Maria sat quietly crying. She had done what the doctor had told her to do, but still her baby died. “Take the medicine four times a day,” he had instructed her. Now, she found no consolation from anyone. Family and friends had told her not to go to the “foreign” doctor. “Our tribal doctors are all we need,” they had insisted. Maria would never go back to a foreign doctor again, and the foreign doctor would never know the real reason for the baby’s death – or would they?
Working with native peoples of the third world can be frustrating for those who have experienced only first world civilization. I have always admired nurses, missionaries, or teachers who worked with the very deprived people in other other countries. However, existing in horrendous living conditions, at best, using substandard materials and teaching simple people did not appeal to me. “I could never do that,” I repeatedly stated as I read of someone doing – what for me was – the impossible. Memories surfaced, however.
“Cathy” had given birth the day before. I was a floating nurse at the time, and she was assigned to me. Glancing over her chart, I noted that she had had four previous abortions. For some reason, she had decided to keep this baby. Being older and having some strong opinions on many issues, I felt that I could never care for someone who had had an abortion. Mentally calculating a rapid way out, I discovered that the other nurses had already left to check their patients. It was too late to switch. As I made my way to Cathy’s room, my thoughts centered on giving her a quick check before discharging her.
As soon as I had entered her room, she started talking non-stop. She told me of her abortions, her reasons for keeping this baby, and her fears for the future. As I listened, I looked into her anguished eyes. She did not need a judge. Nor was I qualified to be one. All she wanted was someone to help her through a crisis. She would remember this nurse, for good or for bad. I was given only a short period of time to make a difference. For me, the choice was amazingly simple. Cathy was discharged that day happy, relieved of her many questions and looking forward to caring for her baby.
“Bill” was an alcoholic. He had numerous hospital admissions on his record and was well-known on the locked unit. I rarely took that rotation because I felt that I did not have the capacity to understand that kind of problem. However, the inevitable happened. I was called from another floor, in the middle of my shift, to sit with Bill. He was tearing the unit apart, physically and verbally. “Why me, Father?”, I prayed as I made my way to the dreaded assignment. The answer came from a harried nurse who met me at the elevator. “We asked for you because we heard you have a special knack for talking with patients.” I was stunned! Me? However, there was no time to analyze. I would mull that over later.
As I walked into Bill’s room, the shouting ceased as he tried to eye me up and down. I introduced myself, told Bill why I was there, and then sat down to wait. Since I was the only one seated, it motivated others to evaluate their positions. Slowly they began to climb down from the furniture and to escort the now quiet Bill to his bed. The rest of the shift proved to be uneventful. We talked, he slept, and I pondered. Later, as I prepared to leave, Bill said, “Thank you for treating me like a person.” At that moment, I saw another “never” wall come crashing down.
There were other “nevers” that surfaced from time to time, not only in hospitals, but in nursing homes and on home health visits in dangerous parts of the city. As a nursing director, I was able to assist others through their personal “nevers.” Now living in Mexico, I frequently encounter people who have not been taught – what for us – are the simple basics. I found myself in the very position which I had said that I would never find myself.
Because of their simplicity, the native people are unable to comprehend the ordinary phrases that we take for granted. “Take the medicine four times a day,” to them may mean several things. For Maria, it meant that she was to take the medicine to her “god” of choice and pray over it four times a day. The more experienced peoples will still do this, but they have learned that they must ingest the medicine as well. In time, Maria was able to understand this strange philosophy. At the same time, the foreign medical personnel practised refining everyday terms into simpler explanations.
Strangely, the very things which I had said that I could never do have given me the greatest insight. People are the same the world over. All are individuals looking for solutions to personal problems. Had I stood firm with all of my “nevers,” I would have stagnated in a brine of empty existence. Instead, my horizons have expanded to the mountains of Chiapas where, incidentallly, I had said that I would never live.