Orange dust had permeated the porous leather of my white shoes. It was on the examination beds and on the tables in the make-shift clinic, too. It was everywhere. You see, the dirt in Kenya is orange. My scrubs were filthy, below my knees, but I always had clean latex gloves on, which was all that really mattered. We worked in a cinder-block building, under a corrugated metal roof and on a soft, dirt floor.
Patients formed a serpentine line that wound its way through buildings and cars and vanished over the hillside. Sometimes, they were more of a mob, like when we handed out vitamins and vermox- a pill designed to kill intestinal parasites. Everybody wanted some and everyone feared we’d run out before they got theirs- which happened too quickly. I felt like I’d only made a dent in a problem that was too large for twenty Americans and their puny clinic to solve.
Several days were spent with Matt, the dentist who did little more than extractions. I cleaned the instruments after he used them. He also let me pull the easy teeth, the ones that were so rotten that they were nearly falling out. I was nervous and actually hated seeing blood seep out of empty sockets. I didn’t feel like I was making anything better as I did this, especially when patients walked out the door muttering in Swahili.
Other days were spent in the triage tent. I measured height and weight, then asked people to show me what was wrong, and sent them to the doctors with notes. I asked one woman why she wanted medical treatment. She started pointing at her waist. I told the interpreter that I didn’t understand, so she grabbed a child that I figured belonged to one of her children, set it on her lap, proceeded to lift the bottom of her shirt, then started to breast-feed it. I ran out the tent door as a bunch of women laughed at me. I never figured out what her issue was.
One day was spent with Eric, whose only role was HIV testing. Unlike the other doctors, he never had a line outside his door. I’m not sure if the people already knew, or preferred ignorance. The first woman that approached our dutch door was quiet, but she spoke English, which was nice, because we’d sent our interpreter to a busier part of the clinic. She said she’d been raped. She wasn’t pregnant, but she was afraid that she’d been given HIV. In Kenya and some other African countries, there’s a myth that if a man with AIDS has sex with a virgin, she’ll take the disease away from him. In other words, rape is a huge problem in Kenya, especially among refugees. Eric poked her finger, took three drops of blood and began adding the testing solution to the small, white strip. He twisted an egg timer to twelve minutes and we all sat in silence, staring at the orange dirt floor, occasionally wiping dust from our pants. I felt like it was the longest twelve minutes of my life, and my blood wasn’t being tested. I tried to imagine how the young woman felt.
I prayed. It’s all I could do. “Jesus, this woman hasn’t even done anything to deserve this, please don’t let her have AIDS.” I said to myself, over and over. For some reason, I had a lump in my throat already. Eric kept glancing at the test strip, and eventually grabbed the instructions that came with the kit. He read through them as he probably had a hundred times by now, but he seemed to be grateful for the distraction.
Ding. The timer was done. We all exhaled loudly as he examined the test strip and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you have HIV.”
My head shot up and I looked at her. She didn’t wince like I had. Eric started rambling about treatment options and medicines but the woman stood up, interrupted him, thanked us for our time and walked out the door and stood in the African sun. She started to sing, “When peace like a river, attendeth my way…” she started walking.
The last words I heard as she meandered out of sight were, “It is well with my soul.” Eric left the cinder block room without saying anything. I cried.