Our burn victim, Jeanita, came to us consistently for about 5 days. Five days of torturous, excrutiating dressing changes where we scrubbed and she screamed. I didn't feel the physical pain but the emotional weight of doing something like that every day is pretty awful too. And yet, we saw progress, very slowly. Chunks of dead skin coming off, charred flesh peeling away, and tiny patches of healthy pink tissue appearing underneath.
Then one day, Jeanita didn't show up. I figured she needed a break, so we didn't press the matter. But when she didn't appear the following day, I sent Oscar, our nursing assistant, to her house. He found her in bed, running fevers, with a local remedy, a mixture of raw egg and goat poop, smeared all over the burns. He begged, lectured, cajoled, and argued, and eventually came back to clinic alone.
We prayed. And we worried. There was a tangible air of sadness about the clinic.
But the next day, there she was, ready for us to do her dressings! Where the wounds had been clean before, now they were oozing pus, especially in the areas where the skin had burned and hardened but not come off. As we peeled those sections of skin away, we found infection underneath.
To make matters worse, whatever resolve Jeanita had had during the first week was gone. Any time during that second week that we rubbed too hard, she would pull away and grab our hands. Once she jumped up and ran out of clinic. Her boyfriend chased her down, picked her up and carried her bodily back to the exam table. Several times, she threw herself on the floor, open burns pressed against the dirty tile, and wailed, "Just let me die! Just let me die!" Personal dignity is a huge deal for Haitians - they would never sit on the floor like I might or go out in public without wearing nice clothes - but Oscar, good old Oscar, knelt down on the floor beside her, held her and spoke soothingly to her until she got up.
* * * * *
Jeanita was always on my mind. At clinic, at home, in the market, during Creole class. I thought about her constantly - how was she doing, whether I was doing an effective job cleaning her burns, whether she would come back the following day. Many nights I fell asleep thinking about her.
While I'm still caring for someone, I try to keep my emotions at bay. I have to, otherwise I could never have the courage to keep doing what has to be done. I'm sure it looks inhumane and cruel, but if I open that door, I become useless. I'd been able to remain at least outwardly detached until one day when Jeanita grabbed me and with her good hand, began to stroke my hair and plead with me.
"Please stop hurting me, sweetheart. Please don't do this to me anymore, my friend. Please, honey, don't hurt me anymore." She was crying and her tears were falling on me and then I was crying too. Crying and answering, "I don't want to hurt you, but I have to."
The next morning, Jeanita didn't come to clinic. Oscar visited the house on the second day of her absence and no one was home. On the third day, he and I went together. We found her sitting in front of the TV, egg and goat poop all over her body, her burns smelling like rotting flesh. After 15 minutes of arguing and begging and reasoning, it was clear that she was not going to come back to clinic. I asked if we could pray for her.
We walked out of that tiny shack and into the dusty barren yard. I couldn't hold it in and I just started to sob. Oscar wrapped his arms around me and we stood together, crying, for a long time.
I couldn't think about anything but Jeanita all day. The burden that I felt for her health, for her life, was so heavy. I prayed for her. I wanted to cry for her. What if I've put her through this hell, I agonized, only to have her die now from infection? All that suffering for nothing.
* * * * *
In the morning,Oscar called me. Joy of joys, surprise of surprises: Jeanita had returned to clinic! I whooped and started dancing around my apartment. And then I thanked God, over and over.
* * * * *
That was Saturday. On Sunday, Jeanita didn't come. Yesterday, she didn't come. Oscar went to the house and found her covered in goat poop. Again.
I planned to go see her today, to try to convince her again to come back. But before I got the chance I heard the news that Jeanita is at DePoto. DePoto is run by the Sisters of Charity, Mother Theresa's people. It functions primarily as a malnutrition center and a home for the dying. They don't give out medical care; they give out love and comfort. If Jeanita is in DePoto, she is there to die.
Oscar's face reflected my emotions. "Did you hear?" he asked me. I nodded and we just stood there, silent. What is there to say? It seems that we've poured all our energy and all our heart's capacity for compassion into that one girl. And now, it feels as if we've lost her.
Sadness and surrender are encroaching, but I'm taking a stand for hope. Hope that DePoto will have bandage supplies and use them. Hope that cleanliness and good nutrition will work their magic. Hope that God is merciful enough to not let us lose the battle like this. We can't bear to lose the battle like this.