I am surrounded by butterflies – all around me, every day. They flutter their wings, buoy my spirit, and reverberate hope through the hours and minutes. Who knows what the far-reaching effects might be, whatever they be, I know their whispers are already altering the tides of life in Buea.
My narrative today is dedicated to the volunteers from around the world who come to serve at Buea Seventh-day Adventist Health Centre, over fifty in the past four years. They come with a variety of talents and expertise from medical to accounting to mechanical. They stay from one week to several months. Whether they know it or not, they bring a blessing, equal and perhaps more valuable than their tangible helping hands. A hope, an enthusiasm, a newness to life that infuses a vibrancy into the atmosphere at our health centre, mixing cultures and languages in a patchwork of interwoven lives from around the world.
“Welcome,” I say hastily to Elaine and Christine as I dash between house and hospital this evening. It’s going on nine o’clock in the evening but things are still hopping in the hospital. Sick patients, labouring pregnant lady, consultations, injections, and dressing changes – it is unusually busy for a weeknight. I’ve just finished making my assessment of the situation and triaging which problems are more urgent and warrant more imminent attention. I let Bill attend to our new nurse volunteers who appear amazingly awake in spite of their long travel.
I return back to the house after a few minutes to grab my “Mr. Mom” otoscope to check a patient’s painful ear. Elaine and Christine are chatting with Bill, getting a crash course in African survival. “Good coffee?” I inquire as I notice the empty mugs on the side table. The nurses nod enthusiastically. I’m encouraged. “Want to see the hospital or are you too tired?”
Christine and Elaine exchange glances. “Um, we’re not too tired. We want to see the hospital.”
“OK. Come.” I start to head out the door. “Oh, um… maybe you should change into some scrubs.”
“Oh.” Elaine says quietly.
“They’re luggage didn’t make it,” my husband interjects.
No problem. “Let’s find some scrubs for you then.” I lead Christine and Elaine back and we search for size small scrubs. Humorously, even my small scrubs are still rather large for these petite RNs. “Oh well, you can roll up the bottom of the legs,” I offer somewhat unhelpfully, noting the swimming-in-your-clothes affect the scrubs produce.
Trouser legs rolled up in order to allow them to walk without tripping on their attire; I lead them off to the hospital. “Doctor, doctor…” several patients and relatives all vie for my attention when I enter. “Private ward, general wards,” I open and close a couple doors and briefly point out our hospital rooms. “Nursing station, lab, staff break room…” my whirlwind tour comes to an end when we return to the side room where dressings and injections are conducted.
“It’s nice,” the new volunteers comment, a bit overwhelmed by the newness, noise, and hustle and bustle.
“Want to help out tonight?” Typically I’d let the pair rest, settle-in, get some food and go to bed but tonight is a bit out of the ordinary. I shrug. “I understand if you’re tired. It’s ok either way.”
“No, doctor, we’d love to get involved!” Christine reassures me. “Let’s do it.” I am delighted with their willingness to help. Only a tiny twinge of guilt jabs my conscious at plunging them into the metaphorical circus ring within hours of a long and tiring cross-Atlantic flight. Well, nothing like learning on the job… jumping right in – isn’t there something about sink or swim - after all? Welcome to Africa!
“Come this way,” I invite an impatient gentleman who was just involved in a small motorcycle accident and has sustained a few abrasions back to the dressing alcove. “Here’s the plaster, the gauze,” I glance around, “Um, and somewhere there are scissors. You can clean the wound with this iodine.” I wave a hand over the small, untidy metal cart containing an assortment of instruments and antiseptics. I’m sure Elaine and Christine are used to a bit more materials for bandaging wounds but this is all we have. “Do what you can,” I beg, “ and, thanks again for helping out. I really appreciate it.”
I leave the two nurses to take care of the man. They finish an injection of pain killer just before a miniature entourage of police, some with rather intimidating guns, march into the hospital to take the patient’s statement concerning the motorcycle accident. At least he doesn’t have to spend the night.
