Today was my last and most difficult day at SACH. Monday’s are echo days where most of the children go to the hospital. I found out that the reason for why I haven’t seen baby Malgareen since the first day, was that she had post-operation complications and was staying at the hospital because she needed antibiotics for the infection she developed. I wonder how her mother, Mobat, is doing. She was the first mother I met at the home when I started volunteering. I mistakened her for another child’s mom because that’s just who she was. She cared for all like they were her own. She was from Ethiopia where she finished her degree in pharmacy. She was really passionate about chemistry, but hated physics. We were quite opposite on that front, so I told her she’d have to tutor me in Chemistry. But instead she started teaching me Amharic… “Salamnoo”- hello, “endetnesh”- how are you, “teroo”- good. Her son was waiting for her back home in Ethiopia, it was very difficult for her husband to take care of him while he had to work. I told her she was so brave to come all the way here to this country as a foreigner while having to leave the rest of her family at home. “I am not brave,” she replied, “I have no choice. I am here to save her life.” Her daughter Malgareen had Down syndrome and was suffering from a valve defect that was common in children with Down syndrome. I remember how we wanted to continue our conversation during my next visit… But I guess I won’t be able to see her again. I just hope she and her daughter are doing well.
Today, Fatou is at the hospital with her 3 year old brother who will soon undergo his long awaited surgery. Fatou was one of my closest friends at the home. She taught me so much about her Gambian culture, Islam and her views on life. The first time I met her was when she laughed at me for how awful I was at the traditional Ethiopian dance. Never would I have thought that she would become my sister at the home. With every visit we had even deeper talks on the meaning of life and how similar our views were even though we lived on opposite hemispheres and grew up in completely different cultures. She told me how she had to be there instead of her mom since, her mother was suffering from severe hypertension. So much responsibility for a woman only a couple years older than myself. When she wanted to hear about my stresses, which were mainly linked to school, she laughed. “If you work hard, everything will happen just how it should.” Oh how pathetic I felt. It really hit me at that point in time. School has made me so stressed that it has worsened my health conditions. Whereas here, I meet people who cannot attend school because of their poor health conditions. I took my privilege and turned it into a misfortune. Fatou always cared and worried for me. When I visited on Ramadan and she was fasting, she still made food for the children and forced me to eat as well, or else I would be hungry and she would feel disrespected. So you can imagine my disappointment today when I couldn’t get the chance to thank her for our friendship, her guidance and care and to wish her the best for her brother’s surgery.
Only 8 of the 25 children were there today and some were sleeping upstairs. There were two other volunteers and two interns hanging out with a couple of the children, making bracelets. It was past 12:00pm now, my shift was over, but I couldn’t leave before saying goodbye. At around 1:00pm my gloom instantly disappeared as I saw Zinat run through the SACH doors with a smile on her face. I jumped up and ran to her with such a breath of relief. I didn’t think I would see her and get a chance to say goodbye. She told me the doctors said she was finished with her treatment and was healthy and free to go home. Zinat was one of the older girls at the home so she did not come with her mother. She felt quite distanced from the rest of the younger children. At this age, colouring books weren’t gonna do it. The first day I met her, I noticed she was sitting alone on the couch while the rest of the children were doing arts and crafts and playing puzzles at the dining table. When I started dancing to the Ethiopian music that was playing she tried hiding her giggles. And that’s where it all sparked. She taught me some moves, then when she got tired and had to stop to let her heart rest for a bit, I taught her how to play “slide” the hand game. On the next visit, we made matching peach and turquoise friendship bracelets. It was obvious that all she needed was a friend. Someone who could love and care for her as would a mother, but also be there to have a good time and distract her from her worries. She just needed that push to open up. But today was different, her happiness was exuberantly shining through even more than that day when we were dancing. Today she was Zinat. Healthy and free Zinat. Shortly after our lengthy hug, our happiness turned into tears when we realized this was goodbye. Tears of joy and sadness combined. For now, even though it was farewell, my emotions were jumping at the thought of her returning to her home in Ethiopia, her parents, two brothers, two sisters and the rest of her friends that were her age. She would return home as a regular teenager who could do regular things.
Everyone was asked to go to sleep, it was “kulala time”. This was especially important on a physically demanding day like today, travelling back and forth from the hospital for the echo. But Zinat and I just couldn’t be separated. We were not ready. We would never be ready. When Jade, one of the staff, asked Zinat to go upstairs, I realized how selfish I was being. I knew that Zinat was having a difficult time saying goodbye and seeing me cry wouldn’t make it any easier. So this time, I told her she had to go for kulala.
It was so hard. I dreaded this moment as soon as I entered the home on my first visit. Knowing how emotional I am. But talking to Jade later made it a bit easier, she told me to remind myself of why I came and why the children were there in the first place. Zinat was going home healthy and I was lucky enough to witness that process.
I walked out of the home towards the bus with an upset stomach, but also a sense of pride and joy. I have met numerous strong and caring individuals who taught me so much. Perhaps not about cell biology or heart disease, but rather about life, the fight for life and the celebration of it. Above all, these people were kind enough to open up and share their stories with me. Stories of love, courage and compassion. I have come to see that SACH is more than just “saving a child’s heart”, it’s about saving the heart of the family, the community and every individual that enters that home.