Monday, 7 September 2009

Hope meets despair in equal measure

An exerpt from the book I am reading, "Six Months in Sudan" by James Maskalyk, a Canadian doctor who was with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), and has worked in a war torn village in Sudan. Here are bits of the harsh reality of his work and how this experience has changed him.

Sometimes, I really marvel at human compassion. For humanitarian reasons, some people travelled distances, to places infested with diseases and threatened by wars. It is not that they are unafraid, but are convinced of the worthiness of their pursue.

As the author puts it, "Some of the work in repairing the world is grim; much of it is not. Hope not only meets despair in equal measure, it drowns it." I would like to think that the world is full of hope and a caring place too.

I salute these heros!

* * * * *

"He is talking about an acquaintance, a nurse, who worked during an Ebola outbreak in the Congo years before. He recounts her story of how, after days of watching people die of the incurable virus, she and her team decided that if there was nothing to offer those infected, no treatement, no respite, they would give them a bath. They put on goggles and masks, taped their gloves to their gowns, and cleaned their sick patients.

...I heard ten seconds of a story, and during them realised there were things I had not reckoned on.

It was the taping of the gloves. The whine of the white tape as it stretched around their wrists, forming a seal between their world and the bleeding one in front of them. I could imagine the grimness with which it was done, could see the flat faces of the doctors and nurses as they stepped into the room.

I rewound to a film loop of me kneeling on the dirt floor of the long hut we had build out of wood and grass to accomodate the surge of infected people. I was kneeling beside the bed of an infant who was feverish and had stopped drinking. I was trying, with another doctor to find a vein. The baby's mother sat helpless on the bed as we poked holes in her child. She was crying. She wanted us to stop. Small pearls of blood dotted his neck, his groin. We failed, his breathing worsened, and he died. I stood up, threw the needles in the sharps container, and walked away to attend someone else. Behind me his mother wailed. I can see my flat face.

People who do this type of work talk about the rupture we feel on our return, an irreconcilable invisible distance between us and others. We talk about how difficult it is to assimilate, to assume routine, to sample familiar pleasures. Though I could convince myself that the fissure was narrow enough to be ignored, it only took a glance to see how dizzyingly deep it was.

The rift, of course, is not in the world: it is within us. And the distance is not only ours. We return from the field, from an Ebola outbreak or violent clashes in Sudan, with no mistake about how the world is. It is a hard place - a beautiful place, but so too an urgent one. And we realise that all of us, through our actions or inactions, make it what it is...

... I believe that which separates action from inaction is the same thing that separates my friends from Sudan. It is not indifference. It is distance. May it fall away."

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