9 September 2013

The Picture That Did Me In

Remember this summer when Charlotte had her tonsils and adenoids removed? We had no idea she needed surgery, but trusted the doctors who told us it had to be done. We teared up a bit as they wheeled her away, but then enjoyed coffee while we watched her status in real-time on the screen in the hospital waiting room.

On the nervous scale, we were at about a 2. It was a routine surgery and we knew she would be fine. And even if there was a complication we rest assured in the fact that we were in the United States.

Well, this summer Mama Youyou also had a routine surgery and we were scared out of our minds. Mama Youyou waited to have her surgery until we left for the States so she wouldn't have to take off work. (Bless her.) When she told us she needed the surgery, we did everything we could to make sure she had access to good health care.

Mama Youyou in all her brilliance.

You see, Mama Youyou has already outlived her life expectancy as a Congolese woman. Complications during routine surgeries in DRC (or lack thereof) are the type of thing that keeps her life expectancy rate down.

In the weeks before we left, she started saying things like, "If it's my time, it's my time..." And she told me that helping her find the best doctor was pointless because her fate was "in God's hands." But we still did what we could. We asked around for the best doctor and searched for someone who could stay at the hospital and take care of her during her 2+ week recovery. Because in Congo you have to provide your own food and care in the hospital.

Logically, I tearfully begged Mama Vida to help. Thankfully her husband gave her permission to be absent from their house to help out a friend. Then Jill rounded up medical supplies and trained Mama Vida in proper wound care, while I practically sat in her lap making sure she was listening closely. I paid a Congolese friend, Joseph, who has internet access to check-in on Mama Youyou (read: bother her) and email me every Friday with an update.

Up until the day we left for the States, Mama Youyou had been her usual stoic self. She's always very Mary Poppins when she says goodbye. No tears. No fuss. But this time she hugged us tight and sobbed. She really believed it would be the last time she would see us.

Fast forward a week or so later and Joseph emailed to let us know Mama Youyou had her surgery and was recovering. Then he sent us photos of the surgery itself (!) with the operating table right next to an open window. And this picture of Mama Youyou and Mama Vida in the hospital.

The picture that did me in.

During that same week, here is an image of my daughter in her hospital:

I was gutted by the difference. Besides the balanced meal, all the ice cream she can eat, fancy bed with room for me to sleep beside her, and sterile IVs, there's really just one difference. Access.

These two people spend their lives together. They sing the same songs, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes. But when they are sick, one has a very good chance of dying and the other has every chance of living. Of course I know this is how it goes, but there's nothing like a photo to make me feel every adjective for the word sad.

When we got back to Congo, Mama Youyou was out of the hospital and on the mend. Who knows if anything we did made a difference. She said her hospital experience was miserable and I could use the picture above to tell about it. Because if I'm all kinds of sad she's all kinds of emotions. The difference is that she was born a woman in Congo. And her whole life she's known that life isn't a given.


  1. thank you for sharing this truth.

  2. A friend shared an amazing piece by Pico Iyer for the NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/opinion/sunday/the-value-of-suffering.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0).

    It contained this quote, which I think is extremely applicable to Sarah's post: "[be]strong enough to witness suffering, and yet human enough not to pretend to be master of it."

  3. She is lucky to have had you and friends back in Congo taking care of her. I hope she has recovered well and same to your little girl.

  4. Of course what you did to help before leaving for the U.S. made a difference! Just the positive energy which went into the effort affected the outcome. Would that someday access becomes equal. Doesn't the hospital ship visit Kinshasa regularly? Not that that's more than a big, wonderful band-aid...

    1. Thanks Irma. Yes, we've thought more than a few times about Mercy Ship, but last we heard it was going to Brazzaville in the "other Congo." In fact a reader contacted us from aboard the ship once. We'd love her to do a guest post about their program.


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