Story telling. It’s something that I love. It also happens to be a major joy and responsibility of my role in Kenya. Largely, the stories I have to tell are ones of joyous celebration, of lives transformed, of bodies and souls healed, won back from death. However, that really isn’t the whole story. It is unfair to the reader and certainly to the staff in Kenya who deal with harsh realities in the field if I leave out the other side of the story. This past week, I had a personal encounter with the other side, the side where it’s hard to see any joy or victory.
One of our center staff asked me to join them in visiting a bedridden client. The program at this center is in its first weeks, so many of the clients are still sick and in difficult situations. The client we were visiting was named Lois.
Lois discovered that she was HIV positive over 15 years ago. After years of living positively and taking her medicine, she attended a crusade where a “prophet” told her that she was healed and that she had to live by faith and stop taking her medicine.
Two days ago when I walked into her house I was stopped in my tracks, overwhelmed by the darkness and the smell of sickness. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I found a couch and sat down. I scanned the room looking for Lois. I couldn’t see her, but I knew that she was on the bed in the darkest corner of the room. I knew because she had started moaning.
In the room with us was Lois’ mom, daughter and son. Lois’ mom is a business woman and can’t always be at home to take care of her, so Lois’ daughter quit school to care for her bedridden mother.
As the conversation with Lois’ mom started, I quickly realized that this was an intervention. The mother had refused to take Lois to the clinic for a number of reasons and when she did try the local clinic refused Lois because she had stopped taking her medicine. The other clinics were too far and too expensive. Lois still had some old medicine left in the house, so she started taking it. I explained to them that, because she had stopped taking them for so long, the virus had most likely increased and mutated in her body and the old medicine was not likely to help and may even make Lois sicker.
After some time of talking back and forth and trying to convince the mom to take Lois to the clinic, we were interrupted by a loud moan from the bed. Lois’ daughter rushed over and helped her mom lean over the side of the bed. She was vomiting blood and bleeding from the nose. The shock of seeing this was compounded by the sight of Lois’ body. She was emaciated and covered with sores. Her eyes were cloudy and she was too weak to move without her daughter’s help.
Having seen this, I turned to the mother and said, “If we don’t take her to the clinic right now, she is going to die.”
Our center staff explained that she needed a new prescription, and even more urgently needed an IV to get fluids and nutrients in her body. Finally, we won over the mom and she agreed. I was ready to put Lois in my car and take them all to the clinic but at this point in the evening the clinic was closed. Our center staff called a contact at the clinic to ensure that she would be admitted first thing in the morning and also planned to accompany them to ensure that Lois got the care she needed.
We left. I was overwhelmed with what we had experienced and upset that we hadn’t been able to take her to the clinic right then. I was hopeful though and had been thrilled to see our center staff dedicate so much time and effort to helping Lois.
Thursday afternoon, one of the center staff called me. “Hello?”
I could hear it in her voice and in the hesitation. “We lost her?”
“Yes. We took her to the clinic, they did everything they could. She just passed.”
I said, “Thank you for telling me,” and hung up.
I took a minute to compose myself and then called her back to ask if she was okay. We spent a few minutes consoling and encouraging one another.
Now, days later, I can’t stop doubting that I really did everything I could. What if I had made time in my schedule to visit Lois earlier in the week? What if I had insisted on putting her in my car and driving to Nairobi hospital if I had to? Would it have made a difference? I can’t know that and I have to stop asking these questions. It doesn’t help.
So, I am writing this in hopes that Lois’ death will be redeemed. I am writing this as a rallying cry. I am writing this as I struggle with a lot of emotion. I am saddened and angry that she suffered and died when she could have lived.
Losing Lois has given me a greater sense of urgency for this work. It has increased the respect and pride that I have for our center staff. They are dealing with sickness, death, broken systems and broken families on a daily basis. The fact that ninety-nine percent of the time the only story I have to tell is one of victory, joy and success is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our center staff and the effectiveness of our model and the power of this vision.