Between my undergrad years and medical school I took a year to work with the underserved, a half year internationally and a half year in the U.S. I had planned to stay in West Africa for 6 months, but after four months in Ghana I was stir crazy and decided to move on to India (yes I had my reasons, but it’s a long story). In New Delhi I divided my time between Nirmal Hirday, the Mother Teresa facility for the Dying and Destitute in Old Delhi and giving public health talks in the slums (with a translator). Seeing Slumdog Millionaire brought me closer to my work in India six years ago than anything since I left the country.
Last night I got out the spiral notebook of printed off e-mails I wrote home my mom saved and typed out a few of the experiences I had while I was there. Mind you these are the direct quotes from just after college, I would like to think I write a little more eloquently than I did at the time!
“Today was my first day of work. I don’t even know how to describe it. I think that I am still numb to the whole experience. It was the most uplifting as well as depressing thing I have ever seen (you know it is bad when Indians say it is the hardest things for them to see). First the bad, it had the worst stench that I have ever smelled, like rotting flesh. The really mentally ill are tied to trees. This sounds awful, but with 7 nuns overseeing 350 people, most dying and/or mentally ill there isn’t really any other way. The flies are awful. They just swarm around the open wounds that almost everyone has [I saw many wounds open down to the bone with maggots feasting on the surrounding flesh]. At the same time at least they are getting two meals a day and a clean place to stay. Only about half of them have beds (they refuse no one even if there is no place for them to stay). I guess many die in the winter because the extras sleep in the bathroom or outside, but wtill within the compound area. I met a 26 year old who has a severe back problem (her back is parallel to the ground when she walks), both her parents are dead, and yet she went to college studying physics and chemistry and is SO smart [of note, I still write to her once a year and hear from her every couple of years as it is hard for her to save up for the postage to send a letter to the US and I am not allowed to send her money]. She has lived there for 1 ½ years [6 years ago now]. In the US with a motorized wheelchair she would be able to function normally in the science field yet she lays in a home for the “dying and destitute.” Most people are not like her though, she is an exception. She told me it is her fate to be there. She is not depressed or bitter. Most are mentally ill to some degree although I probably would be to if I live like they did. It was such a humbling experience. Yet I get to work there each morning and then return to my comfortable middle class life. ”
“The one woman gets so excited to see me that she tries to bite my hands.”
“My big concerns here working with two towels for 150 women is not getting scabies!”
“I knew today was going to be challenging from the moment I walked through the door at MTDD [Mother Teresa Home for the Dying and the Destitute in New Delhi, India]. There is always a mood, some days much more mellow and calm (although this is the rare exception). Today everyone was edgy with a lot of yelling, crying and screaming. One of the old women I have been feeding and spending a lot of time with is dying but she still has to get up and shower, get dressed etc. like everyone else. She peed and pooped allover herself and on the community sitting area for the paralyzed. Some patients were screaming and others playing in her waste products. While I was trying to get that situation under control this mentally ill autistic girl was packing back and forth naked throughout the chaos (as she usually does). As I usually handle this situation I gave her a gentle shove towards the shower area. Today this set her off and she slapped me so hard across my face sending my glasses flying. I have been able to suppress my feelings all the other times but today this made me tear up. I now she didn’t know what she was doing, but still, it took me by complete shock. She ended up getting the crap beat out of her (by the head woman that is also a live in) until she was screaming (doesn’t really do much but cause another problem but that is the way things are handed). The nuns wanted me to take a break but I said no. You can’t walk away, that does nothing. I ended up dressing as usual as if nothing happened. This the reality of working with the poorest of the poor. They have grown up on the streets and are often tough and violent. They do all have a loving side to them which I try and connect with.” “My morning today, it was like no other I have ever had. It was my last day at Mother Teresa’s. As I have written before, there has been an old woman that has progressively gotten worse the past weeks that I have spent a lot of time with. She ahs been holding on by a thread this past week. I was hoping that she would pass on before I left just so I knew that she was out of pain and in a better place. My wish came true as she passed away last night at 9pm. I was told about her death by 3 people [in Hindi mind you] so when I saw some of the patients dragging her out of the shower as usual I was confused. I thought maybe there was a communication problem like last week, the patient I was upset that I thought had died wasn’t the one who really died. But as they plopped her body on the wet dirty floor I realized this was her, they had just washed her dead body. As with everything else I help do whatever they need me to . . .today that meant preparing her dead body for cremation! So I helped clean and dress her body. The ne prepared the stretcher and wrapped and tied her up like a mummy. I t was quit the experience. Anywhere else the practices would seem so cruel and crude, but what we were doing and how we were doing it seemed natural.” “It was tough to know that my time there was only a phase, as I often comforted myself by knowing along the way, while it is a day in and out existence for the people there . . .at the very least I was able to take a few minds off of their existence as they listened about my travels in India or life in the US or at least gave them a little extra affection that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. A pretty good Friday morning huh?”
Life is relative.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” -Philo