Entitlement Ego and Everest

I’m sorry for not writing. But mostly I’m not that sorry. It feels good to type again but the break was a needed sabbatical. I had to figure things out for myself. Who was I writing for? Was it an ego thing? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m refocused and energized. A vacation in Zanzibar can go a long way.

I want to start over by simply telling my story, focusing on sharing my experiences with those who are interested. I will also use this blog as my stream of consciousness, to put on paper the things I am trying to make sense of.  Some stories just need to be told.

Like the man at Operation Smile who broke the mold. Or the Hippo incident.

The Man at Operation Smile

 I volunteered again at Operation Smile in Addis Ababa. My previous experience had been a great awakening: a realization of how good my life was. What is a routine surgery for those of us lucky to be born in the first-world is a sign (or worse a damnation) from God here in Ethiopia. I’ll never forget the boy whose name was ‘Chigir’ (problem).I’ll never forget the first kid who woke up from surgery and stared at himself in the mirror for hours, nor his Grandfather/guardian crying at the sight of him.

So I was excited to be back. Excited in the same way someone about to climb Mt. Everest might be: Surely it was going to suck, but the satisfaction and the view from the top would hopefully be worth the pain.

I was given much more responsibility this time around. My good friend Chase and I were tasked with running the shelter. Here, 70 patients and their families stayed for a week; a week of unmatched emotion. The anxiety filled the air. When is our surgery? Will my son be turned down? The anticipation and the fear were tangible. Some families were overcome with happiness; Others, with despair.

The saddest story belonged to Muhammad. His son was there with me 6 months ago in Jimma. At that time his son was too young for the surgery. They had traveled several days to arrive in Jimma only to be turned down. Now, 6 months later, his son had come down with a mild case of Pneumonia. It meant surgery was not an option.

I wasn’t there to see it, but I heard that as Muhammad was told his son would have to come back in 6 months and try again, he started to scream and pound his chest. His eyes went red and he broke down, screaming and beating himself with his fists.

I myself was having a difficult time. At the shelter, Chase and I were in charge of feeding around 200 people, three times a day. We helped to organize car transfers to the hospital, and dealt with emergencies both trivial and urgent. Our primary job was to make all of the patients feel comfortable and at ease. In between meals, we tried to entertain the kids  as their parents sat idly, paralyzed with anticipation. Being promised life changing surgery and then having to wait three days for it–I can imagine that those three days are longer than the years preceding them.

It was very stressful and demanding and it took weeks for me to unwind. It was an emotional toll. I was given a lot of responsibility and had to make decisions that I was unqualified to make. Who needs to see a Doctor? Who should be given more pain killers? Which children are in the most need of milk? The week at Operation Smile broke me down and beat me up. Then from the wreckage, I learned some important lessons.

For some patients the best thing to have after surgery was milk or porridge. But if one child received it, others demanded it. Each patient was given blankets, mattresses and sheets, and yet this wasn’t enough. People started stealing from each other, and as a result we gave out extra blankets and mattresses. One mother said her daughter could only eat eggs. Then everyone started demanding eggs. (Eggs are more expensive here than in the U.S.) Some people were selling extras on the streets and others were hoarding cosmetics. I couldn’t believe that these folks, who had been given so much for free, still expected more and more.

I think this is the embodiment of what is so painful about Peace Corps or working in this type of environment. The best of intentions can be smothered and drowned by greed. People here have been taught that when you see a foreigner, you stick your hand out and beg.

I had tried very hard to be giving and just. I wanted the patients to see me as a friend, someone who was an intermediary between the doctors and themselves. I can speak the language and help to answer their questions. However they viewed me as just another person who should give them things. I wanted some of the praise but all I got was people asking me for more. I really wanted a ‘thank you’.

I had to put things in perspective.

I reminded myself first that the blanket they were trying to steal was incredibly valuable to them. In rural areas, a good blanket can sell for around 15 dollars — Food for a month. I remembered that there are things more important than what people think of me. I shouldn’t be doing this for the glory or the photo opportunities. My dad once said that the best workers are those who don’t care who get the credit.

I thought about that statement, and embraced my role. I wasn’t near the Doctors or present for the emotional moments when the surgery was over. I missed all the glory and beauty of the mission, but I got something better. It shouldn’t matter if I get credit or people think I did a great job. It was a humbling week that has stayed with me ever since. It directly influenced my absence from writing, because I was questioning my own motives.

And just as I had come to peace with my role, I got everything I had previously hoped for.

Most of it came from one man. Sisay was in his late 30’s. He had a cleft palate and a sweet disposition. What he lacked in physical appearance he made up for with heart. Throughout the entire week, he had been the only adult who was respectful. Rather than asking for more he gratefully accepted what he had. He helped to pass out food and blankets.

In the end, Sisay was one of a few patients who never received surgery. The one patient who most deserved surgery was not able to have it. I felt so bad but he never seemed upset. The Doctors did however find a way to help him. They fitted Sisay with a retainer fitted to the proportions of his palate. With this retainer, eating and drinking would be easier. However he would have to take it out if he wanted to talk.

It would be an epic understatement to call this a consolation prize. Yet, he was so proud and so happy for his new device. Given the least, he was the most thankful. His eyes lit up with joy as he showed it to me, saying over and over “konjo no”  (it is beautiful) one of the few phrases he could muster through his distorted mouth. His joy and good nature made up for all of the frustration. He restored my hope.

That night there was a dinner for the patients and the volunteers. Operation Smile bought roses for the patients to give to the Surgeons and volunteers. One by one, the children and their mothers, who I had played and yelled with, fed and rushed to the hospital came up to Chase and I and handed us roses and blew us kisses. The surgeons received a few roses and Chase and I received a few dozen.

The surgeons really are the ones who do the most work without the credit. They are amazing individuals.

Then we were presented with a giant thank you card, signed and translated into English by the patients. Here are some excerpts:

  • My 5 year old daughter has been made beautiful by you. I now have more respect for you and for my God.
  • Before, people could insult my child, now no one can insult him. He is complete and like other children. If you come back to Ethiopia, you are welcome at my house.
  • My sons name is Bidilu Melessa. He was not complete before, but now he is full. Now I feel like you have given him birth also. Now both you and I have given birth to my son, so we are like family. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
  • It is a small and imperfect world. You have come to help Ethiopians who you do not know. I had my problem and for my whole life I could not talk to people. But you came and did this perfect thing and for that I am forever grateful.
  • God is first, but you guys are second. You have solved all my problems. Thank you so much. For all those who helped the Doctors also, thank you so much. You all made this operation fun when it is a very hard thing. You served us like mothers and fathers.

All this gratitude was difficult to stomach. I had just realized that I didn’t need a thank you. And then I was overwhelmed with them. The last one above brought me to tears. I suppose the world works that way. You get what you are looking for as soon as you stop looking for it. I think keys work the same way.

It’s an awesome reminder that my satisfaction should come from within, and I shouldn’t let my ego define what I do.

It was a long and painful week, but the view from the top is incredible.