Still Can Laugh

(Posted July 2nd 2018 @ 8:50 AM by: Melody Reever)

Still Can Laugh

Am I dying? Am I really, really sick? Or just scared?

As I sat gasping, hallucinating from a high fever, a jet glided in from the blue sky. After a few minutes, I lay strapped to a narrow gurney on the plane being examined by a Kenyan doctor as the plane ascended over Mt. Kilimanjaro to medivac me to Nairobi, Kenya. As soon as the plane leveled off, I unlatched the “seat belt” and jerked to a sitting position. Lying flat, even with the nasal cannula oxygen, smothered me. Gulping air like a guppy, my mouth forming that distinctive “O,” eyes bugged out and chest heaving, the doctor asked me if I was “distressed.” I could only manage a slight nod, while mentally shouting, “Duh!”

As we passed over the snow-capped peak of the mountain, the doctor inserted an IV into my left foot. Looking down, I saw a brown shoe still on my right foot and a large loop of IV tubing circling my left toes.

Arriving at Wilson Airport in Nairobi was chaotic. An ambulance came screaming up to the plane. The doctor and two men from the ambulance crew stood outside the open door observing me, discussing how to get me out of the plane (I am a substantial woman). “Guys, hey guys. Wait a minute,” I called from within the plane. “I can walk to the ambulance.” You could hear the sigh of relief.

Dangling O2 and IV tubings and carrying my left shoe, I hobbled down the stairs careful not to hook the looped IV tubing on the railing. Another stretcher waited at the bottom of the stairs. I cautiously sat, then lay back. Grunting and heaving, the three scrawny Kenyans attempted to lift their burden just six inches to get me into the ambulance. One red-faced man called out to another named “Kizito” to come help them. The irony was not lost on me, even in my guppy stage; Kizito in Swahili means “a heavy thing.” Wow, did they get that right! This poorly named “Kizito” actually was an emaciated Kenyan who stood about five-and-a-half feet tall, but that was enough to get me in the ambulance.

The day after I was admitted to the HDU (high dependency unit or ICU), Dr. Silverstein sent me for a high-density CT scan with contrast because my pulmonary artery pressure was sky high and he wanted to check for blood clots.

The HDU, like many ICUs, was a large room with curtained cubicles, with incessantly beeping machines and no privacy. I was the only foreigner. When I returned from the CT, it was visiting hours and many Kenyans stood in the relatively small space. The visitors, mostly men, spent more time staring at me than they did visiting with their family members.

I reached for my nurse call button, but it was hanging from the wall four feet away. The side rails on my bed were up from being transported to CT in the bed, and I could not sit up. My water was on the bedside table, shoved over in the corner of my little cubicle. The IV bottle and pump remained on the pole attached to the bed making the IV tubing too short for me to even lay my arm down by my side. My fever was spiking. I was agitated, thirsty, frustrated, and tired of being stared at! I could not see any of the nursing staff. Karen Crumpacker (a fellow missionary) was in the HDU waiting area behind the nurses’ station, unaware that I had returned. I panicked and did the only thing I could think of—I yelled, “Karen!”

That did it! My male nurse popped around the corner, and Karen rapidly emerged from the waiting area to come to my rescue. I cannot remember ever feeling so helpless, trapped, and panicked in my life. A little later the nurse came into my cubicle and Karen stepped back near the curtain to give him room. When she backed up, a visitor on the other side of the curtain must have felt something behind him and decided to feel around and see what was back there. All they found was Karen’s backside. The opportunity to laugh made the last feelings of panic fade.

Because the hospital was built in the early 1900s with many additions, it is quite a maze. There are a series of ramps to transport the patients. One is a long, two-story circular ramp I have personally traversed several times. The first time going up, the crew grabbed a janitor to help push. The second time, the nurse enlisted a visitor to help brace the bed going down so there would not be a run-away patient. The third time, he enlisted an accountant from a nearby office to push the bed.

The last time, the male nurse and female nurse thought they could do it themselves. We started down the ramp—and I could see panic on the man’s face at the foot of the bed. He had both feet braced on the floor and was sliding down the ramp backwards, faster than a ski slope. I could hear the woman at the head of the bed huffing and puffing sliding her feet, trying to slow the decent. The guy at my feet kept looking over his shoulder to see how fast the wall was approaching at the bottom of the slope. Just before we would have crashed, he extended his foot backwards while twisting his body and shock-absorbed the impact with his legs. Before we descended the next ramp, he went into a construction zone and brought back a carpenter carrying a hammer. With this burly assistant, we had no trouble with the second decent.

One good thing about showing up in an X-ray waiting room on a bed that no one can walk around is the fact that you’re the next patient. When the X-ray tech had me sit up on the bed to step to the X-ray machine, she clutched my unruly hair and asked, “What am I supposed to do with this? If I leave it down, it will cloud the chest X-ray.” Because of the IV in my hand, I had been unable to twist my hair up, and it was truly a wild mess. The tech then had the nurse give her a patient gown which she wound around my head and hair like a turban. There I stood, barefoot, purple gown, pale face, and mustard-yellow turban, hugging a flat metal plate with the image of a man’s chest drawn on it. When I could stand there and laugh at the image I made, I knew I was still alive—and so was my sense of humor.


Pamela Smoak and her husband, Richard, are veteran missionaries to the East African countries of Tanzania and Burundi. Her missions passions are Bible school training and literature translation into Swahili.

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