hit something, so matter how clumsy and blatantly self-inflicted the injury, the Nuer people around you chime in with profuse apologies. Given the crowded location and my very audible yelp of pain, a loud chorus of “Oh Sorry! Sorry! Sorry sister. So sorry!” sets up all around me, which is gorgeously sweet and yet mortifyingly embarrassing.

I rub my smarting shoulder and smile through slightly gritted teeth at the needlessly woeful and apologetic faces around me. No-one and nothing to blame here but my own lack of coordination!

The rest of the day passes in much the same fashion. Cases and patients are passed rapidly before me and I prioritise the best I can – tallying drug consumption, trying to deal with overprescribing, anticipating low stock for the next day. I plan the week’s immunisation schedule with the Ministry official  and congratulate the registrars on triaging well. I take a peek at the dehydrated baby as I pass – looks like he’s breastfeeding a bit – good.

The early cloud cover has long cleared and by afternoon the sky is clear and the sun is punishingly bright, as if to make up for it’s earlier absence. It’s easily mid thirties today. Squinting into the light is giving me a headache and my shoulder throbs so I chase back some ibuprofen with the last bloodwarm dregs of my bottle of water.

Heavy heat, heavy head, heavy heart. I miss my senior staff.

Before I know it it’s 5pm and as I start to wearily gather all my things together into the landcruiser one of the consultants trots up to me to remind me about the baby still in the stabilsation room.

What baby, there have been dozens?

The one you wanted to pass water.

Oh that baby.

Not one but three hours have flown by since I first saw that child.

For a tired girl I pick up an impressive turn of speed on my way to the stabilization room and only narrowly escape repeating my earlier trick of careering full tilt into the door. The baby is flaked out on the bed next to mum. Despite apparently feeding earlier he hasn’t taken much breast milk. Hard to tell how much of the rehydration solution he has drunk and how much he’s wearing from the soggy state of his T-shirt. The blanket and trousers however remain stubbornly dry. Crap. I recheck the skin pinch. No worse, but definitely no better either. Double crap.

Right, into the car with them, I’m not even going to waste time trying to site an infant cannula and start an IV, they are tricky at the best of times and a thumping head and stressed out is not the best of times. Let’s just get to the MSF ER.

As we rattle back over the uneven roads to the hospital I’m panicking internally and – right now with the tight band of headache pressing round my skull I feel like I’m not thinking straight and my mind heads straight for worst-case scenarios – what if that kid does have concurrent malaria? Diagnostically the quick malaria tests aren’t 100% infallible, but at MSF the microscopy blood films are… What if this drowsiness isn’t just from dehydration, but from low blood sugars? What if the mother was right, what if that child really hasn’t passed urine all night as well as all morning as well as all afternoon? What if he really didn’t take any of that rehydration solution? What if I’d taken the other option and sent him straight to the ER? What if, what if, what if…? Despite my training and qualifications I feel so so unprepared for parts of this job sometimes – not so much professionally, but experientially, emotionally… unprepared for the heat … my heart feels leaden inside me and I’m barely holding back tears as I berate myself.

We arrive at the compound and pull up outside the Emergency room. Running around to the back of the land cruiser I take the sleeping child from his mother’s arms to carry him into the ER. Somehow during the short journey the mother has bundled the child back up into all his clothes again! – a long sleeved cotton top, a big fleecy jumper and matching trousers and a blanket… It’s 35 degrees here for heaven’s sake!!! I plonk myself onto a bench by the ER and start undressing him again. As I unwind the blanket, the child rouses and starts crying – a weak, fitful cry that healthcare workers know and dread – the cry of a child with scant energy reserves left to cry with.

My heart sinks a little further, and I start tugging a little faster at the child’s clothes. His head lolls back mid-wail and on catching a glimpse of the pale and unexpectedly unfamiliar face above, his eyes suddenly flip into focus on me.

