Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Heroism indeed


Yesterday, reading Larry Lambert's "Virtual Mirage" blog, I came across this quotation from World War II Army nurse June Wandrey.

An eighteen-year-old boy is carried into the shock ward, and he looks up at me trustingly, asking, “How am I doing, nurse?” I kiss his forehead and say, “You are doing just fine, soldier.” He smiles sweetly and says, “I was just checking,” Then he dies. We all cry in private. But not in front of the boys. Never in front of the boys.

That's genuine heroism on the part of those nurses:  to keep going, day in and day out, knowing ahead of time that they're going to lose patients - a lot of patients - yet doing their jobs regardless, being compassionate carers.

That quotation reminded me of an experience I had in southern Africa.  AIDS was (and still is) a major problem in that part of the world, with tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands infected every year.  It's even more tragic because of the warped, twisted, completely inaccurate myths and beliefs of that culture.  For example, a man with AIDS or a venereal disease may believe (and thousands do) that if he has sex with a virgin, the disease will leave him and transfer to her.  However, very few eligible African women are virgins;  so he'll kidnap a child and have sex with her.  Since so many children have been raped, the "targets" of such men have grown younger and younger.  It's no longer unusual to find three- and four-year-old girls (and some boys) who've been abused like that.

I visited a place most people avoided like the plague (a very apt simile, in this case).  It was an orphanage, run by religious sisters, that cared for orphan children infected with AIDS.  In most cases, their mothers had been infected by their husbands or partners, so that the child was born with the disease.  The mother would usually die before the child, having been infected earlier, and the child would be abandoned (sometimes literally, in the bush) to die alone.  These nuns passed the word to the communities nearby that any such baby should be brought to them, rather than be abandoned.  They took them in, fed and cared for them, knowing they were undoubtedly going to lose them.  They believed it was God's work for them to at least let the child die in the midst of a caring community, knowing that it was loved and cherished.

I vividly remember standing on the front porch of their building, watching a nun cradling a two-year-old girl in her arms, tears running down her face as the kid reached up weakly to touch her face.  As I watched, the girl's arm flopped back down, and she took a last, gasping breath, and died.  The nun stood there until it was over, then headed back inside to take the little body to their makeshift morgue . . . and then turn to the next baby or child, and do it all over again.

I've never seen courage like that, before or since.  I certainly don't have it.  To do that, day in, day out, knowing that it will never change, never improve . . . that all your patients are going to die, no matter how cute and lovable they may be . . . and yet being willing to do that, over and over again, so that they can die in whatever peace and love they may find - that you can give - in a world that doesn't give a damn.  That's heroism of the highest possible order, IMHO.

We think too little about the real courage required of our health workers on the front lines, wherever they may be, whatever their circumstances.  In the old days, the Catholic Church used to say that normally, doctors could not be ordained as priests, and priests could not serve as doctors, because both professions were God-given vocations, not just jobs.  They were different and distinct callings, both important enough to warrant being singled out as a lifelong ministry rather than just a career.  I don't know whether that distinction is still made, but it always made a lot of sense to me.



Anonymous said...

You highlight something very important that is observable in our society. There are people, like the nurse, like the nun, who see their role as comfort to the victim. They take on pain and suffering, in the hopes of easing that of the other. Not unlike the voodoo belief you mention of 'passing the disease' on to another, but in reverse, no? Yin, Yang. They accept the burden of suffering and dying to give comfort to those passing through it.
These people, angels, persons willing to suffer for others, are very rare, most people are too self centered. They think of themselves first, group second. These saints and angels, are the cloth from which leaders are cut. Our current leaders are most decidedly NOT of this cloth. How can we find these kinds of people and elevate them to positions of leadership?
Certainly not elections! People are too self centered, the monkey's will vote themselves free banana's dontchaknow?

Anonymous said...

>How can we find these kinds of people and elevate them to positions of leadership?

That’s a great comment, anon, thank you for that and to our host, as well, for the emotionally powerful share!

I have, very recently, been meditating on that exact question. I think the answer to it, that I’m beginning to form, is that it’s important not to confuse leadership with power. In my opinion the drive for power stems from ego and is the root of so many of the problems we face these days. I see leadership as distinct from that and the better quality to cultivate.

To wit, I think one should merely act in that selfless way because it is the righteous way to be. Through leading by example, I believe that it would be contagious and spread to those around such a person. By walking the righteous path, one would be leading those who would seek to follow, not as a cult of personality, but, rather, in furtherance of a common goal.

I welcome any further dialogue on this one. Thanks!

Murder Kitten said...

I don't think it's heroism that drives people to do that. I work in hospice and am driven to care for the dying myself. We're not heros. We're just people like any other, but with a calling. Dark humor is present in droves, but it's different than people who work in hospitals and are trying to save lives. We aren't trying to save people. Sometimes we do, but we're primarily just keeping them comfortable and providing aid to the family so that they can move on after the death. People of varying quality are called to it, but those who aren't called to it leave quickly. In a lot of ways, hospice nurses are more mentally healthy than nurses in hospitals. No one is pushing us to do CPR on people who are 90+ years old or who can't be saved otherwise, and we aren't going home to remember the feelings of their ribs shattering under our hands for no reason. We aren't required to torture people.

James said...

I worked in dialysis for over twenty six years and that experience is similar. The vast majority on people on dialysis are on what may be described as extended hospice. Transplants are rare and don't always work, in the last unit I was in, we had about one hundred and twenty patients and a good year was three transplants. It takes a special kind of person to do that work, you get to know the patients and their families intimately and when they die, which they will, it is like losing a family member. Dialysis is not a cure, people deteriorate steadily, some slowly and some faster, and all end up the same. You have to watch them decline, often due to poor choices they have made or continue to make. Most are there because of diabetes so the steady organ failure and amputations are all part of it. There is a difficult balancing act between being friendly and compassionate and not allowing yourself to be emotionally drowned. The amazing thing is the number of people who make a career of it.

boron said...

I can't believe there isn't a special place in heaven for these heroes.

Aesop said...


If you're not familiar, sometime look up Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission.

Sometimes crossing the streams is a very good thing.

Aesop said...

And FWIW, until you've held someone's hand while their loved one held the other one, and watched their breathing and pulse rate brady down to zero, in that order, I just can't explain it to you.

And then you get up, and finish your shift with your other patients.