Death in the Third World

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Megan Chang

I glance around the room, and see the nervous anticipation I feel mirrored in everyone’s faces as we watch the nurse pat the newborn baby cradled in her arms. The little girl opens her eyes, and looks around the room at us with a bewildered expression, letting out a mournful, innocent cry. The nervous butterflies in my stomach turn to somersaults of joy. Cheers echo, grins grace the faces of those around me. Welcome to the world, baby girl!

The nurse quickly cleans and dresses the baby, swaddling her in a blanket to keep her warm from the cold mountain air blowing in from the barred window, and then places the child in the awkward cradle her mother’s elbows make. A slow smile spreads across the new mom’s face, reminding me of the rays of a sun peeking over the horizon to bask the world in her happiness. My group and I slowly make our way out of the tiny delivery room to give the new family some privacy to celebrate their new addition. The small wooden door closes softly, and my last image before it shuts is the mother giving the baby girl to her husband, blissful smiles lighting up both their faces.

I make my way through the tiny cement hallways of the clinic, the low laughter and clang of pots echoing from the kitchen: scents of tortillas and chicken drift down the hallway to me. It smells delicious, and my mouth waters involuntarily. I make my way to the kitchen, and say hi to the people sitting in there. I dodge the cook, and steal a bite of dinner, then rush out the door before she realizes I have once again “borrowed” food.

When I think I’m safe from the cook, I slow to a walk, taking in the beauty of my surroundings. It might be a little muddy, a little dirty, but the overall natural beauty of these Guatemalan mountains counteracts the poverty of the village that lives on it. I think back to the last two weeks I’ve spent here, isolated from civilization by the mountains and dirt roads, worlds away from anything I’d ever known or experienced. Yet, the time I’ve spent here working in the clinic has been an experience of a lifetime. I was working with a group of students that shared the same ambitions as me, vaccinating children every day, educating people about the importance of hand-washing, and now, witnessing the miracle of life. Even though you may call it a developing nation or a third-world country, I’d started to consider this tiny village on a mountaintop in Guatemala home. It seems like only yesterday that I had been accepted into this program, a program that was dedicated to helping lower maternal death rates in this poverty stricken area of Guatemala. I was given the opportunity to truly make a difference in the lives of the people here.

The cook’s shouts from the kitchen jolt me back to reality, as she realizes I have once again stolen food from the kitchen before dinner. I chuckle to myself, turning around to apologize yet another time, when the first raindrop falls from the sky and creates a liquid trail down my arm. Then another droplet, and one more, and then it’s pouring. I sprint through the mud and rain back to the kitchen, seeking refuge from the icy water.

I burst through the kitchen door, soaked and shivering, and plop myself down in a chair in front of the cook fire to warm up and dry off. The cook gives me a stern look, then shakes her head and smiles. She walks out into the clinic, and comes back with a towel so that I can dry myself off, and I smile at her in gratitude. This isn’t the first time I’ve sought shelter in the kitchen, yet it’s much happier than the last time. A feeling of déjà vu overtakes me, as I remember the previous time the pouring rain forced me to retreat to the kitchen. The contrast between the two occasions is significant: while there is now laughter and warmth, there was once silence and grief, and the pouring rain takes me back to that awful day, a day so similar to this one, yet with an ending completely different.

Thinking about that day at the beginning of this trip brings a slew of images to my mind. The same nervous anticipation on everyone’s faces, the same nurse patting down a different baby. Another young mother waiting to hear her baby cry after hours of labor. And yet, where today there was a cry and cheers, the last time there was only silence and the ensuing grief. The grief. It felt like a million pounds, weighing down on my chest, making it impossible to breathe. Tears slipped down my face as the nurse frantically tried to resuscitate the tiny baby, her attempts becoming more and more desperate. And that baby girl: beautiful, lifeless, and cold. Her name would have been Catalina Marisol, meaning pure, beloved sun. I always knew that my first encounter with death wouldn’t be easy. I never imagined how much harder death in a moment where there is supposed to be life would be.

The rest of that day is a blur. I remember tears, grief, and a chasm of sorrow opening up inside of me. I remember hiding and seeking solitude to wrestle with my thoughts and emotions, wishing I could be anywhere but there, in a country I shared nothing with. I remember the skies pouring down rain, its tears reflecting how I felt, and the ensuing wall of water that isolated me from the rest of the world. And when I was done trying to comprehend the whys and hows, done being lonely and sad, I sought the kitchen, where I knew I would be welcome and safe.

Suddenly, the jangle of pots and the smell of finished dinner wakes me from my reverie, and I find myself back in the kitchen. People are hustling in and out, carrying the colorfully mismatched plates, utensils, and pots of steaming food to the dining hall. I join the crowd, running through the light drizzle with plates under my arm, the edges digging into my ribs as I try to keep a grip on the slick plastic.

When I enter the dining hall, I’m immediately surrounded by the sounds of lame jokes and laughter. I set my plates down, and join the banter as we all celebrate a successful day. Seeing the live birth today has reminded us all of how important it is that we are here volunteering; for me, it’s begun healing the pain and devastation I felt after the still birth. It’s been uplifting, and reassuring, especially after the tragic start to this trip. The warmth and joy in the room makes me feel safe, happy, and extremely lucky to be here. But there’s a part of me that is still stuck in that flashback, and I wonder if the image will ever leave, or if that moment and that day will stay with me forever.

I know that I want to spend my life helping. I’ve always known that. It’s why I’m here in Guatemala and why I applied to this program. Giving back and helping people has always given me a feeling of completeness, and a sense of purpose. But before I came on this trip I didn’t understand what it really meant to care. Anyone can look at numbers on a screen detailing death or poverty rates, and read about the bleak conditions in other countries and feel sympathy and compassion: but it’s not real. Grieving with a family I’m not related to in a country I can’t call home is. I’ve become inexplicably bound to these mountains and this village, in a way that makes those statistics more than just numbers: those figures and percentages correspond to people. But being here, being able to make that one difference in that one life, getting to change those numbers and saving a family from the grief that seems so out of place in the world I come from and yet routine in the world I’m in right now, that’s what’s real and meaningful. And I know that’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.

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