When I was living in Freetown, one day one of the watchmen came to me, exasperated, telling me that his son had had an accident and was in a nearby hospital (not an MSF facility). Sahr, aged 15 months, had stumbled into a pot full of boiling water that was bubbling away on a charcoal stove on the floor of his mother's kitchen. It was the first time I had seen a black person with severe burns. I remember thinking how one of his little hands looked like it had been dipped in dark chocolate, because only the tips of his fingers were still brown – the rest of the hand and arm was raw, pink flesh, as was most of one side of his body. Sahr spent weeks in hospital, when he was discharged I drove the family back to their house, armed with bandages, lotions & instructions on how to take care of him. A few weeks later, Sahr died. The news came as a complete shock to me because I thought he was over the worst of it. To this day, I don't know why he wasn't taken back to the hospital when his condition started to deteriorate.
At that time I thought that this was a freak accident, little did I know. In the paediatric unit at Benson Hospital, we have little mummies wandering the corridors every day of the year. Their story is always the same: they were scalded by hot water. Often the victims are toddlers – practising their first steps and curious at the same time – a worrisome combination in all societies. In Africa, where food is commonly prepared on fires at ground level, it is unsurprising that this is such a frequent injury.
Emmanuel, pictured above, is four. He was admitted to Benson on 29th January with 2nd degree burns on the left side of his body. On that day, he had been playing with his homemade toy truck (the kind often seen in Africa, ingeniously crafted together using scrap metal, wire and bottle tops for wheels) – chasing around his house and compound using a stick to push it forward. At one point the car flew forward further than normal and Emmanuel & his friend sprinted after it. Emmanuel reached it first but his friend collided into him and sent him flying into a pot of boiling water that was on a coal fire in the hall. Emmanuel's mother was not in Monrovia at the time, his aunt was taking care of him, but she was not at home when the accident happened. A local pastor took Emmanuel to Benson Hospital from his home in ZayZay Community, fortunately not too far from us. Emmanuel remembers a neighbour removing the clothes that were stuck to his body and the painful motorbike journey.
Emmanuel has now been in the hospital over 3 weeks. He's become a familiar face, as he likes to lounge around the reception area of the hospital – a breezier choice than the crowded room he shares with 2 other burns patients and their caretakers. He knows my name, which, like most Liberians, he pronounces 'Emly', and we often have a little chat. One morning last week I went to watch him have his bandages changed, which for him is a traumatic daily ritual. He told me that the part he dislikes most about the dressing is the injection he receives, this being Ketamine for pain management. The fact that this is the worst part for him must indicate that it at least works – if he was fully conscious during the change of dressings he would surely be in excruciating pain. Apart from the injections though, Emmanuel likes the hospital, in his own words – 'Benson mek ma sore to die' (loosely translated: 'Benson is making my sores die').