Since our return to Addis from Zuwai, we had a couple of days to rest from our adventurous journey to grass-root Ethiopia. Although I was still feeling the aftershock effects of my illness, mainly in the form of diarrhea, I soon got better after taking one day's dose of Cipro. On Tuesday, our deworming team received the chance to meet with the executive director of Mekedim, Mengestu, an HIV patient himself. Mengestu was responsible for making sure that Mekedim's activities were moving in the direction of fulfilling its vision and goals to fight HIV in the area. Mengestu told us that Mekedim was facing challenges in terms of paying its employees and that the lack of a CD4 machine in the Mekedim clinic meant that patients had to be referred to the hospital to receive an accurate antibody count. However, progress had been made in the deworming effort, as the number of HIV patients infected with NTDs had decreased from 30 to 15 percent. We thanked him for all the help and cooperation he and his team had provided us in collecting samples and in organizing the volunteers. Due to issues of privacy and stigma, we were unable to go with the Mekedim volunteers house to house to distribute deworming drugs. However, in place of that we got the chance to observe one of Mekedim's physicians, Dr. Dagnachew, treat Mekedim's HIV clients for various illnesses. We learned from Dr. Dagnachew that ART drugs are freely accessible and provided at no cost, but some patients refused to take them due to their belief that they are healthy and that there is no need to take them. We saw one patient who had a HIV induced neurological disorder known as peripheral neuropathy, which was caused by an opportunistic infection known as topoplastic gonde and was associated with the patient constantly shivering his hand. In another case, we saw an example where ART was doing more harm than good. The side effect of an ART drug known as D-40 was causing severe side effects of muscle dystrophy and metabolic disorder in the patient. Dr. Dagnachew, also a senior cancer oncologist at the Blackline hospital in Addis, told us that cancer was a growing problem in the country and is currently more expensive and harder to treat than HIV. In addition, he mentioned that care for the terminally ill was very scarce and that in fact, there is only hospice in the whole of Ethiopia that was located in Addis. There was also a complete absence of soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the country, which explained the constant presence of street beggars in the city.
For the remainder of that week, we volunteered at the Mother Teresa orphanage, also known as the Missionaries of Charity Children's Home. Almost everyone at some point in their life has come across the name Mother Teresa. Many more are well familiar with the inspiring work that she undertook as a missionary in Calcutta, India to combat the violent forces surrounding the most vulnerable and needy populations: the destitute sick. Anytime one comes across one of the thousands of Missionaries of Charities houses for the destitute sick or a Missionaries of Charity orphanage, one can be sure that the experience, however brief it might be will be life changing. Our team received the opportunity to serve at the Missionaries of Charity Orphanage in Addis these past two days. Although I had on a couple of occasions visited a similar type of orphanage run by nuns in Kerala, India with my grandparents where many of the orphans were disabled, this was my first real experience of actually serving at one.
We arrived at the orphanage on the first day, a little late in the afternoon after our Mekedim meeting in the morning and our change of plan for drug distribution. We were immediately greeted by a couple of enthusiastic orphans. They were keen on asking us to either hit a soccer ball with them or push them on the swing. We also saw quite a few Europeans at the location, whom we would soon learn were a Spaniard team that had come to do physical therapy with the disabled kids. There was also a mother and daughter pair from Italy who had also come to serve at the house. After waiting for about half an hour, we finally met the sister in charge of running the orphanage, Sister Joan of Arc. She was a fair white woman, clad in the simple blue and white striped dress pioneered by Mother Teresa and worn by all the Sisters that belonged to the Order of Missionaries of Charity. She was happy to have us there, even though it was only for a couple of days and told us to come around 8:30 the next morning, which is around breakfast time for the kids.
When we arrived at our location the next day, all of the kids had just finished eating breakfast. The Spanish team, which consisted of about 10 or 12 people in total, was helping to feed the kids and in the process of cleaning them up. As we awkwardly stood there, wondering what our next step should be, a really kind and warm voice greeted us. It was a woman by the name of Julia, who apparently seemed to be leading the Spanish team and who told us that we could help cleaning up the kids who had finished eating their breakfast.
Once this was done, those kids who could freely walk and run went out to play soccer or ride on the merry-go round or on the swing, while those kids that were disabled were taken by the Spanish team for physical therapy. I found it really interesting to watch the Spanish volunteers do the therapy and was totally engrossed by the whole affair. At each bed, there was a team of two, one man and a woman. Each pair was doing a series of therapy procedures on a disabled kid that began from the leg up, all the way to the eyes including the upper body and arms. Many of the volunteers were softly singing to their therapeutic subjects, as this also helped in the healing procedure. I was really impressed by how organized and smoothly they carried out the whole procedure. Ever since they were orphaned at a young age, many of these kids had never received adequate physical activity or care. Therefore, their muscles had atrophied and their joints stiffened, which immoblized them from freely moving around.
I spent the whole day alternating from watching the Spanish volunteers carry out the therapy and questioning them about what they were doing, as well as playing soccer and basketball with kids, swinging them on the swing, teaching a couple of them some English, and making new little friends. We got to feed the kids during lunchtime. Although the two kids I tried feeding at first was a failure, as they either didn't want me to feed them or just rejected the food, I was quite successful on the third one, who seemed to be quite hungry and finished his entire bowl of pasta.
