and then the tears began
As far as I can remember, I only cried three times the whole time I was in Togo. The first time was when I arrived at the airport and the driver who was supposed to pick me up wasn't there. My cell phone didn't work in Togo, the airport's WiFi was password protected, and even when I was able to borrow a kind woman's phone to call the list of emergency numbers the missions agency had given me, those numbers didn't work. And on top of all the uncertainty and frustration, a man kept following me around the airport, demanding that I pay him a tip because (without my permission) he'd lifted my heavy bag off the conveyor belt at baggage claim. The second time was when I was working one of my 27-hour shifts, and I lost three patients within a few hours of each other. After the third patient died -- a young mother of two with a mysterious disease we couldn't diagnose and therefore didn't know how to treat -- I locked myself in the bathroom, took off my sandal, and took out all my anger and frustration on the countless mosquitoes clinging to the cinder block wall.
The third time I cried was when I was hospitalized with malaria and in the room next door, I heard them coding a 2-year-old little girl I'd admitted a few days before with severe burns she sustained when she accidentally pulled a pot of boiling water onto herself. She'd then contracted meningitis. As I laid in bed, helpless, I listened to the doctor calling out orders for epinephrine, CPR, oxygen, an intubation kit...and I heard the doctor "call" the code, and the nurses' frantic scurrying suddenly stopped. And then came the grieving mother's gut-wrenching wail.
Three weeks after I got out of the hospital, I got on a plane and headed back to the U.S.
During a three-hour layover in Belgium, I sat at a cafe drinking coffee, journaling about my last days in Togo. A song by Coldplay started playing on the speakers overhead.
Nobody said it was easy No one ever said it would be this hard
And whatever had kept the grief and shock and heartache of Togo locked inside me suddenly came undone and I began to weep.
Suddenly, I saw the faces of each patient I lost.
I heard them struggling to breathe, gasping for air, begging for life.
I felt their grip start to weaken and then -- let go.
I felt the weight of all the frustration and anger and grief and helplessness I'd been suppressing for months.
When I found my seat on the next flight, I buried my face in my hands as the tears continued to flow.
The lead flight attendant made the usual safety announcements, then said, “If there’s anything we can do to help you, please ring your flight attendant call button.”
I wanted to ring the button. I wanted someone to comfort me, to help me, to hold my hand and assure me that in spite of everything I’d experienced in the past three months, that somehow, everything was going to be okay.
I tried to soothe myself with the words one of the doctors had told me after I lost three patients in one shift.
Sarah, it's not your fault.
It's not your fault.
It's not your fault.
But somehow, I didn't believe them.
At the time, I didn't know if I was experiencing culture shock as I reentered the developed world, or if it was the onset of PTSD.
Looking back, it was both.
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard.
When I worked with the Somali refugee in family, I learned that love can be messy and costly and uncertain -- and absolutely worth it.
But Togo was a whole different level of learning what it means to love. It was a whole new experience of entering into the suffering of my brothers and sisters in the developing world, and feeling their pain as my own.
I grew up hearing missionaries talk about their work overseas, and they always highlighted the number of people who came to Jesus, the schools and hospitals and houses they built, the number of children who learned to read and write, the malnourished families who were now being fed.
The missionaries closed by asking for prayers and financial support, and then we all went to the Fellowship Hall for coffee and cake.
No one ever talked about the trauma and heartbreak and questions that happen when you encounter the developing world for the first time.
"No one ever said..."
So I determined when I began writing WELL that I was going to tell the truth.
I was going to recount the experience in accurate, sometimes heartbreaking, detail.
I was going to be honest about the things no one ever said to me, no one warned me about, no one advised me on.
I hope WELL gives readers "the gift of going first," as my friend Ann says -- of saying what lots of people don't say about the reality of serving in the developing world....
Of how messy and costly and uncertain love can be -- and, in spite of it all, how absolutely worth it love is.
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