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I Stared at the Face of Death on My Patient, and Cried

By Erin Pettengill, Jan 5, 2017

My ministry revolves around hosting medical clinics and teaching HIV/AIDS classes. Each clinic I can typically see about 25 patients in that time frame—this allows me to do patient education, which is what my heart loves. 

Today I was able to tell a diabetic the way to change his diet which will change his life. My patient, who has been a diabetic his whole life (needs insulin), had never received any type of this information before. In a country where the primary item on every dish is cups and cups of rice, this was hard information to process. But he listened intently, asked some great questions, and we both felt good about it as he left.

About halfway through my day a 22-year-old mom with her 4-month-old baby came to see me with "constant fever." Each patient here is responsible for their own medical information. They carry around with them their cuaderno—their notebook— where the doctors write down their visits, exam results, and the prescriptions they give them. The hospital does not keep medical records on the majority of their patients—this is the responsibility of each person. Upon reading her cuaderno, it became evident that both the young mother and her 4-month old baby were HIV positive. So I had to ask the next question, “Are you taking your meds?” To which she replied with a quavering voice, tears in her eyes, and without eye contact—no. 

I saw hopelessness
I took a deep breath—not because I was frustrated, not because I was angry, but because as I looked at her, I saw the look of death across her face. I saw hopelessness. I saw a young woman in her prime taken down by this disease, and my eyes wandered down to her baby as well. I took the deep breath because I needed time to think through this and figure out a way to help her, give me time to process.

So I talked about how beautiful she was, and how much life had to offer her. I told her that her baby needed his mother, and she needed to see her son grow up. I held her hand and made her look into my face as my own eyes welled up with unshed tears.

I told her I wanted to see her live! To not look death in the face—to let the medication do its job and how she could live for many decades more. She said she could "sneak" her baby in to get his meds at the hospital, and no one knew, but when she want to "that place" everyone knew why she was there, and she just couldn't bare that. She knew what people were thinking about her, and how ashamed she was. She "knew" it was her fault (her words). She knew the inevitability of her death, I could see it in her face. I could see the hopelessness and the helplessness. I could see that she knew it was only a matter of time. Her face told me this with her single look of despair. 

I told her that this is when she needed to be courageous—if not for her, then for her baby. She gently nodded her head, with her head bent deep, staring absently into the folds of her skirt.

You need to promise
I softly lifted her chin with my shaking hands, so her eyes were looking at mine. And I said to her, "You need to not just say it—you need to make me a promise." She looked back, and didn't say anything, her eyes darting back and forth to my eyes, trying to understand what I was asking, and her mind trying to decide what to do.

She finally looked at me and quietly answered. "Yes ... I promise." 

"You promise what?" I whispered in response to her comment. 

"I promise to you that I will go to the hospital and start taking my meds."

It was all I could do. I kissed her cheeks, she stood up, with her baby in tow. I bent my head, and the unshed tears came streaming down my cheeks. To feel so hopeless, helpless, rejected, and unloved—her lack of her own self-worth radiated from her as he walked away. 

She’d arrived alone, just she and her baby, and she was leaving alone. Abandoned and uncared for. And I was burdened. My heart ached. I felt it in my bones! If I could have done anything else I would have, but what I had done that day was give her a hand to hold, a kiss on the cheek, and tears to help share her burden, if just a little, and to tell her as much as I could that she was worth something, that she did matter, that she was a child of God and had so much left to give. And she’d made me a promise.

I pray it was enough.

Erin Pettengill
 is an MTW missionary serving in Equatorial Guinea.

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