One of my new and tiny friends I had made that day was a cute and chubby bald headed kid by the name of Amitu. Although he was restrained constantly to a stroller, he always seemed to be happy and was quite enthused to learn Mary had a little Lamb from me. It was so heart-warming to hear his toddler voice try to repeat ‘little lamb, little lamb’. He also kept on repeating Eya Eya yo and although at first I was a little unsure about what he was trying to say. However, I soon understood that he was asking me to sing Old McDonald had a Farm, after he followed the Eya Eya yo sounds with a long moo. Another one of our little friends, who was equally as cute as Amitu and who was quite eager to say Hello all the time and to play around with us, was Dembelash. Although his mother was alive, she was a patient in the neighboring house for the sick, as she was living with TB. We all came back home after our first day, thoroughly exhausted but truly fulfilled.
On our second day, we arrived around the time when breakfast was finishing up and helped to move the disabled kids for therapy. Next, I went to the classroom where Braveen and Thanurshan were teaching kids some math and I decided that I would spend some time with one of the naughtier kids in the group. It seemed that he had a form of attention deficit disorder. One of the girls signaled to me that he didn't belong in the classroom, as he didn’t know his alphabet and was always up to some mischief. He had a hard time sitting down even for a second and in concentrating on any one task. It seemed that the rest of the kids were happy enough to learn from us and that he was the only presence of chaos in that classroom. After the girl had kicked him out of the classroom, I decided that it was only right that I spent some time trying to educate this outcast among outcasts. My efforts with this kid were comparable to a scene from the movie, the Miracle Worker, except for the fact that this kid wasn't blind and deaf like Helen Keller. I had to use all my strength to keep the kid in one place and from running around the classroom. Even then, he had a hard time listening to me or following the trace of the alphabet A. Eventually I had to give up and helped Dembelash, who was sympathetic with my attempt and jumped onto my lap to learn how to trace the letter A.
Around this time, there was quite a commotion near the compound gate and I saw a couple of the girls in the classroom dash out to join the crowd of mothers and children crowding around a group of sisters that had just arrived. After the commotion had subsided, I went out to meet them and soon to my astonishment I met two sisters from India, one who was actually from my state of Kerala. It fell surreal to speak a few brief moments of Malayalam with her. The other Indian sister was named Sister Deepthi Priya was originally from Calcutta. While she was the superior sister at the house in Mekele, the other sister from Kerala was the superior for the house at Awasa.
After this, I spent some time swinging a couple of kids, but when one fell off from the swing and scraped a good amount of skin right above his right eye, I decided that I had enough of pushing swings and see-saws. I went with one of the sisters to bandage up the kid. After she had given him a lollipop and he had quieted down, I went to watch and learn the therapy procedures from two of the Spanish volunteers. I helped them to stabilize the kids on the mats and held the kids still, while they carried out their procedures and sang their almost never ending list of Spanish songs. Soon, it was lunchtime and after all the kids had been assembled in the dining room, we fed them lunch as we had done the previous day. Again, I was only successful on the third attempt and a little later, I was feeding the very same kid who had fallen off the swing.
In the afternoon, Braveen and I along with another Indian medical student from the U.S., attempted to do the therapy procedures we had watched earlier that day and soon realized that some of these kids were just too stiff to fully carry out the therapy. I also realized that I needed more observation and practice, before I fully learned the complete list of procedures that the Spanish team conducted. I spent the majority of the afternoon as a guard for the Spanish team trying to keep out a couple of the naughty kids, who were keen on disrupting the therapy procedure. One of them was my attention deficit friend from the morning, who once caught with his accomplices, pretended to be disabled and crumbled to the floor. It was quite a tiring yet amusing experience watching one of the kids steal the glove bag from the volunteers, being stopped and then being carried out, only to reappear a few moments later through the easily swingable door through the therapy room.
One of the last, but most heart-felt experiences I had that day was when I had to hold a tiny new baby that had come from another house with the contingent of visiting sisters. I don't think there are enough words to describe the moment, but I realized that just holding that tiny baby and later keeping his attention with a play toy was one that I will treasure. All in all, it was again a most tiring day, but again so fulfilling.
During the weekend, the weather cleared up and was actually sunny enough that the Spanish team decided to move the beds outside and conduct therapy there. This time, I actually received the chance to do some of the therapy procedures. I got to help with the butterfly extension that included moving the arm and leg in one fluid motion, rolling the child on the bed and conducting the finger exercises.
Monday was our last day at the orphanage. We helped as usual with the physical therapy, helping to feed the kids and playing soccer with the kids. We also met with Sister Carmen to see what we could do in the future. She gave us the address to which we could package books, toys and other items for the orphanage. We also received the chance to see the extent to which Missionaries of Charity outreach reached throughout the world. A world map showed that a total of 710 houses existed throughout the world, across 5 different continents. Most of them were in India. We also saw some pictures of sisters, mostly Indian that had been martyred in tough locations such as Sierra Leone and Yemen. Finally, we bid good-bye to the Spanish therapists, the sisters and the children, all of whom we had really gotten attached towards in a span of few days.
Even though I've always had high respect for nuns, my respect for the sisters at the orphanage and the other women who look after these children on a daily basis grew to a new peak. The work that they do is so totally selfless like the very example they follow from Christ. It's perhaps one of the few types of work that one can truly feel a sense of inner peace and calm at the end of the day.
I realized as I left the orphanage that there is quite no other place like that home. It seemed to be in a world of its own. It was a magical place filled with the charming innocence of orphaned kids and with the selfless service of the sisters and the unity of volunteers of all color and race for one common cause: to make the day of an orphaned child a little brighter. Here, there were no wars, except for the occasional, amusing ones with a naughty non-disabled kid pretending to be handicapped in order to get some attention from the assorted team of ferengi volunteers and trying to stop these very same naughty ones from stealing and running away with the physical therapy supplies. Although we returned each day from the orphanage totally exhausted, we always left with a sense of unique satisfaction and fulfillment. I will never quite forget the connections we made with the other volunteers, the sisters, and the children all in the course of service.