Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An unexpected afternoon

HOPITAL-NATIONAL-DE-NIAMEY-ET-AUTRES-AVENTURES* all pictures not taken by me, I didn’t have my camera with me. But I did find some of our hospital here in Niamey to give you a feel for it!


Many of my days here turn out to be different than what I plan. Sometimes due to visitors, sometimes due to power cuts, sometimes due to illness, language errors, the battery in the truck dying, etc. Yesterday was one of those days. In the morning I went to Miriama’s hut like I do every Tuesday morning. She hadn’t been to hut class on Monday afternoon because she said her mom burned her hand. I assumed she burned it on a cooking pot or something since she didn’t say too much or seem worried. So when I arrived Tuesday morning I asked the mother how she was feeling and how her hand was. I noticed she was holding it covered under her shawl.

She pulled out her hand and I almost gasped. It was black and gnarled and looked AWFUL! I found out the full story.

*this is not her hand, but this is somewhat what it looked like, but spread across 4 fingerselectrical-burn

They live in a straw hut. They pull an electrical wire from their neighbour for one light, their tv set and to charge their cellphones. (can’t believe i just wrote that…) The wire runs through the roof of their outdoor straw open walled roof thing (we call them hangers) and into their hut. On Saturday there was a power cut in the city. When the power came on it started with a surge of electricity that started the wire sparking. Afraid that their hut would catch on fire (which is not uncommon here) Miriama’s mom grabbed the wire with her hand to pull it away from the hut. She was shocked with 220 volts. The wire and electricity cut right into her hand, gouging deep into 4 of her fingers. Apparently I am told she feel to the ground and was only semi-conscious for the next hour or so. They didn’t call an ambulance, or take her to the hospital or even to a doctor. Instead they smeared butter on it and rubbed charcoal over it.

SO my afternoon plans changed and instead of picking up the kids and heading home to paperwork and language studies, I got to experience an afternoon in the Niger health system.

First we went to a local clinic by our house, but were told it was too serious for them to treat there, and to go to the National Hospital in town. Off we went (Miriama’s mom’s name is Tamat) and Miriama and me.

The front receiving emergency room at the hospital is packed with people. It is thankfully slightly cool due to several hardworking air conditioners, and smells slightly damp with the unforgettable tinge of blood in the air. A skinny young woman with two children attached to her (one hanging off the front and one in a shawl off her back) comes up to me and tells me her two twins are sick. And she just looks at me and then follows us around as we go to the various windows. It is noon and we see lots of people bring in their own bowls of food and sit on the floor and eat while they wait.

We are then sent to the vehicular surgery wing. Vehicle accidents are one of the largest causes of death here, and apparently they think that wing will be best equipped to deal with electrical burns. (does it look like road rash to them? maybe picking charcoal out of a burn is like picking tar and rocks out of road rash?)


Thankfully this room also has a hard working a/c unit or the smell and people would be overwhelming. In a room a little bit bigger than my living room, I count 15 patients in various states of moaning/sleeping/unconscious/bleeding and just about as many family members hovering around. Makes for quite the cramped space! Finally I think the crowd gets a little out of hand, and the doctors/attendants/nurses on hand ask some of us to wait outside in the “waiting room”. The waiting room is a little hallway just outside. And it is under construction. Half the hallway is full of cement piled up, wheelbarrows, tools and sand. They are building a new wall. A handful of waiting people are dispersed against the wall wherever there is not a pile of construction debris. Miriama and I spy two open concrete cinder blocks and sit down for the long wait.

Miriama opens her purse and pulls out a small bottle of hand sanitizer and offers it to me. I had forgotten mine at home. Who is the teacher now! Go Miriama! And we wait.

In my head I think “wow…there would be some awesome pictures here, too bad I don’t have my camera with me” Then I continue to think and my question is- would I actually pull out my camera and take the pictures, surrounded by these conditions and this sea of humanity in various levels of discomfort and sadness? Truth is…the camera likely would have stayed in my bag anyhow. But the camera in my head goes “click, click, click”.

