04 May 2008


Forgive me bloggers, for I have sinned. It has been 11 days since my last post.

And I can’t promise that this one will be altogether all that uplifting. I had to say no to two patients on Friday; saying no is the hardest part of this job.

Ballah* is a sixty-five-year-old woman who, for the past six weeks, has noticed a swelling of her jaw. It’s a painful swelling, interfering with her eating, and causing her to lose weight (or, as our interaction went, I’ can peeyn me. I can ee’ freely. Ohhh, I be reducing. Because of the worry... I’m going to miss Liberian English). She had been prescribed antibiotics for the jaw swelling, and had been sent to our dental clinic for further work-up.

God bless our dental clinic. They are the front-lines. Firmly ensconced at Redemption Hospital, a former MSF hospital turned over last year to the Liberian government, our dentists, dental assistants, dental coordinators, dental sterilizers, and a vanguard of translators occupy the former pediatric ICU (which sounds significantly better stocked than it actually is. It's a room. With fans. And numbers on the wall).

They see everyone. Jaw swellings. Ma-too’-be-hurtin’s. My-breasts-be-too-bigs. And Vicki, the indomitable whirlwind of a woman who runs the clinic, brings them in or sends them away with a gentleness and a care that rivals many.

Ballah, she sent to the ship. Unfortunately, Ballah’s jaw swelling was inoperable. See, it wasn’t a simple swelling that was paining her. It wasn’t worry that was causing her to reduce. Ballah had a carcinoma of her gums, a volcanic eruption of uncontrolled tissue growth that had eroded through the bone of her jaw and out her skin, completely replacing normal tissue across about 75% of her mouth. Back home, Ballah would have required a pretty massive operation, and, after an entire day on the operating table, would still have had a significantly greater chance of succumbing to her tumor than of surviving. We would have thrown the proverbial sink at her—surgery, radiation, chemotherapy—to give her that chance.

But, here, there is a bizarre economy. In a situation in which radiation and chemotherapy are not available, in a world in which heroic measures fail more often than not, in a culture in which surgery for palliation is not understood, what is the right way to deal with Ballah? And with the other patients who would, by necessity, not be able to get surgery if Ballah did?

It’s an economy I still struggle with.

Joseph’s* story is not much different. Fifty-five years old, retired, with a six-year history of an eye tumor, pushing his left eye forward and causing pain. It was a small thing, externally. Not one of those tumors you look at and immediately start calculating how many nerves you’re going to have to sacrifice getting it out.

Its appearance belied its actual size. A CT scan revealed a large tumor in his frontal sinus, with extension directly into his brain. And the economy reasserted itself. We have no neurosurgeons on-board. What we have is the ability to do a few, basic neurosurgical things, should they be necessary. But nothing more.

Joseph, too, succumbed to the economy. And, having experienced the Liberian health-care system first-hand, I know what we were sending him away to. It makes saying no exceedingly difficult.

But, let me tell you the story of Precious:

Precious* is Liberia. Her problems are the problems of the health care system of a developing nation. See, on February 5, Precious tripped on her way home from school. She scraped her knee and her elbow. She probably cried. She probably ran home to her mother. She probably got a hug. At home, she could have featured in any number of brightly-lit, quotidian Tylenol commercials. But not in Liberia. Here, there are no manicured front lawns with sun-dappled trees and a stay-at-home mother smilingly washing dishes over a white formica countertop. No soft-focus filters here.

Precious’s mother—a woman who commands amazing respect for the amount she has given up to care for her daughter—brought the girl to the big white hospital ship that had just, that day, arrived in Monrovia. Patients weren’t being seen for another two weeks, and, regardless, Precious wasn’t the sort of patient we could have given anything to. But mom tried. And she was sent off to one of the local hospitals to treat the cellulitis that had set into her daughter's knee.

There, Precious received appropriate antibiotics. Except that she was allergic to them, unbeknownst to anyone. Her face swelled up. Her knee and elbow got no better. And then, slowly, the facial swelling turned into outright death. The tissues on her face succumbed to a condition—unique to the malnourished developing world—called noma. Or, in its more grotesque nomenclature, cancrum oris. Noma is an opportunistic infection that attacks a slightly depressed immune system (usually after measles; sometimes after other infections), almost exclusively in the undernourished child. The bacteria that live in all of our mouths decide it’s time to feast. And feast they do.

Precious was—relatively—lucky. She lost her lips. They turned black and fell off. I’m not making that up.

But she could have lost more—others have lost lips, noses, and eyes. Her mother did not give up. Precious had been befriended by one of the receptionists on the ship, who visited her at the hospital daily. Three months later, during which time her mother had not once been home, not once left her daughter’s side, the infection had been successfully controlled and the noma had run its course.

Precious was brought on-board for reconstruction of her lips. It’s a long, four- or five-month ordeal, with six or seven stages (for those of you facile with lip reconstruction, this is like nothing you’ve ever seen before). She has finished stage I. And, for the first time in three months, mom has been home to sleep in her own bed.

What happened to Precious would never have happened at home. At home, kids eat too much. At home, they get vaccinated against measles. At home, when they scrape their knees, mom drops her dishes, runs out under those sun-dappled leaves, concern dancing in her eyes, antibiotic ointment in hand. At home, we make feel-good commercials about the very thing that has permanently scarred a little girl like Precious.

Man is born into trouble, wrote the ancients, as surely as the sparks fly upward.

1 comment:

Annee said...

I love and hate reading your blog. As I read tears form in my eyes and it becomes hard to swallow. I have SO much to be thankful for. It just doesn't seem just at times how easy I have it.