24 February 2008

The cleft and the high priest

Evidently, there are rumors about the ship.

Don't go onto the big white ship, people are cautioned. They'll tell you it's a hospital, but it's not. It's a slave ship. You'll get on, and you won't get off.


On that ship, they take you into a special room, undress you, and lay you on an altar. The priest then puts on his ceremonial robes, and you go into a trance. Then they cut you.

For a culture like ours, in which nothing is assigned any religious, spiritual, historic, or supernatural weight, hearing this description of what happens in an operating room (which, quite honestly, isn't that far from the truth) was revealing.

Despite these warnings, patients have swallowed their trepidation and started boarding the big, white, square piece of floating metal. And this is more revealing: if patients are really hearing these sorts of warnings from their elders, there must be a degree of desperation that trumps any fear, any magic, and any possibility that they will be whisked away into servitude. To my mind, it's simply unthinkable that the last possibility—of lifelong slavery, of the reopening of ancestral wounds—is better than what they're facing now. But evidently it is.

Surgeries began on Thursday, and the hospital is up in full swing. One of our first patients was a nineteen-year-old boy named Emmanuel.* Emmanuel had an incomplete cleft lip—nothing drastic, really. Not even tug-at-your-heartstrings, media-worthy. His wasn't at all the cleft lip you'll see on any fund-raising brochure.

For Emmanuel, though, this cleft represented a wall, a distinction from his peers, a separation from the outside world, and an incarnate command from higher powers to retreat into isolation. When we saw him on screening day, he had already spent nineteen years obeying this flesh-and-blood mandate. He was withdrawn. But on Thursday, Emmanuel had his cleft repaired.

Now, I refuse to make far-reaching claims of how much his life could potentially change from this half-hour operation. They're cheapening, and you've heard them all before. Besides, Emmanuel is still a quiet, shy, withdrawn boy, keeping to his corner of the ward. But, let me tell you this:

At church today, Emmanuel was the one playing the drums.

*You'll forgive me, I hope, for not posting too many patients' pictures on this site. It's an attempt at preserving dignity and avoiding exploitation.


ski insurance said...

very touching story, nice written as well

proonner paraphrases said...

gosh.. it would be hard to explain how any of those descriptions of what happens in an or is not 'really' what happens.

it's cool that 'e' picked up the drums.. he just wanted to express himself. it's a beautiful thing.