On my first day at “work” I stand at the entrance to the hospital ward, on a threshold between a known world and one that is very different. The formation of beds lined up in rows is familiar, but the number of them in this vast hall, the grubby linen, thin cotton mattresses and spartan nature of it all is new to me. The patients and I survey one another, neither side quite knowing what to do next. Bewildered and uncertain I look for the similarities, but the differences are what stand out. Their richly dark skin and hair alongside my fairness, our language, our clothes – mine drab and un-feminine in contrast to their colourful sarees, me taller and feeling as though I tower above them and my obviously intact limbs, hands and feet, so different to theirs. I’m here to be of help, to be in service, but I don’t know what to do or how to help. The three young women who have been trained in some nursing skills are competent as they move around the beds administering injections and IV drips. There appears to be no paperwork or patients notes, but somehow they seem to instinctively know who gets what. The women are patient and passive, waiting their turn and doing what they are told.
I offer my services in drawing up some drugs – hiding my uncertainty of how to behave behind an achievable practical skill. When this is done I hover for a few moments and then pick up my courage and the massage oil I have been given and venture forth. “Malish chayae?”, I ask. “Would you like a massage?” I get rejected by the first few women I approach – they are unsure who this unknown white woman is and what she is doing. And then one kind older woman, with deep wrinkles in her well worn face, offers me my chance. She nods shyly, shifting on the bed so I can sit beside her and points to her knee. “Dukte”, she says, “pain”. I breathe, I’m in, this I can do. My hands move with ease and confidence over her knee and leg as my attention is drawn to the tight muscles, the areas of her physical story, that need release. This is my work, this is my place.
The other women look on with interest and the nurses come over. Everyone curious as to what I’m up to and what I’m capable of. Having learnt a few phrases, such as “what is your name?”, “how are you?”, “does it hurt?”, “Is this OK?”, and with the help of one of the nurses who speaks a bit of English, we find some common ground and begin to build the rapport and trust that will, over the next 3 weeks, enable me to become accepted as part of the team – never one of them – but welcomed and cherished in my own right. Of course spoken language is not always necessary. The language of touch, of facial expression, of fooling around and making them laugh all convey something which allows us to get to know one another and share some of the suffering and the joy that is the theme of my time here at Anandwan.
Those first few days are hard, not because of the work itself, but because of my feeling of inadequacy. I see so much need here, a huge hole that cannot be filled. I had imagined I would be able to use my nursing skills, but they are not required, perhaps not even welcomed. They have a good set up here. It doesn’t meet my Western standards and values and there are many things I would love to do. Deep clean the whole ward and the outside basic toilets, bring in hygienic plastic covered mattresses, teach the nurses to give IV injections with a proper cannula and flush, implement an asceptic technique for the wound care and make available a better range of wound dressings. I’d like the nursing and caring staff to be more gentle with the patients and for them to have the opportunity for greater privacy. However, just because the culture is so different, and they have a very different way of doing things, I realise it is wrong and arrogant to judge it as worse just because of that . I simply need to find a way in which I can be here which is satisfying for me and enriching for the people I meet.
So I practice what I am here to practice – mindful meditation. Bringing this from my meditation cushion in to the hospital. I relax, open my heart, breathe, let go of expectations and outcome, bring my attention to this present moment and allow the next one to unfold just as it does. No force, no effort, just trust, empathy and compassion.
I struggle with the question, “Is this enough?” and recognise this question follows me wherever I go, whatever I do. It has been a lifelong enquiry. Here, for these people who have been affected by leprosy, not a life threatening disease, but one that provides life long challenges and disabilities, I am offering a bit of massage and nail clipping. It doesn’t seem enough in this deep well of suffering and need.
Then my heart is broken and from that heart break things change. Nago Krishna is the man who had the stroke and it was his beautiful soul I connected with, simply using touch and a breaking, loving heart.
When I walked away from him that evening I was still questioning whether I had done enough. When I returned the next morning, he saw me walk through the door and immediately the light in his eyes and his hand reached out to me. His delight in my presence allowed me to truly believe that what I was offering was making a difference. I may not be making long term changes, I may be forgotten in a day or two, but I am able to sit with their suffering and their vulnerabilities and they can sit with mine. I can’t heal them, I can’t make their hands and feet perfect again. I can’t take away their limitations or their pain, but I can be with them and offer my loving touch on their scarred and ravaged bodies. I can smile and chat and sing and I hope bring some solace and relief – a tiny drop in an ocean of pain, hardship, poverty, loneliness and physical limitations, but a soothing drop all the same. And for their part they offer me great riches. They are able to heal me. In their presence, their kind welcoming of a stranger, their willingness to share their bodies and be touched, their beautiful smiles and the warmth with which they look at me, heal my feeling of “not enoughness” and transform it to fulfilment and peace.
A wise Indian guru once said,
“Love tells me I am everything, wisdom tells me I am nothing,
between these two my life flows.”
It was true for me too as I oscillated between having a heart swelled with gratitude and fulfilment from a day of many connections and smiles and a feeling of belonging and usefulness, to one of emptiness and frustration as I got caught in the desire of wanting to get more involved, to know more, to do more. Though, in truth I was doing, I was involved in this extraordinary and mixed community. After only a few days I became ensconced in the routine and workings of these people. Recognised and waved at and engaged in bizarre conversations in a confusion of what I called “Hinglish”, I became familiar with people such as the caretaker of our Rest House and the women who came to tend the vegetables in the garden in front of our terrace. I shared smiles with the women across the road working on the building site, marvelling at their strength and agility as they negotiated the site with 9 or more bricks balanced in their head baskets. The old man who swept the path I walked down every morning shared a Namaste with me as did the group of elderly women who, in the heat of the afternoon would sit on their haunches weeding and cutting grass with scythes. Learning some sign language to communicate with the children who were deaf enabled me to get closer to them and cuddles with the youngest children and playing ball and cricket with the older ones all helped to deepen and establish meaning and purpose to my time here. No satisfying and nourishing relationship is a one way street and it was true of my interactions here too. Sure I was giving, but I was also receiving so much through these gentle and charming encounters and my burgeoning relationships in the hospital. As the days lengthened in to weeks and my hours in the hospital and on the meditation cushion racked up I sank in to a deeper acceptance of myself. No longer needing an identity of Nurse or Massage Therapist or Volunteer to define me or to hide behind. I began to feel a deep sense of stillness, of gentle confidence, as though I finally allowed myself to take my place on this Earth without always needing to do something to earn it. Realising and trusting that I am enough just as I am.