Several consultations later, I have a chance to reassess the chaos. Things have quieted. The inpatient admissions are settled with their IV drips. The labouring woman is labouring but not urgently. Those who came for coughs, fevers, and rashes have consulted, received their medication, and gone home. I look around for the volunteers. I finally find them in the back, somewhat shell shocked perhaps, but otherwise smiling and happy. “Thank you so much for your help,” I apologise gratefully for getting them involved rather abruptly and directly right after they’d arrived. “You came at a busy time. It’s not always this crazy.” I give a tired smile.
“Oh, it’s ok. It was good,” Christine and Elaine report enthusiastically. Must have been some super-potent coffee, I muse with a wry grin. They are awake and cheerful.
“Let me show you your room,” I offer. “You must be exhausted.” We walk back to the house where Bill and I show them their guest bedroom and provide whatever necessary linens and towels they might need. “Hopefully, your luggage will come tomorrow. I hope you sleep well,” I bid goodnight as I head to bed myself. It’s past eleven. Late, even for me, let alone for our new volunteers who’ve spent the last twenty-four hours travelling to a foreign continent.
Our other volunteers who arrive a few days later, assimilate into the everyday life of our health centre just as seamlessly. They meld with our permanent staff and “senior” volunteer who’s been here several months already. I have six new white “sisters” according to my local Cameroonian neighbours. “Where’s your sisters?” is the question I am asked every time I buy sweet peanuts from the woman on the corner.
Certainly, their skills and helpfulness in the clinic, the hospital, and the business office are appreciated. Without their help, we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the expanding patient numbers. October has seen the highest number of babies born in our labour and delivery unit since we opened it in June 2012. We see more and more outpatients. More inpatients. Their willingness to help where needed is truly a godsend. God knew when we’d need their help; He brought them here just in time.
Yet there are so many other little ways in which our volunteers enrich the quality at our health centre. Their cheerful manner makes certain Mondays much more manageable. At night, they socialise with our local Cameroonian nurses, providing friendship, exchanging intercultural knowledge, and assisting in the care of the sick inpatients and the mothers that put to birth in our delivery suite.
I could never recount all the ways our volunteers beat their butterfly wings and inspire those around them. Some reach out with their culinary skills (a particular Zucchini bread still makes my mouth water), others with their obsessions for cleanliness, some flutters lead to increased training in small procedures such as circumcisions and sterilising theatre instruments and folding drapes. Occasionally one flies to a remote village and shines as the first white person to visit. They sing in the church choir or share their musical talents in church. They help out in Sabbath school with the children. Their ripples of influence undulate to other foreign volunteers working in Buea. It is an endless circle of influence. Who can know where the circles will eventually reach? The soft beating of the multitude of their wings continues to stretch through Buea and beyond. Inspiring and encouraging, bringing hope and beauty to those around. I am thankful for these butterflies. Their influence extends further than any of us will ever imagine. Like the theory says, ‘a butterfly flapped her wings in San Francisco and a hurricane formed in Tokyo’… influence is immeasurable.
Volunteers sitting outside at the hospital
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’”
Matthew 25: 37-40
Three of Buea's Seventh-day Adventist Health Centre nurses in the staff room
“But can one be a blessing merely by being cheerful? Yes; moral beauty of any kind exerts a silent influence for good. It is like a sweet flower by the wayside, which has a benediction for everyone who passes by. A legend tells how one day in Galilee the useful corn spurned the lilies because they fed no one’s hunger. “One cannot earn a living just by being sweet,” said the proud cereal. The lilies said nothing in reply, only seemed the sweeter, then the Master came that way; and while his disciples rested at his feet, and the rustling corn invited them to eat, he said, “Children, the life is more than meat. Consider the lilies, how beautiful they grow.” It certainly seemed worth while then just to be sweet, for it pleased the Master.”
― J.R. Miller
Elaine and Christine with the twins born at our hospital