I enter the room cautiously, not wanting to disturb the family. They motion for me to come all the way in, and when I do, I see beaming faces and hands outreached, scrambling to make contact. I am only the photographer, not a doctor, but their joy and appreciation are boundless: Degie has lived through an obstructed labor and childbirth, and the baby is thriving. I look at Degie, and her smile is wide, tears are in her eyes. I grab her outreached hands and shake them like a mad woman. I too am thrilled to see such a difference in her well-being. I can also detect concern regarding how she will comfortably make the long walk home.
She slowly uncovers the tiny baby boy next to her, her first-born child, and the cool air makes him stir. Lips plump, tiny fists pumping the air, he opens his eyes and makes a sucking sound that makes us all laugh. He is content. I motion outside for someone to come and translate for me, and I tell Degie that I think she will make a wonderful mother. I also tell her that I have never seen such devotion from an extended family, at least three members sitting at her bedside around the clock, waiting to see if she needs anything.
In rural hospitals, the family must provide basic care for the patient. They feed them, bathe them, and sometimes even administer simple nursing tasks. Degie’s sisters, brothers and grandparents have provided exceptional care for her. It is not always like this. At times, there is no family support. These perhaps are the most difficult situations to witness. When a person comes in great crisis, and they have no one to support them, most likely they have no means to pay for services and they reluctantly must turn away. It is heartbreaking to watch a very ill woman, laboring with a child, have to leave the hospital grounds based upon inability to pay the fees. Once again, our souls reach out to her and want to pay the fees, but the hospital administrator strictly advises us that this creates more problems than they can handle once we are gone.
What do they do? Where do they go?
This is simply a way a life here in rural Ethiopia. Our minds turn to how we could possibly make the payment of fees sustainable. An on-going fund for destitute patients? A plea to the government? We don’t know these answers.
But Degie is fortunate in that she has many brothers who sold cows to pay for her surgery, and have taken time from the fields to carry her home. They gently walk her to the makeshift stretcher, and tenderly move her down onto it, covering her with a gabi. A chaotic flurry of hands dip into injera and food is passed around. The men are fed quickly so that they have strength to make the arduous walk over rock strewn terrain back to their village. After a bit more clamoring as they decide who is in front and who is in back, they reach down and pull up on the stretcher, lifting Degie’s body high onto their shoulders. The sisters pack up the food and scurry behind, barefoot with gabbies flowing in the wind.
I watch them turn away from the hospital and walk together down the rocky road toward their village, their feet hitting the ground in rhythmic unison. And as they disappear into the horizon, I see the faint outline of a group of men carrying a woman toward the hospital.