While living in the African jungle I had the joy of managing the community dispensary and working with the village mid-wife delivering babies, usually by lantern light. Oku didn’t have running water or electricity, but the village was full of people needing medical help. One of those people was a preemie named Sitala. When Sitala was born she was so tiny and weak we marveled that she even survived her birth. Her mother had been sick and malnourished for most of the pregnancy. The sickly mother could not produce milk for her baby, so my husband and I had baby formula flown in on the next supply flight to our village. Sitala clung to life for the next several weeks gaining an ounce or two every few days. Sitala was a beautiful little girl. Her parents loved her along with her older sister. They put warm water bottles on either side of her as a little make-shift incubator. They would do anything to see her live.
When Sitala was a month old she caught a cold. For the next ten days Sitala struggled to eat and began to lose ounces instead of gain. Her mother attempted to feed her around the clock. Sitala was just too weak. One late night there was a knock at our door. Kazume and Bakianji were there with tiny Sitala. The baby had the most mournful, weak cry I had ever heard. They begged me to help their baby. I brought them into my home and opened all my village medical books. “Failure to Thrive Syndrome” was what I found. Hospitalization and I.V. fluids were urgently needed. All I could do was give the baby some Tylenol. I promised the parents I would request an emergency medical flight when I made short-wave radio contact with our hospital station in the morning. I prayed there would be funds available for yet another medical emergency in our village.
The next morning my house keeper arrived bright and early. Life in the jungle is challenging on many levels, so I was grateful for a dedicated house keeper who made it possible for me to home school my children in the morning and teach literacy classes in the afternoon. Mukwanyama asked me,
“Did you hear the news?”
“Sitala died a few hours ago.”
I cannot begin to describe the feeling that came over me. We were just hours away from having the plane come for this little girl. We were going to help this family. This baby would grow and one day run around the village with her sister and the other village children. This wasn’t the news I was supposed to hear.
Still in disbelief and with a heavy heart I took the path across the grass air field down the row of mud huts to where Kazume and Bakiangi lived. Villagers began to gather to mourn with the family. There on the bed lay the sweet little girl—lifeless, and yet, at peace. Mother and father wept quietly and I joined them. After a while I choked out a prayer for them and then returned to my home, and to my healthy children. I slipped into my bedroom and sobbed for a long while. I asked God, “Why?” Hadn’t we come to help the people of Oku? What was the point of our being here? Why did I feel so useless?
A week later I returned to Kazume and Bakiangi’s home to bring them a gift of tea and sugar. I wanted them to know how sorry I was that I didn’t help them in their time of need. Before I could attempt to express my feelings in a language that was still new to me, Kazume spoke up and said,
“Ngumi-Ekita (my Bakumu name), my wife and I want you to write a letter to your church in America. Tell them we want to thank them very much for sending you to our village. We know you did everything you could to help our baby, but God had another plan, and we trust Him. We can see how you loved our baby and we know you wanted her to live. You did everything you could. Please, tell your supporters, thank you for sending you and your family to our village.”
In stunned silence I tried to absorb his words. My visit was to bring condolences for the unspeakable grief they were experiencing. The people whom I had come to minister to, had instead ministered to me. These grieving parents had comforted me as I struggled with feelings of total uselessness.
I learned that day that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do in Oku, but I would do everything I could do. I have heard it said of Mother Theresa that though she couldn’t do it all, she gave her all. That, to me, is the kind of nurse I hope to be. I believe the significance of being a nurse is in giving our best to those who are vulnerable and needing comfort and assurance, especially in a moment of crises.