The crying pauses … I pause … the startled black eyes below unblinkingly regard the worried brown ones above … a few heartbeats and a few hundred years pass… and suddenly the little man in my arms is crying – and I mean proper crying – a lusty, full lunged bawling with all the might and main he can muster and I feel like I’ve never heard a more beautiful sound in my life, because any child that can cry that hard is OK, not 100% OK, but OK none-the -less. And my heart feels like it’s going to burst with relief. And then there is a sudden warmth spreading across my lap and I jump up startled, still cradling the now half-naked yelling baby, watching the dampness seep across his trousers and mine and its OK. He’s passing urine, lots of urine, fantastic amazing brilliant amounts of wonderful urine that I’ve scared out of him, that tell me that the kidneys are working perfectly, and the urine is streaming down my arms and legs and puddling at my feet and the baby is crying and the mother is clucking and fretting at the urine on me, and I’m laughing because I’m so relieved, and I’m laughing so hard because who knew a crying baby peeing all down me could make me so so happy and then without knowing quite why I’m crying too, and my heart is bursting wide open, and all the stress is pouring out and there are tears pouring down my cheeks and the urine is still pouring down my arms and they all mean the same thing – the baby is OK, I’m OK, everything is going to be OK.

The damp baby is passed over to the bemused ER staff with a somewhat garbled handover. This much urine? He’ll be just fine.

I clean off by the simple expedient of sticking my fully clothed arms and legs under the outside tap – blissful coolness! -and squelch my way back to the expat house.

A colleague joins me later out in the darkness at the back of the compound where I’m drinking beer spread-eagled out on the ground staring at the constellations overhead. Calm down he tells me. No need to be so intense. Stay focussed. No-one fails in their first month. This is followed up with some wryly insightful experiences from his first few missions.

I smile ruefully up at the stars. Sage advice indeed. I remember receiving similar advice when I first arrived. Who knows, I might actually manage to follow it sometime soon.

But for now, I’m just happy to lie here on the floor in the darkness looking out into the universe which never fails to bring me peace and perspective. The unfaltering points of starlight are joined by hundreds of fireflies above me, and for a while the familiar lines of Orion and Gemini are blurred with dozens of seeming dancing stars around them.

Stars. Fireflies. Peeing babies. My heart feels wide open again. I breathe.

And I’m happy.

* SD Bioline HRP2 test

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11 Responses to Different kinds of happy

  1. Gemma G says:

    Oh Emma, I cried with you. Then I went and gave my little bundle a huge hug. You’re doing great xx

  2. Marianne Willis says:

    Wonderful descriptive writing – keep it coming – and keep loving what you are doing – you do it well.

  3. Uncle Andy says:

    The Nuer people are blessed to have you as their sister. I am blessed to have you as a niece. Shalom

  4. Jennifer says:

    Fantastic writing again and yet again you make me tear up!! Thinking of you and your team and all those patients who are better off for having you to help them.

  5. Lindy Moore says:

    I know that joy!!! It makes everything worthwhile; it is so much easier to get up the next day when you have seen a success and know the difference it made.
    Your intuition and experience paid off. Thank you for what you are doing.

  6. rajendran says:

    Its become a habit of waiting for your blogs , wonderful writing .and it is amazing to see how people find happiness in urine passed by a sick child .

  7. Vera Agonafer says:

    Ah, yes! Brought back memories of my years in post-war Biafra/Nigeria. Some tough days, hard to see the little ones so malnourished, but the rewards are priceless. God bless you.

  8. susan says:

    Beautiful writing! I feel everything you describe as if I am with you – and I am pretty sure I am happy I am not! I was wondering if you miss your previous world then realized you don’t really have time to!

  9. Leah says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Reading these blogs make me more and more confident that this kind of international nursing is in my future, and that it’s okay to be scared and unsure.

  10. Kim says:

    Emma, Thank you for enduring heat and crowds and challenging conditions to bring healthcare to those in need. Your sacrifice brings blessings that are difficult to translate to first world lives. Your blog helps others understand the hardships and beauty experienced by MSF staff.

  11. Linda Mae Chover says:

    Reading this brought tears. Bless you for choosing an unselfish life.

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