On any given Sunday morning around the United States you can turn on your television and watch some of the most compelling, heart wrenching shows there are. You know what I mean. As a beautiful song plays in the background your eyes are besieged with images of babies that are so thin there is nothing left of them or stomachs bloated because of the worms inhabiting their tiny little bodies. The camera zooms in and you see a child with flies surrounding his eyes and it makes you flinch because the little one doesn’t even seem to realize they are there at all. The images are painful and the question arises: what do you do when you see such things?
Some of us never watch these programs. When we see one on the TV we quickly find an interesting sermon or an old episode of “I Love Lucy” on TV Land. Some of us watch with a feeling akin to hopelessness. There are so many children. There are so many needs. Even now with cyclones in Burma and earthquakes in China we can feel completely overwhelmed because the need is greater than ourselves. And some, like myself, force ourselves to watch because this is a true reality show. As the tears stream down our faces we wonder how simple folks like ourselves can make a difference when there are literally thousands upon thousands in need of hope.
The fact is, we can make a difference even if it affects only one life, with compassionate concern lived out one person at a time: one woman who longs for relief from constant back pain, one man who needs sunglasses for his dry & hurting eyes, one child whose face is covered with dirt and dust in need of physical touch. This is what we experienced in a real life drama in Timbuktu, Mali, one of the world’s poorest cities.
Our little medical team was serving the people that live in the Belt of Misery, a region full of squatters’ huts that surrounds the city. The people there have no easily accessible water, no sanitation, and little availability to the food needed to feed their large families. We saw middle-aged men and women who looked elderly. We saw children with ringworm covering their heads and eyes so red from dust that is made us squirm with discomfort. We saw women whose feet were so cracked and dry that just giving them lotion brought a smile from ear to ear. And then we saw him.
He was brought in by a neighbor friend because the mother had to remain at home with his twin brother. He could have been on any Sunday morning TV show, but there he was in front of our eyes. He was a perfectly formed little boy, ten fingers and ten toes, a precious little face, and beautiful dark hair. But he was dying right there before us. His breathing was so shallow that it was imperceptible, his body so thin that the tip of a sock fit as a hat on his little head. He was unable to breastfeed and was literally starving to death. Our doctors quickly went to work giving him the simplest life saving technique -a rehydrating fluid fed to him drop by drop from an ear syringe. Little by little his breathing became steadier and he was stable enough to be taken to the hospital and placed on an IV which our doctors paid for, along with his twin brother.
He is only one child after all, but he is a child who is alive today because we didn’t “change the channel” or throw up our hands in overwhelming hopelessness. He was sick and we cared for him. And who knows what great things might be in store for that one life!
On a side note, sadly his little brother passed away just a few days later. The story that is circulating is that the baby for whom the team intervened is miraculously still alive. In the grim reality of malnutrition, sickness, disease and death, we are thankful to have served as channels of life and hope for many.