When you are on the other side of the world facing medical complications, many emotions surface and hold you captive in your environment. Foreign languages play a role in isolating you. Cultural differences with doctors and nurses can you leave you confused and feeling uninformed. But just the moment you decide you can’t go on, God surprises you with a special friend to help you over that hurdle. In my fifth month of pregnancy, after losing one of my twin fetuses, I found myself in a foreign hospital, praying I would carry the second until term.
“Thirty-seven, thirty-eight across,” I lay in bed counting the drab ceiling tiles above me. I was halfway through the wall tiles when I lost count. How many times had I already done this today? Time inched by; each minute hung motionless reluctantly measuring itself out as if fearful it would run itself out if it yielded too quickly. I curled up my toes in the shapeless flannel hospital gown issued to me. I studied the pattern. It could be worse. I touched the fabric—a light blue print covered with tiny flowers.
A shadow crept in through the window and lengthened. If only I could feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun but the cold sterile environment clung to me like a shrouded cloud. The desert sun might as well have been on the other side of the world. It would never reach me in here. I yawned and stretched. How many days had it been? Twenty six and today made a half more. “Calendar,” I mumbled to myself, “got to get a calendar before I forget how long I’ve been in here.” My mind grew foggy. Is this what being a prisoner of war was like?
“Oh come on, baby,” I crooned, “We’ll be fine.” I patted my rounded belly feeling more secure with each passing day. I accepted the lethargy that had settled upon me as a sign of progress. It was only when I looked in a mirror after I showered in the mornings that I was jarred into reality. My swollen face reflected the edema that encircled my body. I had only to look at my ankles and feet to know that we weren’t fine—that my baby and I were still cocooned in a toxic state.
The visits had begun for the other patients. Snippets of Tagalong, Arabic and Urdu started to intrude on my self-imposed silence. Tuesday. No one would be coming to see me. Nor would I be getting any phone calls. Dubai was long distance from Ras Al Khaimah where I lived. Everyone was working, including my husband.
A food cart came along and the afternoon snack delivered. I fixed a smile upon my face and selected a small flavorless cake which I knew I would crumble between my fingers bit by bit as I broke off the dry pieces and tried to swallow them. The lump in my throat got so big that swallowing anything was impossible. The loneliness once again set in.
As the afternoon nurse slipped from bed to bed, I rolled up my thin sleeve to prepare for her to take my blood pressure. This was an hourly obligation. No escape.
The nurse smoothed my thin blanket before sitting down next to me. Slender and bronze-skinned she reached out for my arm and expertly cuffed it with the apparatus, then proceeded to check and record my data. I sighed. She remained seated afterwards, and idly reached out for the silver-framed photograph I kept near my pillow. “I hear about this man,” she smiled, “the romantic Egyptian who sweeped you off your feet.”
Her voice was soft, inviting me to speak. But I remained silent. “Ummm—” Oh no! I’m gonna cry. She adjusted her headscarf, winding it around her head once more. “Tell me about Africa,” I begged instead.
She glanced at her watch, and I felt impatience rise like bile. When would it be my turn to talk to someone? My rightful turn. Everyone had someone. Laughter echoed from the hospital bed next to mine. The patient was opening a box of chocolates and reaching for some flowers her guest had brought. She kissed the man. He must be her husband.
As if sensing my need for companionship, she settled herself down and warmed to her story. “My dear, I am very far from my home. My whole family is there. But I am here. I miss them.” she paused as if just realizing how I felt.
She went on in her soft-spoken way to describe her way of life, the way the jungle looked. “The days, they pass so quickly and the sun…You can’t imagine how beautiful one can see the sunset.” I shivered, imagining it all. I’d never been to Africa but the way she spoke made me long for it.
I can still recall the smooth cadence of her voice but not the exact country, the animals that were commonplace to her but would be exotic to us. “I have many animals in my village and I wake to their sounds. Many times I step around elephant dung and hear screeches from gorillas too high in the trees. You know, we must to be very careful when darkness comes for the hyenas? They wait and attack people in the shadows—like this!”
She threw her arms out and grabbed me.
“Hey, don’t scare me like that! I have a baby here to protect!”
After we shared a laugh, she went on to say that she moved to the city when she started secondary school and had to become accustomed to a new way of life. She sighed. “Yes, I almost miss it today. Even today.”
Somehow that afternoon forged a bond between us that would remain long after I left the hospital. It transcended religion and cultural boundaries. I always looked forward to when she came on shift. She smiled often and teased me about the photograph of my Egyptian husband. When she had a break, she sometimes stopped by my bed. “I just came to say hello to baby—not you.” She’d joke.
One day I surprised her with a poem thanking her. She was touched. “No one writes me a poem before.” She fluffed up my pillow. “Rest now for baby.”
Shortly after I learned that my baby died, this nurse came to me and squeezed my hand, “May Allah takes care of you.” She didn’t seem to have any other words and looked so sad.
“Shukran. Thank you. God took my baby even though I really wanted her.” I buried my face in the covers to sob in muffled agony.
My nurse hurried away. My struggle for the baby had become her personal struggle as well. I think it must be difficult to work in a problem pregnancy wing and witness so many losses.
Years later, I was actually blessed to go on safari and see a country similar to what she had spoken of so longingly. She came to mind so many times. When I heard the screech of gorillas overhead and stood up in my jeep, I thought of her. When I caught a glimpse of a small herd of elephants pulling bamboo branches into their mouths in the jungle, I thought of her again. Again and again. As the last animals came into view, I silently prayed that God had blessed this African nurse as much as she had blessed me during my lonely hospital stay in Dubai.
Today I don’t even remember her name. But her soft voice still breathes in my memory. Just the other day I came across a photograph taken from the safari. It was filled with thousands of pink flamingos flying low over the water, and I thought of her once more.
I wonder if she is still walking among the sterile halls of a cold Dubai hospital, and if she has found another mother with whom she can share her memories of a sun-drenched village and animals that roamed freely nearby.