My little sister is a doctor. It still feels strange writing that because, to me, she will always be that lovable, annoying, mischievous little imp that used to follow me around making kissing noises when she saw me talking to boys.
Now she is a fully qualified, practising doctor, with two years (hellish) junior doctor experience under her belt.
She is the person running through hospital corridors, administering drips, doing blood tests, resuscitating dying patients, diagnosing illness. While my work consists of entertaining via the written word and speech, hers is all about saving lives. In short, my sister has a proper job.
That proper job has taken her to Africa recently. Finding herself with a few months to spare before her new role starts at a UK hospital, she decided to head to Tanzania to offer her medical expertise there.
The way I just wrote that makes it sound a bit breezey, nicely spontaneous, like she went out to Africa for a fun little jolly. The real experience couldn’t be further from the truth.
While watching Comic Relief last week I was struck by the images of Africa that we regularly see in the west. Tiny, malnourished babies. Mothers with vacant expressions. Barren land and thirsty children. I haven’t ever been to see these places with my own eyes and – just like many others – I’ve been guilty of closing my mind to the raw poverty that envelopes these countries. I sponsor a child in Niger through World Vision. I regularly donate to charity. But, somehow, the lives of the people I’m donating to don’t really feel tangible to me – I don’t know the people who live there, so I can’t imagine their stories.
My sister is not an emotional person. She is used to dealing with death and disease. She’s not cold, but she has coping mechanisms to avoid being damaged by the difficult situations she deals with every day at work. There are things she has seen and experienced in that hospital though, which put these mechanisms severely to the test.
You have to remember she wasn’t there as a witness. Her job wasn’t to watch and write, or to raise awareness. She wasn’t a passive spectator, taken around to different places to meet villagers and mothers and families and children. She was there – living, eating, breathing, WORKING. Being in the hospital was about saving lives and getting stuck in with the incredibly limited resources to hand.
Working to help people like little January. January is a baby who was found abandoned at the bottom of a latrine by the side of the road. When he was brought into the hospital he was starving and covered in open wounds, where maggots had eaten his flesh. There is no pretty way to describe what had happened to him. I could gloss over the words and make it sound less horrific, but that would make it less true.
January was discovered by a man who has a child with Cerebral Palsy. My sister tells me that his situation is rare, in that he accepts and loves his child, despite the disability. Apparently the hospital staff are used to treating cases of suspected poisoning, where children are brought in spitting green liquid – insecticide – they have been fed by their parents. Sadly, cases like January’s are not rare.
January’s story seems to be a happy one though. It looks like he may be adopted by the man who found him, who comes to visit him every day bringing nappies. Despite his shocking scars, my sister tells me January is a happy baby. He thrives on cuddles and laughter, like all babies. He wants to be held and loved, like all babies.
I tell my sister that even if her time at that hospital came to nothing more than a moment cuddling an abandoned baby, her journey has been worth it.
I tell her that it’s not her fault many of her patients would still be alive if they simply had never been born on African soil. I tell her that she isn’t a hero and no one expects her to be.
She replies with stories of cleaning patients covered in faeces, without the basics of soap and a flannel. She tells me beds have no sheets and babies have no nappies. She tells me poorly children are placed four to a bed, often naked.
She tells me other stories that aren’t mine to share, but leave me weeping at the horror of it all.
So I am pleased she has now finished working at the hospital. My protective big sister instinct is relieved it’s over. But I know she won’t forget what she’s seen. And I expect the experience means it’ll take a lot to phase her when she returns home, back to her new job in a UK hospital.
You know, at least we have flannels and soap here.
This post wasn’t written for any particular charity or organisation. But I was recently told about a charity called Renewable World which works to tackle poverty by providing affordable renewable energy in East Africa, Central America and South Asia.