“Do you believe in God?” She was earnest and she wielded a clipboard.
A grin skipped up beside. “Ca va?” He sounded young. A green mask covered half his face but I remember him grinning. From my back, on a bed, in a hallway, I replied automatically. “Comme ci, comme ca.”
The doors opened. “It is time, Miss Tankard.”
Lights, white tile, stainless steel. I remember the windows. It hurt, so they found a fresh vein. An older voice told me to picture a happy place – to imagine my family – and they counted, backwards.
The grin on the left waggled a vial. “Maziwa…”
I swam up to translate. “Milk?” Split second later, her face was at my ear and she whispered through her mask.
“Believe, Miss Tankard, believe. He is real.”
And then I was out.
It was easily the most surreal moment of my life – beating the time that I came to from a concussion speaking Swahili without knowing what I was saying (fell off a Land Rover, long story) – and the time I pretended to be a researcher to hitch a ride with a scientific team into the Danum Valley Research Centre, and we bounced into the jungle to the strains of the entire Aqua “I’m a Barbie Girl” album, on repeat, for hours.
The last thing I remember before being anaesthetized was a young woman imploring me to believe in God. Which is, for a number of reasons, not what you want to hear seconds before an emergency surgery in East Africa. Especially not when its a mystery disease that’s been diagnosed as everything from a tumour to a bladder infection and you’ve had to sneak out of one hospital for a medical airlift to a better hospital in a different country.
This was the same trip that I got robbed, lost everything, nearly kicked out of university, and became convinced that I was clinically depressed. Would you believe me when I say it was, nonetheless, an amazing trip? It was real, it was great, and sometimes it stung. I had a trowel, steel-toed boots, a bandana, and knew how to say hello. I liked the local food. I ate with my hands. I went barefoot or in flip-flops. I showered in a sarong and danced in the streets and I was proud of it.
I lived with the family that had become my family, in a mud-street slum. We got water and electricity on odd or lucky days. I went from Dar es Salaam to an archaeological excavation on an island three hours by sea and six by land from the nearest internet. Twice a week a boat brought us drinking water, a crate of beer, box of cigarettes, chapati flour, and a few loud chickens.
Two weeks into the dig, I woke up at four in the morning to find a three foot slash in the side of my tent, a few inches from my face. They’d taken all my valuables and medicine. I laughed it off. I still had my passport. It wasn’t the first time I’d been robbed.
I should have realized I was ill sooner, but I’m used to the sort of travel where you’re supposed to feel like crap – I would have thought I was doing something wrong if it didn’t hurt.
What’s a little exhaustion when you’re rising at dawn to spend the entire day doing manual labour? And you showed up weeks after the rest of the team, and need to get in shape? My blue jeans became a size too small. I vowed to lay off the chapatis and maandazi. Dizzy in the sun? Heat sensitivity from the doxy I had to borrow off the others after my malarone got stolen. Cramps? Period. And they’d taken the ibuprofen, too. And the, ah, digestive problems – well, as any backpacker will tell you in all to often gruesome detail, that happens sometimes. I made a lot of trips to the choo, changed my pants, and kept going.
I was out of money, with two useless bank cards – I’d had them cancelled before finding them on the river-bank. (You know you’re in the middle of nowhere when the thief throws away the bank cards.) I called home for help – my mom decided to send my younger brother instead of a check. (She said I’d missed teaching him to drive; I could teach him how to backpack, instead.)
I picked up my brother from the airport, introduced him to the family that had become my family in Dar es Salaam, and left him for a palaeoanthropology conference. I was the only undergrad, I was having beers with some of the most famous names of the discipline – and I wasn’t letting stomach cramps, fatigue, or what might have been a low-grade fever slow me down.
Then I found out that I wasn’t allowed to return to university for the next term. Apparently, we were a year behind with the tuition. With the university in the UK, my parents in the States and myself in Tanzania, it was difficult to resolve. We did. But not before my morale had taken a serious hit – or so I thought.
I took my brother to the orphanage where I’d volunteered on my first solo trip. It was a place I’d been yearning to return to, for years – it should have been a beautiful time, seeing the children grown, knowing they remembered me – but I had just enough energy to introduce my kaka kidogo – and spent days making excuses to go to my room, sitting down, and passing out. My body had hit the last straw and I thought it was an existential crisis. I could barely get out of bed. I begged my brother to get me back to the city; I wasn’t thinking of a hospital, I just I didn’t want the kids to see me like that. We barely said goodbye before climbing on a bus. I still feel guilty for how we left.
It had been two months of symptoms creeping up, but I was still telling myself that all I needed was water, sleep, and a better attitude. The pain came and went. I collapsed in the street. The next night, I woke up sobbing and my brother decided: I needed medical help.
We went to a clinic. They took a look, wrote a prescription for antibiotics, and sent me home. I can’t even remember what the initial diagnosis was – so many followed. It was a bladder infection, a kidney infection, something with my right liver – no, the left one. For one chilling moment, I had a tumour. It was supposedly benign, 2x4cm, on the outside of my ovary. And then it was gone again.
A few days later I was hospitalized.
It wasn’t my first time in “third world” hospital and I wasn’t concerned. The tile looked clean. There were sheets on the beds. The windows opened and closed. They put me in a room with two other beds; there was an old woman in the far bed whose family – daughters and their children – camped against the far wall.
“Ask the mamas if you need anything,” the nurses told me. “They will help you.”
My brother came to visit daily, brought me phone credit, and tried to get answers from the doctors. Not that finding them was easy. They set up an IV for antibiotics and gave me only paracetamol for the pain. They seemed to be waiting for something.
