I direct my penlight at Catherine’s eyes. There isn’t any reaction detectable in the black pinheads. I open the upper button on her shirt carefully and lay my stethoscope on her shining skin. The soft murmur of her breath reminds me of the sea touching the shore, but it repeats itself faster, much faster, and has a higher pitch. The muscle reflexes are absent in her arms and legs. Underneath her left breast, in which mammary glands are developing, there’s her heart pounding more than a hundred times a minute.
A co-worker applies gel to the skin of her lower abdomen and finds out that the heart of the little one is happily beating. There are no foetal abnormalities on the ultrasound, the findings are consistent with an uncomplicated pregnancy of around twenty-two weeks.
An uncomplicated pregnancy, except for the facts that Catherine has high fever and that she’s unconscious. She’s in coma and we don’t know why. We have no further diagnostic investigations to offer in our hospital, and referral to the university hospital has been refused. This woman of merely twenty years old will die soon, and her unborn child too. All hopes are faded, no one believes in a happy ending.
This is the story of a woman with HIV and epilepsy, who was found laying unconsciously out in the field. But more specifically, this is the story of a woman in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. ‘Diagnostic interventions’ is an euphemism for a few standard laboratory tests, including one for malaria, and the ultrasound that was already mentioned. No scan of the brain, not even a chest X-ray nor a blood culture.
Many things have changed since I visited Malawi for the first time ten years ago, back then as a medical student. The number of people dying from malaria has dramatically declined, the country seems to gain control over the HIV-epidemic and also child mortality has declined. But there are still many people for whom nothing has changed, people who don’t have money to get to the hospital (where care is free of charge) or whose disease remains unclear or doesn’t respond to treatment. Far too many people die needlessly.
At night I see a pattern of green and red twisting lines and I hear voices. Faithless whispers on my right side that he can’t get no sleep, and to my left there’s a woman crying for help. Is this a dream, or are these hallucinations caused by the malaria prophylaxis? The pictures and voices fade like a candle in the wind that smashes heavy rains to the aluminium sheets on the roof. I feel empty. I am the middle of the night, a damp night caught in a mosquito net.
What is my role here, in this particular hospital, in this country? Do I do the right thing? Is the work I do effective and sustainable? And do I bear responsibility for the poverty that I see everywhere around me? Any westerner coming to Africa will encounter those questions. If not asking them yourself, others will pose them to you. But are these more important than the question whether you are happy?
I pull the sheets away from my body and stare at the point where the net is connected to the roof, centrally above the bed. This is my polar star on the southern hemisphere. Suddenly I realise that the self-critical questions arise from the perception that we belong to the country where we are born. Being home means that you don’t need to justify your presence. But does that also apply to me? Anywhere in the world it’s easier for me to feel at home than in the country where I was born.
Of course it won’t do any harm to ask yourself whether you do the right thing. But if I may speak for myself: I cannot be sustainably happy without taking other people’s wellbeing into consideration. Taking care of each other is an essential part of taking care of yourself. I stare to the zenith of my mosquito net and at the same time I wander in my mind through the village, where life flourishes in all it’s sounds and colours, and then I wander through the western streets on Twitter, where despite of their wealth, people always find a reason to complain. Maybe an early death is still preferable to having never really lived, I think, and with that guilty thought I fall asleep.