Flipping the worn tent flap back, I stepped across the threshold into the cold morning air. The ominous sound had not yet begun; the blackness of night lingered.
I settled on the tall rock in the field and prayed, “Father, Your Word gives me peace. May Your wisdom blanket me this day and may Your strength give me life. Without You, it’s simply impossible to survive.” Looking up to the Heavens as I prayed, the glorious colors emerged out of the darkness. Awesome pinks turned into deep reds and settled on the most magnificent royal purple splashed across the vast Ethiopian sky.
Soon the advancing, dull roar of the masses in the far distance reached my ears, signaling it was time to take what the Lord had given me and head for the Dining Shack. The hot tea always warmed my weary soul as much as my innards. The same could be said of breakfasting on high protein biscuits with the Ethiopian staff.
The unforgettable sound rumbled through the camp. Sensing the multitude had settled in, we pushed away from the table and trudged across the rocky field.
“I am sorry. The baby girl has died in the night.” Looking around, I noticed the empty place on the green plastic ground-covering. Her mat was gone, as was her mother.
“Over here, there is a very sick boy.” I followed the Ethiopian worker and knelt by the mat. Each gasp of breath sucked the dry, sore-infested skin of the dying toddler inward, leaving the ribs protruding, the abdomen caving —much like his cheeks. Soon, he’d be in the arms of Jesus.
“Where’s his mother?” I asked the worker but sensed his answer before he spoke.
“She is in the adult ward; he is alone.” Making a note to check on her, I picked up the fragile little life. Moving on to general rounds, I kept him nestled in my arms. No one should have to die alone. The worker pointed to the first mat.
“Here, Sister, this one, she is good now.” Indeed, the skeletal bundle glanced up from the arms of Mama, giving me a weak smile. Mama turned her anxious eyes on me.
“You’re a happy little bundle of joy this morning, aren’t you?” Mama joined me in laughing as I tickled the petite 14-month-old baby. She’d survived the night; she had a good chance of making it.
Up and down the rows we went, examining children, changing orders and discharging those well enough to leave. Perhaps it was the kneeling, standing, kneeling routine, but, in spite of the cool morning, the beads of sweat began to trickle down my neck. I shed that last extra layer of outer clothing, leaving me dressed in cotton scrubs and a white lab coat.
“How many places do we have now?” Kneeling by the next patient, I shrugged off my hooded sweatshirt. Tossing it down, I scanned the clipboard handed to me. More spaces were needed. Finished, I stood and reached for my hoodie.
“Hey, anyone seen my sweatshirt? I set it down here.” We’d been told, specifically, never to put anything down if we wanted to keep it; but it’d been a reflex to just toss it. The worker spoke at the same time as I felt a tug at my sleeve.
“There, Sister! He has it!” I glanced down to see the most beautiful 6-year-old boy looking up at me. His sparkling brown eyes and a brilliant white smile could have stopped a charging rhino in its glare. I knelt down and the rich dark chocolate skin of the boy’s arms slipped out from under my old, navy-blue shirt.
“What’s your name?” I waited a moment for our young visitor’s reply. Then, raising my eyebrows, I tilted my head towards the rest of the rapidly assembling staff, listening for the interpretation.
“Haile said you should not put your shirt on the ground. He will hold it for you.” Haile smiled up at me. I began to cry. How long had it been since I’d seen a healthy child?
After this, Haile accompanied me on morning and evening rounds. I never again set anything down, I just handed it to my cherubic shadow. Each time I knelt by a sick child, Haile stood next to me. Sometimes he just rested his little hand on my shoulder; at other times, he gently stroked or patted my back. God had sent Haile to serve me, his smile a serious blues-chaser.
Author’s note: This true story was lived in the mid-80’s when a devastating famine took the lives of millions of Ethiopian people.
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