It was a beautiful sunny morning in a distant country many years back. I can still recall the scent of tropical flowers in the cool morning air I enjoyed on my short walk to the hospital. Hospital? You may think that hospitals usually don’t prompt lighthearted stories that provide tiny lessons. And you are right. This is a sad story. I am telling this particular one again (reworked from my 10th post), much to remind myself that some lessons are tougher than others. And to make the point that among the tiny lessons we barely notice, there will be a few bigger ones. These are the ones that may impact our choices in life.
No, I was not sick or going for tests. I was actually young, very healthy – and very inexperienced, a “green hat” of sorts. I wasn’t going to visit a sick friend or family member, I was an invited guest of the pediatric department of this teaching hospital. A visitor with powers to possibly enhance things. And I was eager to see what my hosts would show me. Although I’d seen many hospitals, helped to manage a few, and recently even had an inside experience after giving birth in one, I would come to realize that I had seen nothing yet.
I was met by the administrative director, flanked by a pediatrician and someone else, who I took to be the PR woman for the hospital. They told me we were going to visit the new pediatric wing donated by so and so rich country. It was obvious they were very proud to show me their hospital. And soon I understood why. Following a short buzz, the double doors at the end of the corridor opened to a brand new facility, a neonatal ICU. Everything was white and clean, a light sterile scent lingered in the large air-conditioned rooms filled with shiny, state-of-the-art medical equipment. I counted eight incubators in the first large room, six of them were empty, two were in use. The equipment hummed quietly.
Several nurses strutted around in white pumps, white stockings and well-pressed, starched white uniforms, complete with the traditional two-button “winged” hat, no longer seen in many hospitals. A foreign-looking doctor was explaining something about one of the machines to a group of young residents. After each piece of equipment was presented, I was told that for the first time in this large city, the premature babies now had a change. I was extremely happy to hear that.
This facility was no less than perfect, probably the best I’d seen by that time anywhere. But I had lots of questions on my mind. How did the babies get here when most births still happened at home in the surrounding villages and there was no reliable transportation? Etcetera. The large numbers of perfectly attired staff also didn’t fit my picture of severe staffing shortages in this country’s health care system. So I asked the director about that when we returned to the lobby. I was told that the donor still took care of the facility, including all its operating costs, and had committed to continue doing so for the next five years. I now had my explanation and realized that I had not yet seen what I needed to learn about. I thanked my hosts for showing me this great new wing, I was truly impressed, and then asked where we would go next. They looked at each other and I immediately realized that this had completed the visit.
Stubborn as I am, I politely asked to be shown the old pediatric wing too. The director quickly told me that the old wing did not have power at the moment and therefore a visit would not be possible. The PR woman nodded, maybe another time. That’s when the doctor came to my rescue. He offered to take me there, just for a quick walk-through, if I didn’t mind. So before anyone objected, off we walked in the opposite direction – and entered another world.
The tiny rooms were overcrowded and dirty, cot after cot with several sick babies sharing each little bed, lying sideways, many crying. In other rooms we found bigger kids, some of them cancer patients, sharing rusty old iron beds. The air was hot, stagnant and despite many open windows, heavy with odors. Between all these rooms, we found one nurse and one aide. The second aide was out fetching water because the running water didn’t work. The nurse in a faded blue uniform was very apologetic and embarrassed about the poor conditions, no power, no water, and it’s been like this for several days now, important meds out of stock too, but she was too busy to stay with us more that a few minutes.
I didn’t blame her, instead I was thankful over the fact she had come to work at all that day, knowing the impossible task in front of her. And I know it was not for the salary, her payroll was not covered by any donor. It was for the love and care for these kids. The prospect that some of them might make it.
Walking out of the hospital I cried. It was impossible for me to reconcile the two different realities very present in the same building. I was shaken to my core, and after managing to understand some of it, my lessons were quite profound. I often think about these kids in the old wing and hope many of them made it into adulthood and became productive members of their communities. They certainly contributed to some of the better choices I’ve made in life, some of which, hopefully, have made a tiniest dent in improving a few “old wings”.
I told you this was a sad story. I wish I could say there are no more old wings in the world. But honestly, I can’t – not yet.
Wherever they live
decent health care for children
I wish we could win.