The following is an excerpt from the travel journal of Joseph Peterson while doing humanitarian work in Ethiopia with ASCEND Alliance, a Salt Lake City-based NGO. In a small village three hours outside the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Joseph helped manage a visiting medical expedition of doctors and volunteers in the summer of 2008.
I had a little melt down today after doing triage for several hours for the health clinic. I saw hundreds equally and awfully destitute, sick people and babies. At one point after the account below, my emotions got the best of me and I had to just walk away and cry for a little while. One of the expedition leaders caught me and came and just held me for a minute. It actually helped.
It really is overwhelming when you see a mother with TB so bad that it has made a hole in her neck but she can’t get treated because she has no money. She only has two small daughters; a baby in her arms and a little darling clinging to the hem of her dress. I almost turned them away because they were at the end of the line and we were almost done for the day, but after seeing her neck I decided to let them in at the last minute. Not that there was much we could do. The Ethiopian doctors were yelling at her for breastfeeding her baby (practically the only sustenance she could give her child) and watching her face as she found out for the first time that her TB is transferred through her breast milk to her baby was enough to send me fleeing the room. Her condition was far beyond help (not that she could afford any) and she will most likely be dead within the year. What happens then to her baby and little girl? Who will take them in? Who will treat their Tuberculosis? Who will feed them? What about their education? Their future?
We have a lot of leprosy cases too. Other than that it’s mostly children with eye and ear infections, scabies, impetigo, worms, malaria, etc. all curable and avoidable with the right medicines. There are a lot of orphans too, mostly from parents who died of AIDS as that is a big problem here too, especially with no orphanages.
And then there was the bright, wide-eyed boy of about ten who had a little lump near his jaw. I didn’t think it was anything serious as a lot of the parents brought their kids with minor issues just because they wanted free medicine or clothing. To my chagrin, the doctor said it was a specific and particularly dangerous kind of cancer. Clinging to his mother’s hand, he must have known his was a serious case based on the extra nice way all the doctors and nurses (and me) were treating him. It made a pit in my stomach I am not sure I will ever get rid of. Nor do I really want to. Truth is often hard to swallow.
Case after helpless case, after several days I am pretty shaken up…although I am even more resolute in my desire to help these people. They are so amazing. Really, I just feel so little compared to them. The real torture is not being able to provide any permanent help but still having to smile when they hug me and kiss my hands and stroke my face.
Joseph is a public relations practitioner and writer in Washington, D.C. who loves to build socially conscious brands and help nonprofits with their communication strategy. He is currently running his own community organization focused on educational activities and service opportunities. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/greatnessclub?fref=ts