By Dr Christina Miller, CHSC Missionary Family Physician
Nkhoma Mission Hospital, Malawi
“It’s so refreshing to see the stretcher used for something other than trips to the mortuary,” Olivia declared. Olivia, the volunteer nurse serving with us on the medical ward, was no doubt thinking of the cases seared in our collected memory: the man who stopped breathing on the way to his x-ray; the woman with a fungal infection in her brain; the man who lived in the hospital for months because he couldn’t breathe without an oxygen machine and there was nowhere else he could get one.
Our team shared grieving with each of their families, but a special type of healing accompanied that last case. The family felt loved and cared for during their time with us. They grew so close to Olivia that they gifted her a chicken. A chicken, it turns out, that outlived the patient! But when Olivia presented his widow with a photo of the patient, nurse, wife, and chicken, her grieving tears mixed with tears of joy and appreciation. We couldn’t heal his body, but wholeness of heart and relationships grew during his time with us.
Even as we reflect on the past weeks, today is a day of rejoicing. It is December 21st, the lightest and longest day of the year. The stretcher is filled with gifts for patients. Our charge nurse, Mrs Msosa, has raised funds and collected donations for months preparing for this day. It’s a program she has carried on for over a decade, but the celebration is fresh for us. Empty medication boxes are filled with gifts of sugar and rice and oil and tea. The head chaplain appears dressed as St Nicholas. The assistant chaplain, with whom we’ve spent the morning discussing community health, is bellowing the Good News to a crowd of patients and family members on the steps outside the ward. The nursing student who splashed in the lake with us last weekend is stomping her feet, dancing, and leading the group in a song celebrating God’s goodness this season.
We parade through the hospital. Into the maternity ward where our lone provider collapsed from fatigue in the operating room last month. Things were difficult as she took some much-needed time off, but an incredible, recently-hired Malawian doctor helped pick up the slack, and now a second Malawian doctor has arrived to help run the ward. Today, the mothers are smiling and showing off their little ones as they take a bag of clothes and food. We tiptoe into the neonatal ward, past the incubators encasing premature babies in locally-made wooden crates under the lights. Two weeks ago, the clinician caring for them got sick, and with nobody checking in on them, five babies died in five days. That was another crisis amazingly handled by my Malawian colleagues. The newly-hired clinical officer who is now helping in that ward keeps coming back to medical ward for our weekly tea parties and team meetings; he’ll keep being a part of our team no matter which ward he’s helping in. “Tea inspires staff retention.” Mrs Msosa told me. “Everyone wants to stay on the Medical Ward now.”
We play Christmas music as we step onto the pediatric ward. Some children cry and hide from Santa. Only about half the beds are filled right now, but we know that we will have to use an overflow room during the peak of malaria season. We didn’t have funds to spray the surrounding villages to control mosquitos this year, but we’re doing what we can on a community level. A visiting nursing student is working tirelessly to ensure that at least all admitted children can sleep under a mosquito net.
We’ve been through a lot together this year, the Malawian staff, visiting volunteers, patients and I. We’ve had our times of grieving, and there will be more difficult times ahead, but today is a day of celebration and joy. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…For to us a Child is Born.”
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
The Millers in Malawi