Patient privacy means not speaking the girl’s name but still her story hits me like a ton of bricks whenever I think about it. Shy, quiet and not yet ten years old I know more about her life than she will never understand about mine. Sr. Anita, a Daughter of Charity and nurse who runs a clinic in Mwingi—one of the larger cities in the Kikamba region, is standing with me and Gina in her dark, dusty office. On the walls of this office that is a little larger than a standard sized American handicapped restroom stall are dozens of faded photos of her clients and in just the next room posters bearing handwritten statistics line the walls.
The numbers are for both the clinic’s data and to send to USAID, one of the primary organizations that provide funding, the medical equipment and data collection supplies so Sr. Anita can meet with her patients. I ask Sister what the numbers and letters “OVC” mean. She says “O.V.C. stands for Orphaned vulnerable children,” referring to children whose parents have died of AIDS and who themselves may be HIV-positive. The highest number to date is roughly 2, 5000.
Sister starts talking about the pictures on the wall. Most of those pictured are still alive. Some are not. Sister starts to smile, telling fondly the stories of those who passed. She gestures to one picture of a small girl in school uniform. She tells us how she had been living with an abusive guardian since her mother had died. The girl was removed from the home and placed with her aunt; one day her father came and took her to live with him and a partner who in Sister’s words “did not care at all for the girl.” A few weeks after, the girl ran up to Sister when she and other community health workers were visiting the school and could see some signs of abuse. Sister did a physical examination and filed a new case of abuse against the girl’s father. The case is ongoing in the Kenyan courts.
When one decides to go to a place like Kenya to work with people living in poverty, one is always hoping for those bright moments among dark days. For the most part, the three and a half weeks I spent as a camp counselor, playing volleyball and soccer, painting and coloring construction paper were filled with laughter and learning. While I taught the children the basics of “freeze tag” and paper-plane folding, they taught me how to be fulfilled with very little. On the one day I spent with Sr. Anita at her clinic, holding a short camp for the HIV-Positive children, I was witness to the overwhelming problem of HIV/AIDS. We opened the hall nearby to about 60 children–all of them Positive and orphaned. All them walked for miles just to play and meet the Americans.
At one point while teaching some of the children how to play volleyball, I heard the loud smack of a soccer ball and the distinct choked, stuttered inhale of a child in pain. I put down the ball and began searching for any signs of a child crying. A boy of about 10 years old was covering his face while blood dripped from between his palms. Instinctively I put my arms around the boy, guiding him toward the door to Sister's office where I knew she had bandages and gauze to stop the bleeding. Over and over and very calmly I repeated, "You're going to be OK. It's OK. It's just a nosebleed. You're gonna be fine."
Only later did I realize he probably didn't understand a word I was saying. Using contractions and shortened American phrases is just as foreign as any other language to people who already speak two African languages. After bringing the boy to Sister's office, she looked at my bloodstained hands and told me to wash them outside where some of the women were washing dishes. A few minutes later, Sister walked over with a gel hand sanitizer and reminded me to be careful about touching blood. The boy is a Positive. Had I any open wounds or cuts on my hands, had the blood somehow reached my eyes, I could be at serious risk of infection.
This isn't a problem that happens in America. After two years of working in hospitals, I do not so much as sneeze or cough unless it's covered and I am quickly thereafter going to wash my hands. In America, there is access to tissues for sneezes, water for washing hands, gloves for handling patients and drugs and education to control risk of HIV infection. And yet for all we have in America and for all the little the Kenyans have, I found myself forgetting about all of the barriers we have to overcome just to live in normalcy. Suddenly having exactly two sugars in my coffee was not such a big deal when I knew the kids in my camp had to walk three miles to get water for their families every morning. Without shoes.
Something changes when one travels. Something changes when one sees the live result of problems we in the States can only talk about in passing or as subjects in school. My hope is to return to Kenya in the near future and try to continue more work with these populations. Especially now that I have met them, the women, children and men who make up the numbers are more than designated test subjects. My hope is to make others one day see that as well.