Before too long a nurse comes to us with two sheets of paper. She says they have looked at the wound and know how to proceed. However, first we must deal with these two sheets of paper. The first is the bill for the treatment/consults. It amounted to $5.00. Next was the list of supplies. You see, you buy your own supplies for medical procedures. The list they gave me to go buy included: tetanus shot, sterile gloves, tape, betadine, a box of 4x4 gauze pads, a stretchy fabric bandage wrap, tylenol, burn cream, and another antibiotic. Everything they needed to treat her. We paid the consultation bill at one window. The young woman with the twins finds me again and starts to follow us around again. Then off we went to the Pharmacy in the hospital. I say “pharmacy” but what I really mean is poorly stocked broom closet. The lady there only had half of the required supplies. After this we took our bag and list and walked out of the hospital to a pharmacy across the street. She had two more items. We were still missing two more. So we hailed a taxi out front of the hospital and headed into town to find another pharmacy. Thankfully they had the last two items. Then we hailed a second taxi to bring us back to the hospital to deliver all the items and proof paid to the room where Tamat was waiting.

At this point we are 3 hours in, and I am soooo very glad I took a minute before we left the house to go pee and grab a fresh bottle of water. I can’t imagine the facilities here.

We deliver the goods and I go back to my cinder block chair. My butt is not happy to re-discover this lovely chair. The smell of betadine, dirt and sweat mix together. In the hallway/waiting room/construction zone there is a woman praying. She has a yellowed mat on the floor under her and a small child strapped to her back. The child bobs up and down, like on a ride, as the Mom moves up and down faithfully saying her prayers and moves from standing up, to kneeling, to laying her forehead on the ground. While she prays, I pray for her.

I am called into the surgery room since they forgot to write something else on the list. Thankfully the in-hospital pharmacy/broom closet has it on hand and I return quickly with it. In the room there are a group of people yelling and some pushing going on. I am not sure what the commotion is. A run down ambulance arrives and two men are carried in on old blankets by their friends. I go back to find my cinder block occupied by someone else waiting and resign myself to leaning against the front of a wheelbarrow, not nearly as comfortable as my high quality cinder block! Thus far I am impressed with the staff, they have been professional and deal with people in a timely manner. I feel sorry for them that they work in such poor conditions with such a lack of supplies, but they are polite and well –trained as far as I can tell. Tamat comes out soon after that and we head on our way home, but not without another list of supplies we need to buy! (this set so she can get her bandages changed in 2 days time) So we hit two separate pharmacies on the way home to find those items.

After we got back I had some strong word for the family. After being with them weekly for almost 20 months now, I have earned the ability to speak freely. The doctors had already grilled into them that using charcoal in this wound was simply not a good idea, and it was so infected after several days that she could have risked losing fingers even! I also reminded them that they are my friends here, my “adoptive” African family. The mother has even whipped out her boob and wagged it at me and proclaimed “You are now my daughter now, like one I have nursed myself” to demonstrate our relationship (shocking mental picture i know!) SO i told them next time to phone me right away! If someone in their immediate family gets struck by electricity, knocked unconscious and has severe electrical burns, pick up the phone!! We are here to do life together and I would be heartbroken if she died or lost fingers simply because they didn’t seek help. There are things in my new African life that I cannot accomplish without them, like learning the language, the culture and training people. I need them. And because of their poverty there are some things they cannot do such as seek “expensive” medical treatment. I am honoured to carry some of the load for that for them. And the cost…all said and done including taxi, all medical supplies and medications, nurse care and consultations- just a little less than $50. But love- now that is priceless indeed.

To whom much has been given, much is required. We are in this life together.

I taught them a proverb that I am particularly fond of.

“If you want to go fast- go alone

If you want to go far- go together”


And to my own mom back in Canada- I was thinking of you!. Don’t worry, I would gladly sit on a cinder block, smell pee and run all around town for you too! Love you!



* I know I just posted this pic last week, but this is me and Tamat who burned her hand


1 comment :

Ellie said...

Interesting that is is such a common practice. I was just asked to do a teaching one NOT to put butter on burns! Will be praying for her.