Clara Boer describes life at Mbuma Mission Hospital from a patient’s perspective. This article is based on the real experiences of Singazi, a patient, with permission.
How long have I been lying here?
I can answer with my own name, Singazi, because it means “We don’t know”. So I ask my daughter, Beater, my one constant companion who’s by my side day and night. This is the African way: the nurses supply the medical care and the family supports and helps the patient with daily needs. She says it was in April that Dr Snoek admitted me to Mbuma Mission Hospital for the ceaseless, piercing, unaccountable pain in my back and legs.
I’m only 32 and my body is breaking down—literally. Cancer is eating up more and more of me. It’s a severe trial, but even so, looking back over seven months since my admission here, I’m counting my blessings. Yes, life at Mbuma Mission Hospital is good, and it is a blessing to stay here: we are well cared for medically, but above all because we are given heartfelt spiritual care with an open Bible.
Here, from my place in Ward 2, with a view of the inner courtyard, I see and feel love: love from the Lord, and love for the Lord. “Surely the LORD is in this place.”
Let me take you through a week of hospital life and share some of how it feels.
I’ve woken up early this morning. Judging from the angle of the climbing sun, it was about 5 am when I stirred. Was it the rising warmth or my dream that woke me so untimely? It’s so quiet on Sabbath morning in this normally so busy hospital. I see Sister Mapfumo hooking up a fresh drip in the men’s section of our surgery ward. Outside, under the canopy, patients’ relatives are tidying away their sleeping mats. Beater is making sadza, maize porridge, for me.
I’m still brooding over my dream, which won’t let me go. I saw my mother sitting in front of our hut. The only detail of her that I remember—she died when I was little—is her face. She was devastated to see my suffering. Where is my mother now? Is the hour of my death approaching? That’s what my dream suggested. I often hear around me that such dreams portend what really does happen. Deep-rooted folk beliefs still haunt me often and leave me perplexed, yet I believe that the Lord is sovereign over my life and my death.
I’m gently shaken awake from my daydream. It’s 3:30 pm and Clara is coming to collect me for Bible study. It’s a time to look forward to, with so many patients, relatives and interested hangers-on coming to examine the Word of God. All the varied religious backgrounds melt away here. Although we come in with varying views and opinions, here we find the truth of Paul’s words: “One Lord, one faith … one God and Father …”
I suddenly realise that my ride to the Bible study, which is held under the canopy, is being jolted by the dips and thresholds I’m being wheeled over. If Clara weren’t continually saying “Sorry, sorry!”, I’d hardly notice the bumps in such a princely Dutch hospital bed! I was perfectly happy sleeping on the ground in my own familiar hut in the village of Siganda.
Another early start today. I hear the ambulance roll into the courtyard at 5 am. They’re taking me into town for radiotherapy. They’ve already got my mattress waiting for me in the ambulance, on top of four empty oxygen bottles that need changing in town. Fortunately, I’m not the only passenger today. I prefer being wedged in among the other bodies like this, so that the potholes all over the road into town won’t bother me so much. When your bones are brittle from cancer, this makes quite a comfort difference on a three-and-a-half hour journey lying down. Khumalo, the driver, has some papers thrust in his hand, Sister Willie does a last check of the vehicle and wishes us a good journey, and we’re off, calling Livukile (Good morning) to the porter at the gate.
9:15 pm. Finally back in Mbuma safe and sound.
“Please come to Ward 2!”
Clara is at my bedside quick as a flash in response to my emergency text message. She’s my Dutch friend; I even call her sisiwami (my sister). With a worried look, she asks me how it went today. I point silently to my right arm, tears of agony wetting my eyes. I’m trying to be strong; well brought-up Africans dislike being emotional in public. Velani, one of the catechists, whose turn it was just now to take evening prayers, tells her on my behalf: “Everything went fine today until she broke her right arm while being transferred back to bed.” Words fail us, so we sing one of my favourite verses, Psalm 23:4. However dark our path is, He is with us and He comforts us.
Once again, the ward has become a hive of activity at dawn.
It’s theatre day, so the patients needing operations have to be readied first thing in the morning: here an infusion, there a blood pressure cuff. Amid the scene, a new patient is brought onto the ward with a sizeable wound to the arm. A donkey bite, as I soon find out.
On the rounds yesterday, Dr Janse told me they’d be needing another biopsy from me today, so Dr Snoek harvests a bit of bone marrow from my right hip. When she’s done, she phones the nurse to let her know I’m ready to be taken back to the ward. My empty bed is wheeled into theatre, I’m transferred to it from the operating table, and in just a few minutes I’m back in my own spot. Fortunately, Sister Willie gave me a good dose of anaesthetic, so I was fine during the procedure, but when it wears off—ouch!
I’m a bit dozy for a few hours after that, but when Keith the catechist comes around for Bible study at 2:30 pm, I’m wide awake. We’re discussing John 3 today, the need for the new birth. The error persists stubbornly in our communities that we’re saved by being church members, by baptism or by the Lord’s Supper. Here, I hear what God has to say about it: that there is no salvation outwith Christ! We need regeneration: to become new creatures in Jesus through faith, by the power and ministry of the Holy Ghost. What a solemn meditation today. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Julianah, who works in the Mbuma lab, has prepared my biopsy for Khumalo to take to the lab in town. It’s of a type that they can’t process in-house in our own lab. Dr Snoek should be e-mailed the results in a few days. What will the finding be this time? Another disappointment, or dare I expect better news? I know how gravely ill I am, but still I hold out hopes of improvement.
