This morning, after I finished morning report with my medical students, I walked outside and was approached by a stranger. He was a man about my age who addressed me in decent French.
“I want to ask you something.” Hmm, these conversations usually don’t go well. I don’t recognize this man, and the odds that I’m the person to help him are slim. Often, this situation is where someone with some education chooses to approach me randomly in order to try and get some special treatment, which is something that I’m neither in favor of nor very good at effecting, even if I wanted to.
I try to not let my frustration at this interruption show. He starts to tell me that his pregnant wife was seen by Rachel for a problem with her placenta. That she had an appointment for Monday, but was told to come back sooner if something went wrong. She’s about 30 weeks along, and she started having contractions last night, so they came to the hospital. Rachel’s not at the hospital today, but one of our Burundian partner doctors is on the maternity service. I tell this guy that this doctor will see his wife shortly, and he will decide what is necessary. He seems OK with this.
As he leaves, I examine my own frustration. I guess, in the end, he was just looking to take care of his wife by making sure Rachel was informed, and he incorrectly assumed that I was the best route for this. However, he seemed willing to be redirected. I hope that my annoyances didn’t show, and that he overall felt like I had responded in a caring fashion.
A few hours later, I pass the hospital canteen, walking with a student to go and get the ECG machine. The husband is sitting on the half-wall that separates the sidewalk from the canteen veranda. I think about greeting him, but I don’t really want to be seen as the point of connection for him, so I walk by without saying anything. He didn’t seem to notice me.
One hour after that, I’m getting ready to go home for lunch. I notice one of our medical students crying in the arms of another student, which is a notably public display of emotion in this normally stoic culture. When I come home, I ask Rachel how her morning was.
She tells me that the wife did deliver prematurely, a little baby about 1.5kg, which hopefully will be big enough to survive in our NICU. Then, while they were working on delivering her placenta, her blood pressure dropped out, and she was struggling to breathe. At this point, they did call Rachel to come in, and she ran to the hospital, only to find that she had died.
We don’t know why. The blood loss doesn’t explain it. In the end, we can formulate hypotheses, but we can’t think of anything we could have done to prevent such a death. But she’s gone.
Unexpected interruption. Peevish emotions. Controlled response. Maybe kind? Early birth. Gentle hope. Shocking tragedy.
Among other things, I continue to replay my little conversation with the husband in my mind. His world has been so changed today that I’m probably the last thing he’s thinking about. Yet it feels important to me that I treated him kindly, that my little role expressed somehow that God loves him and cares for him. That though God has given him a world that has devastated him today, that hope hasn’t disappeared forever. That though his baby will never know his mother, he might still grow up to be a joy for him. That death will not be the final word.
I’m quite sure that my conversation didn’t communicate all that, but it’s what I find myself desperately wanting to say. I wonder if I’ll think about this the next time that someone interrupts me with a random request.
At the end of the day, I’m walking out of the hospital, along the little concrete retaining wall next to the dirt road. It’s pretty quiet, and a group of boys are running laps in the soccer field in front of the church. I haven’t seen the husband. Maybe he’s gone. Maybe he’s with the baby.
What comes to mind are some old Rich Mullins lyrics:
We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
so few inches apart
We must be awfully small, and not as strong as we think we are.