An infant was put in the bed next to me. All four of its limbs were in casts; it screamed until it fell asleep, waking just to scream again. The hospital was out of stronger painkillers. The plumbing to our bathroom broke. The hospital was out of soap. Days went by without doctors. The catheter in my arm hurt; it started to bleed, and the bag was empty.
I got one of the mamas to help me out of bed – apologizing for asking – and hobbled down the hallway to the nurses station. Two young girls were sitting there, pristine white uniforms. I remember the uniforms because of how they contrasted with a trail of blood smeared on the floor. One of the girls was scotch-taping her fingers together. She stared at me blankly.
It turned out that getting admitted to the hospital was far easier than getting out would be. When my family doctor convinced my insurance, I had to be transferred, the hospital wouldn’t let me go.
An airlift was sent. The hospital said there were no ambulances – so it left, without me. The hospital said I hadn’t paid. My brother was on a flight home, having already missed a week of school, and they were demanding cash – they didn’t trust the insurance company. The insurance company fired their local agent and hired someone new. Another plane. A clinic sent an ambulance for me. The hospital sent it away.
The insurance company rang my mobile and I was told I had to get on the next ambulance, with or without discharge papers. I unhooked the IV myself and got dressed, shoved my things into my backpack, made it to the lobby. I gave them all the cash I had on me – I was short for the surcharge and medicine by about three dollars. I left the hospital with the receptionist running out the door after me, trying to stop the ambulance.
Flying Doctors took me to Nairobi and I have never been so grateful to see Western infrastructure and British-colonial-inflected accents. A few hours after admission, I was on a gurney outside the operating theatre.
I entered the conversation under the misunderstanding that it was small talk.
She might have been a nurse or a medical student, she might have been an assistant surgeon; she probably told me, but I’d been gripping the hospital gown between my fingers and trying not to stare at the stains on the ceiling and paying little attention to anything other than how her gown was a shade less green than mine and noting that painkillers didn’t really take away the pain they just make it harder to find.
“Why, Miss Tankard, have you not stated your religion?”
It was a conversation I’d managed to avoid having in Tanzania. I really did know better, but during admission they’d asked my religion and I’d actually said the truth. So much for having gotten away with it.
I gave my normal, polite lie. “My family is Christian.”
“Then I will correct this for you. Which denomination?”
I really should have known better. But somewhere between the painkillers and the sudden realization that this was a near death experience and that, although thousands of people die every day for less, I had almost died for lack of three dollars, I decided to explain my agnostic upbringing, the lack of inspiration I found in my grandparents’ faith, and my own rationalist materialism.
“Do you believe in God?”
“I – I don’t see any reason, no evidence – well, I don’t know, perhaps he could exist, for you, if you feel him. But I have never felt God. If I did, I would believe. But I have never felt him, so…”
I’m going to blame the painkillers for my side of the conversation. But she got the last word – and with those last words, “Believe, Miss Tankard, he is real,” I never had a chance at picturing my family, imagining a calm. Instead, I dreamt of judgement.
In my dream, they slashed my abdomen open (in reality, three minuscule leproscopic incisions). In my dream, they scraped my tattoo (a linear, floral, abstract design) off my hip and placed the two on scales. It was downright Egyptian; organs against a feather. In my dream, I was being drugged, by men who were after my body. I tried to fight the needle that, in my dream, they were trying to put in my arm – I begged them, tried to explain that I didn’t need any more.
When I woke up they said the surgery went well. They removed the infected appendix and an entire litre of pus from my abdomen. The infection had been widespread and after all the antibiotics I’d been given, they couldn’t identify the cause – IBS, PIS, or (the most exotic and therefore my choice) Typhoid Fever.
I spent a week recovering in the Nairobi Hospital. I had an IV drip of painkillers and all my loved ones calling. My family doctor and the head surgeon had friendly chats, after which they each did impressions of the other’s accents. It was almost pleasant; in the sort of way that a timeless period of no responsibility can be.
Each morning, I woke to the same conversation. There was an elderly woman in the bed next to me. Her doctor entered the room and gave a soft good morning. She coughed gently and replied. She knew her name. But she didn’t know what day it was. Or where she was. Or how long she’d been there. It was heartbreaking. Some afternoons, she got a bit more back. Others, she was panicked, demanding to go home.
Violet and I spoke through the curtain. She was from Chicago, but she’d lived here for years, a professor in the university where her husband still taught. She congratulated me when I was able to take walks down the ward. I didn’t see her face until the Sunday I left. Violet had been a prominent and a loved member of her church and the choir ladies came to visit every day.
Saturday night, the nurses asked me what sort of minister I wanted to visit me on Sunday. (Catholic priests, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostal – the men of the book flocked the hospital halls once a week.) I had an inoffensive escape, a lunch with friends. (My mother, Couch Surfing evangelist that she is, had contacted a local American couple on my behalf. Turns out, they were missionaries – thankfully, the unimposing sort.) I snuck past the visiting ministers Sunday evening, but didn’t miss Violet’s ladies. They peered around my curtain and asked if they could pray for me. I sighed – there is no escaping religion in Nairobi – and gave in.
They gathered around the bed, held their hands, raised their heads – and sang.
I can’t say that I came to God. I was briefly disappointed, watching the joy in their faces. It must be an incredible experience, to feel a divine presence.
I got the next best thing – I got to feel their belief.
It was beautiful, it was enviable, and it wasn’t nearly enough to change my mind.