I’m motivated to fight on by seeing Beater, my fourteen-year-old, with her swelling belly: her first pregnancy, my first grandchild. I think of Banele and Sanele, my four-year-old twins. Who’ll look after them when I’m not around any more, out in my forest village? My husband has left us for South Africa. Life in Zimbabwe is not easy, and children with no-one to look after them are so very vulnerable. I renew my prayer that the Lord would give me strength, and that He would also give me peace to accept His will and His way. I also pray that He would faithfully look after my children, especially if I’m not going to be on earth much longer.
In the evening, I have a long talk with Keith. I tell him about my sinful past, the needs of my soul, my loneliness. My struggle is palpable to him. He listens carefully and takes me through II Timothy 4. I’m reinvigorated by prayer and by the Word, especially verse 17: “Notwithstanding, the Lord stood with me and strengthened me.” He is well able!
What a litany of diagnoses I’ve heard the doctor giving on the rounds this morning: food poisoning, snakebite, HIV, compound fracture, cancer … not to speak of the gory and often extensive wounds that I’ve seen being attended to. There are diabetics with amputated feet, nasty oxcart accidents, and gaping bedsores on those who didn’t change position, and more. A recurrent problem out here is that people delay far too long before presenting with symptoms. They’re afraid of medical bills they can’t pay, or they reckon they’ll try their luck with the ‘trusty’ witch doctor first. I call them “broken cisterns” now. Only once they’re at their wits’ end do they show up at hospital, by now immobilised and in great pain. If healing is possible at all by this stage, it tends to be a drawn-out process.
I watch Sister Mkwananzi expertly dressing the amputated front of the foot of the lady beside me. She keeps up a commentary for her on what she’s observing and what she’s doing. I flush with quiet pride at the excellent medical knowledge and ready skills of our Zimbabwean nurses.
Before the sister bandages the lady’s foot up again, I can see from my angle that she sprinkles sugar in the wound. She tells us that it’s a cheap but effective anti-bacterial agent.
After morning prayers at 7:15 am, a merry din breaks out. It’s cleaning day. All our bedside cabinets are turned out, bathed in suds and then taken out to the courtyard to dry. The hot sun is a great disinfectant. The pharmacists do their daily restock of nursing supplies and medicines. Beds are flattened and any spots noticed on them cleaned.
Mid-morning, I see from a distance that the queue for the pharmacy is swelling; many patients have just been given a doctor’s prescription. They’re all hoping that the product they need is available; otherwise—if they hear the dreaded words “Out of stock”—there’s nothing for it but a long bus ride into town, where they might hear the same message, or to head straight home without their medication.
Today, as usual, there are plenty of outpatients needing a consultation, as they know that doctors are available for them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. After Covid screening at the front gate, patients head for the entrance area under the canopy, where the intake is seen to. Blood pressure is taken, patients are weighed, and so on. It’s all noted in the patient file, which out here is something patients have to provide for themselves, so in most cases it’s a school exercise book. You then take your place in the waiting room until the doctor calls you, in order of arrival. If you don’t show up until later on, you might be left hanging on for hours, especially if emergencies intervene. It’s hard going if you’re feeling ill, but it’s not in our nature to grumble. Zimbabweans aren’t timetable people; we have boundless patience.
I hear footsteps. Assuming that it’ll be a nurse back from lunch, I don’t bother opening my eyes in the post-prandial lull—but I can’t resist peeping out from half-closed eyelids. An elderly lady is standing by my bed, with two children. I open my eyes and the drowsiness vanishes. With deep gratitude, I acknowledge God’s goodness in bringing my grandmother and the twins to visit me in my loneliness. Such joy!
What’s this hubbub of children’s voices? Oh yes, it’s Sabbath school on Saturday afternoons. I can’t count them all but it sounds as though quite a few children have been today. After many months of Covid restrictions, the group is growing again. “We even had 46 children today,” Mrs Dube, one of the teachers, says. Train up a child in the way he should go, as the Word says. She hopes zealously for growth that will stand the test of time!
5 pm. The children’s voices have made way for the rumbling of food trolleys. It’s sadza enriched with chicken and vegetables, or bean soup. They also serve goat stew sometimes, made from animals given to the hospital as payment in kind by those with no money. There’s nothing to beat a full stomach!
It only takes a couple of minutes after dinner for the sun to sink below the hospital. I reminisce over all that’s happened. “Lord, from the depths to Thee I cried.” So many earthly blessings, none of them deserved. I feel small in the face of them. My heart runs over with gratitude and joy.
Under the magnificent firmament of southern stars, out in the courtyard, sleeping mats are being rolled out as night draws in. I listen for a while to the sounds: the weak cry of a child from the paediatric ward next door; the monotonous hum of an oxygen concentrator in Ward 3; the yell of a psychiatric patient. My exhausted body succumbs to sleep, as my heart prays, “O God, of my salvation God, me from blood-guiltiness set free … Show kindness and do good, O Lord, to Zion, thine own hill … Then shall thy praises by my mouth abroad be publishèd.”