How Can You Stand It?

The year after I graduated from college, I moved to Ghana on a fellowship to explore the role of religious faith in West African health care. For the first several months, I assisted the Chaplaincy Unit at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra. And I fell in love.

Her name was Mercy. Only a few months old, she had been discovered lying beneath a tree on hospital grounds. More than likely the mother was HIV+ and had been cast out from her village – perhaps Mom hoped that by leaving the infant on hospital property, there was hope for her baby. When someone brought the tiny child to the children’s block, the nurses cleaned her up and named her, and the other mothers in the nursery took turns holding her while their own babies slept.

I first met Mercy while visiting my flatmate, a nurse from England who was volunteering in the children’s block. And from the moment I saw her, I couldn’t let her go. Every day until she was discharged into a children’s home, I was up on the ward, holding her in my arms and cooing in her ear. She became more responsive as the weeks went on and we knew that she was going to be okay.

A month after “my baby” was discharged, my flatmate came to find me at the chaplain’s office. “Mercy is back.” A raging infection had swept through the children’s home, and several of the weaker children had been admitted to the hospital for treatment. When I came by the babies’ unit to see her, I barely recognized the little one. She had wasted away and all of the responsiveness and warmth we had seen develop in her were gone. When I held my hands out to pick her up, she laid there and shook her head from side to side, as if afraid to be touched. I could see that the infection had worn away at her scalp and the nurses were trying to control it with betadine. I continued to visit as often as I could, until my post at the hospital ended and I had to fly home for the holidays.

I don’t know what happened to Mercy. She probably succumbed to her infection – her body was weak and I had witnessed her decline. It broke my heart to leave that final day. But at the same time, I knew that for a few short weeks, she was cared for so lovingly by her nurses, the other mothers, my flatmate, and myself. For a few short weeks, she mattered to someone and could count on being held and sung to. For a few short weeks, I was part of something really beautiful.

When people ask me what kind of nursing I want to do and I answer “acute care pediatrics”, I see this flash of horror in their eyes. Especially when I say I have considered both neonatal intensive care and pediatric oncology. And then I go for the knockout punch: I actually want to continue to do international health care in some capacity, meaning that I will likely encounter many more Mercys along the way.

Then the questions come, “Why would you want to be with sick children all the time?” “How can you stand it?” “Won’t you get your heart broken every day?”

Of course my heart will break. Of course some days will be unbearably hard, when I lose a patient or hug a grieving parent. Each child I care for will stay with me. But if the alternative is steeling myself against any emotion at all, I’ll take the pain.

Whenever I think it will be too hard, I think about Mercy. I couldn’t save her. I won’t save all of my patients. But for a brief moment in time, I could provide a healing touch. And I hope in some way, that made a difference.

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