A Story

One of my articles in the Morganton News Herald - April 2007


By Gwen Veazey

(with Dr. Barbara Nagy)

6:00 AM: Leaving the rustic home provided for her, a doctor walks past subtropical trees reminding her of mimosas. Five minutes later she arrives at the Christian hospital in Nkhoma, Malawi, a referral center for many community health clinics. Inside, the modest one-story buildings smell of cooking fire smoke and animals. Nearby livestock occasionally slip inside the doors. The doctor readies herself for another day of seeing patients suffering from malaria, meningitis, tuberculosis, malnourishment, and AIDS.

8:00 AM: Today is a clinic day for under five-year-olds. Babies cry, and staff and patients sing. Nurses (Sisters) teach parents through song about vaccines and diversifying the diet of small children. The doctor hears the whole clinic singing. An educational video pours full blast from HIV clinic corridors. In her exam room, the doctor must concentrate to hear patients' heart sounds through her stethoscope.

9:00 AM: She checks again on Thomas, a young boy brought in a few days ago by his parents. (Many children have English names here.) He lies in a bed all to himself, one of ninety patients in the children's ward. The X-ray machine was working yesterday and she'd been able to confirm his exact diagnosis, disseminated TB. Thankfully the hospital has the right medicine for treating Thomas. He's not breathing well, and she stays a moment and prays for him. It's all she can do because their three oxygen machines have been in Nkhoma for repair. It seems they've been gone forever.

10:00 AM: A serenely beautiful young woman sits on the examining table, panting with uterine contractions. She's ready to deliver her baby after riding thirty kilometers (nineteen miles) balanced on the back of a bicycle taxi, while in labor. She could have taken a minibus, but it would have cost about 400 kwacha ($2.85), eight times more than the bicycle and nearly three days earnings of her subsistence farmer husband. The more impoverished pregnant women often don't make it to the hospital due to "leg weakness," meaning they weren't able to walk the miles required to get there.

1:00 PM: The doctor stands in the pharmacy taking stock of decreasing supplies of their most needed medications: penicillin, magnesium sulfate, and quinine. Suddenly, Thomas's parents appear and pull on her arm, their eyes revealing both fear and trust. She's so grateful for their trust in her and the hospital. Many who see their family member not doing well take them home against medical advice to see the traditional village healer. Or they will refuse to let the physicians try "extreme" treatments, such as oxygen or feeding tubes because they've seen many patients die after last-ditch measures are used, not understanding they would have died anyway. She runs with the parents back to the children's ward and finds their son curled on his side gasping for breath. Thomas desperately needs oxygen, but there's none to be had. His shortness of breath finally overtakes him, and despite all her efforts he dies of respiratory failure. The child just needed more time, and the oxygen would have allowed it.

3:00 PM: She checks on her bicycle-riding obstetrics patient, all smiles propped up in bed with her new baby daughter.

3:30 PM: The doctor leaves to visit the repair shop in town. She learns that one of the missing oxygen concentrators just needs an on/off switch costing $15.00.

Dr. Nagy later said, "I particularly grieved over Thomas's death. He is one of many children who die from curable, treatable conditions. I remain sure that the Lord has brought us here and am grateful for what we may do to honor Him and serve those around us."

Gwen Veazey is a member of Barbara Nagy's home church, First Presbyterian in Morganton.

With help from generous people in the US, Nkhoma Hospital now has functioning oxygen machines. Contact Ginnie Stevens at the Presbytery of Western NC( 828 438-4217) for more information.