Monday, November 05, 2007

Dr. Ruth Droppers


I usually shower in the morning, but Ruth showers at night. After spending an hour with her at the hospital, I can see why. Personally, I struggle with just stepping into the hospital here because it feels like I’m diving face first into a rising wave of
germs. Yet, Soddo Christian Hospital is very clean compared to other local hospitals. The outside is beautiful, there are covered walks connecting the wards and flowers bloom everywhere. It seems that the clean air and the flowers promote rest and healing for the tired, sick and dirty patients. Twice a day the floors are scrubbed, yet, the people coming in are often filthy from travel on the dirt roads, hours or days of travel by foot or carried litter or donkey cart, continually drenched in the dusty wake of passing trucks. To me it seems everything has a film of dust and sickness that makes me want to bolt.

Additionally, it is difficult for me to handle the onslaught of emotions that pound me when I see the people suffering. Sitting in the ER at home, more often the length of the wait grabs my emotions harder than people’s pains.

But here, though I am focused, I can't keep up with Ruth – she mentions doing an ultrasound and it is finished by the time I change the setting on my camera and reach the room. Her work is like triage after a disaster, every day. The waits are quick, but the cases are extreme. On call at night, a toddler in his father’s arms arrived with a knife wound to the eye. It was his good eye, the other blind from birth. When asked at 8pm when the accident occurred, we heard it happened that morning. At first, I feel angry – why was he not brought in earlier? Then, it occurs to me they likely have been on their way here since the accident occurred.

Another man refuses to give Ruth a direct answer to the simple question, “do you ever eat fruit?” She gives up after three tries and tells me he probably has chewed a lot of chat, and is experiencing the depression that follows the high. Today she’s
frustrated with people who won’t answer her questions. But, she does not show it. Each patient feels special in her presence. She has a way of repeating what they say to her that makes them know she is listening, even if she has a different idea of what to do. “So, the other doctor would not give you an x-ray for your stomach pain? I see. And, you feel you need an x-ray? Perhaps we could do a ultrasound instead, would that be okay with you?” She smiles at the patient, and nods, encouraging them to buy into her plan. She is incredibly gifted with non-verbal communication, which I think serves her well in this culture.

The woman we met in the clinic, whose breast was destroyed by TB shows up the next morning. I found her outside the hospital, wandering lost and ignored, and sent her to Ruth. She is one of four wives, and her husband no longer cares for her. She also has five sons and no daughters, and the sons do not care for her either. No one will pay for her to have help at
the hospital. Ruth thinks they must want her to die. It is decided that she can be cared for from the benevolent fund.

Since meeting her, the supreme sadness of her life sits on my shoulder. I see her when I look to my left. Her eyes, her face, her hand pulling back her shawl to show me the horrible wound. Me, the photographer, the one with absolutely zero ability to
help her aside from a hug and my warmest smile, I was given the pleading look, beseeching me to do what her family refused to do. To help.

I ask Ruth if she ever cries. She tells me two stories, one of a breach birth to a woman so brutally circumcised that the child could not be born. The woman’s mother was with her. Likely, it was she who cut her daughter and removed every part of her that said she was a woman. Ruth said the woman’s mother gazed blankly ahead, “I am not going to think about my responsibility in this tragedy.” Ruth said she cried over this because the baby did not die because of some environmental cause, but because of something done to his mother by another woman. The second time she cried because a mother starved her baby. She had too many children to feed. So, she kept food from the youngest, and when he was almost gone, brought him to the hospital. All the nurses cared deeply for the baby, and tried desperately to save him. Then, Ruth saw the moment the mother realized she could have brought him earlier and he would have lived. She saw the realization cross the mother’s face that she alone made a devastatingly wrong decision.

Later in the day, a little girl I kissed in the children’s ward succumbs to malnutrition and dies. I had seen her dad standing next to her bed each day when I went to take “my” boy for a walk. The vitamin enriched Unicef milk, purchased on the black market, did not arrive in time to save her.


Some things you can buy if you know who can get them, but morphine is next to impossible to get. Chemo, radiation, strong painkillers, common blood thinners for anesthesia are just a few of the things not found here. Some doctors have a small stash of pain killers. Ruth is not one to hoard, so today she gives a patient who is dying some relief. We talk about a friend who had his leg amputated above the knee. One of the other doctors kept the leg in his freezer to use as a teaching tool. “Honey, where is the ice cream?” “Check under the ankle!” Amputation seems to be the common cure for cancers, tumors, hyena attacks, snakebites and more.

A few days ago a container arrived from Switzerland. It was sent over after my last visit a year and a half ago and has been in customs until last week. It was filled with crutches, which will be put to good use. I saw a man on the street using a tall stick and swinging himself around it to move, so I asked my translator to send him to the hospital for a crutch. It is nice to think about how a crutch might change his life. I can handle thinking about a crutch today, but I can never do what Ruth does.

If you wish to help Ruth and her work, you can send her a donation (a check from an American bank is fine, there is just no tax deduction here:
Stichting Witte Velden te Hilversum
Postbanknumber 1485137
Netherlands
IBAN: NL 41 PSTB 0001 4851 37
BIC: PSTBNL21
mention her name: for Ruth Droppers

Email of the foundation is: stgwittevelden75@chello.nl
Email of contact person in Netherlands: estherdroppers@hotmail.com

5 comments:

Laura said...

I am so affected by what you have written. Thank you for journaling your experiences so artfully and sharing them with us.

Anonymous said...

Hello! You don't know me, but I stumbled across your journal randomly. I am senior in college and am planning on going to medical school. I am extremely interested in international medicine...I actually spent about a month working with a doctor in Guatemala. I know that this is a long shot, but I would really like to learn more about what you are doing and possibly talk with the doctor there...I am interested in doing some volunteer work and learning about the field. Basically, if it is at all possible, here is my email address: messmer2@uiuc.edu. :) God bless! Sarah

the ewings said...

Heidi, I know how draining this whole trip has been and I am amazed at how well you've share it with us so we can expereince this with you. My heart breaks and gives me such an amazing insights to the culture. Thank you for blessing us.
Amazing sights, amazing experiences, Amazing God!

Chris E

Raskell Party of 8 said...

Sweet Heidi, your are an answer to God's call. Thank you for sharing this. I ache to wish I could have beent there for you. Soon we will all be able to go. Love you!

Anonymous said...

Wow, just wow...

Can we send money to Dr. Ruth to help her?

Your brother G.

I enjoyed seeing your growing family this weekend.