Thurs. June 6th
Mulago Hospital, Kampala
The sun was still trying to find its way to the horizon, so everything in the ER entrance was dull, gray shadows mixed with patches of weak, florescent light. Mercy leaned heavy on my arm as we shuffled together up to the desk. For a full two minutes the three men behind the desk completely ignored us, engrossed as they were in their own conversation. Or maybe, I thought, they were hoping we would just give up and walk away. Finally, one of them impatiently addressed Mercy, and began asking her question after question in Luganda. I could only guess what all he was asking, but his demeanor made me feel like he was interrogating her. She was literally about to collapse, gasping in desperate breathes just to speak, and trying not to cry. The big jerk! I then had an understanding of why there was a grid of metal bars caging him in behind his huge desk – so no one could reach over the counter and smack him!
I heard a woman crying and looked over my shoulder to see a man half-carrying/half- dragging her through the entrance. She was covered in mud and had a bloody sheet draped over the left side of her body. The “desk-man” then finally took a small square of scrap paper and began writing Mercy’s name on it. Well, to be precise, he was writing something that looked like N-A-R-C-Y…
“Her name is Mercy.” I corrected.
He looked utterly bored with me, but pursed his lips and wrote what I dictated. “M-E-R-C-Y”
He added her age and scratched out some ailments – “fever, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite”
It looked so insignificant on paper, but I knew. I hooked my arm under her and we began shuffling again toward the ward he directed us to. She was dying. Her body was failing, and the AIDS was winning.
We entered the ward where at least 50 other people were already waiting. Since the two wooden benches were full, Mercy slumped down in a corner and I followed suit. It was at this point that I took in my surroundings and began trying to convince myself that I was on a movie set. There was a woman thrashing about on a cot, screaming and delirious with fever. Open, festering wounds were all around me, head bandages, blank stares, the nauseating smell of vomit and urine, a tired ceiling fan doing a very ineffective job, and a wall clock frozen at 4:35 - it all felt too surreal, and a movie set was a lot easier to deal with in my mind than the aftermath of a battlefield.
But after 4 hours of sitting on the cold, unforgiving concrete, I had given up on my little game. No one was going to jump into the center of the room with a movie clapper and yell, “CUT!” More patients had filed in, and we were yet to see a doctor walk through the double doors of the casualty ward. In the meantime, while I had gone off to try and find a toilet (or squatty potty) which were all locked up, a little boy had died sitting in his wheelchair adjacent from Mercy. No doctor had tended to him. It was beyond ridiculous! Mercy remained curled up in her same corner, and I felt utterly helpless. What happened to that idealistic 15 yr. old girl that thought she could be the next Mother Teresa? I clearly wasn’t cut out for this.
I walked to a window to stretch my body and take in some fresh air. I remember staring at the broken glass, the peeling paint, and absently watching a roach scurry back and forth on the window sill. I distinctly remember thinking- This is like a bad dream. A really bad dream… but I could wake up from it if I wanted to. It would be easy really. My van was parked just down three flights of stairs; I could drive a few kilometers down the road to the Oasis. What a perfect name… Oasis. It’s one of the few places in the city that doesn’t feel so foreign to me – a space where I don’t stick out so much like the minority that I am, because all the other white people like to hang out there too. There’s a real grocery store there with frozen meat, a book store, restaurants, a movie cinema. And, oh, I really wanted to go there in that moment! But, of course, I couldn’t. I walked back to Mercy and sat down. She didn’t need conversation; she was too weak to talk. She just needed me beside her, so she wouldn’t be alone in this horrible place.
More hours passed. We were sent to a different ward where there were even more people waiting… waiting, waiting. Another piece of paper with her name scribbled on it. At least they had spelled “Mercy” correct; it was her surname that was wrong this time. I was too discouraged to say anything. More hours of sitting on concrete, then we were sent back to the original ward where we had started our day. I tried to speak for Mercy, to explain to the nurse in the starch white dress how long we had waited and how necessary it was that Mercy be admitted NOW. It didn’t matter - all that the nurse could see was the number on Mercy’s paper. By 3 pm, I had reached my limit. I needed food… I needed a bathroom! There was a dead man lying fully clothed on a stretcher in front of me, and no one was noticing him, much less mourning for him. My head was throbbing and my heart was beginning to feel numb. I decided that I was of no use to Mercy in such a condition - so I left. I gave her some coins to call me if she needed, promised to be back within an hour, and I went away to my Oasis.
I promptly found a bathroom, scrubbed my hands, washed my face, and then ordered myself a pizza and a coke. This was comfort food, and my aim was to feel as comfortable as possible. It worked for a while – the comforting myself part- until that irritating sweep of guilt came and the pizza stuck in my throat. So, as I sat at my sun-drenched table, the familiar wrestling match ensued.
How could I breeze in and out of such harsh reality? There was no escape for Mercy, no fairness to be found. How could I entertain myself by flipping through my South Africa travel guide and making weekend plans while Mercy had waited 10 hours and was just still a misspelt name on a slip of paper? Then the deeper questions surfaced… the ones that I’ve often wrestled late at night when I wanted to be sleeping. The ones that have kept me from blogging anymore about Mercy all these months, because I don’t have answers to them. Have we done exactly what we didn’t want to do? Have we made Mercy too dependent on us by helping her too much? And what, I ask God to tell me, is the alternative… because it is the money in our wallet that has bought the medicine to keep her children alive… again and again. How do I deal with the disappointing fact that the pretty, little bow I tied around Mercy in my last blog about her has since come unraveled? Hasn’t she done what I feared she would do – lie and take advantage of our friendship? But how can I judge her – might I not do the same thing if I were in her place, trying to survive in the face of injustice? And now, what to do with this tension between frustration and guilt? …frustrated because we can never say “no” – guilt that I even feel frustrated in the first place!
So, here is where I wrestle. Where the answers hide and everything is gray. I used to see more in black and white, before I moved here to this brilliant land of open sky, verdant green, and red dirt. Now, I can’t compartmentalize anymore. Opening my heart to Africa is like trying to take a sip from a fire hydrant. Oh, I have gotten a lot more than I bargained for! But as T often reminds me, isn’t that why we came? If we aren’t wrestling or feeling the tension, then why are we even here? I feel tempted to open my heart in measured amounts, but God certainly doesn’t administer His grace like that. So, we keep wrestling and asking questions. I keep striving to LIVE here and not just be a warm body. I keep loving Mercy, even if I don’t do it well, because she deserves to be loved. I keep teetering, trying to find my balance between identifying with Uganda and keeping my own sanity. Mostly, I keep Jesus in the center and trust that He is strong enough to handle the flood.
Mercy was FINALLY admitted that day, given some injections, drips, some new medicine, and sent home way too soon a couple of days later. She is now regaining strength. I try not to think too much about the future, or hold any resentment of the past. Tonight, she is home with her children, and they are all well - and that really is enough to praise God for.