A thirteen-year-old girl who’s having a spinal tap screams out, “It hurts, I’m hungry.”
When I began my most recent post a couple of days ago, my intention was to write about the above prompt, something I’d scribbled in a journal while reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. A nonfiction work about Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, Peru, and Russia, the book was a serious eyeopener for me. Tireless in his efforts to combat malaria and TB and general starvation and sanitation, Dr. Farmer was instrumental in starting Partners in Health.
Rereading the child’s cry in my journal sent me to the original source, the book itself. The passage was easy to find. I had folded back page 32, perhaps knowing I’d return to read it. “Wild cries erupt from the child….Farmer looks up, and for a moment he’s narrating Haiti again. “She’s crying, ‘It hurts, I’m hungry.’ Can you believe it? Only in Haiti would a child cy out that she’s hungry during a spinal tap.”
It’s probably been three or four years since I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, and yet I think of it often, not because I want to feel depressed, guilty, or ashamed but rather because I need reminders of how extremely fortunate we are in America. I never think twice about sanitation or clean water or vaccines. Okay, sometimes I think about the latter when I read about the latest measles epidemic or wonder when a case of polio is going to show up, but for the most part I take abundance for granted.
Five of my grandchildren visited us last weekend, and I made a run to Wally World for provisions. We could have gotten by with the food in the pantry, but because I love them and want everyone to have something he or she likes, I purchased extra bananas, three muffin mixes, apple juice, two kinds of cereal, and milk. Oh yeah, and a pizza found its way into the buggy, too…just in case. I couldn’t leave the frozen foods without snagging a box of Eggo mini mini-pancakes.
I didn’t have Dr. Farmer’s young patient in mind as I waltzed down Walmart’s aisles picking up goodies. I did, however, have a fleeting memory of a question an eye doctor in Myrtle Beach once asked me. It was only the second time I’d met him, and his question caught me off guard.
“How many children do you suppose go to bed hungry in America every night?” he asked.
Part of me wanted to remind him I was there for a contact lens check-up, not a heavy-duty discussion on the causes and consequences of hunger and malnutrition. But he had me. The question was one I had considered many times.
“I don’t know. But I saw a billboard on the way to the beach that said one in five children in South Carolina goes to bed hungry every night.”
“Hmmph. That’s crazy.”
He and I didn’t resolve anything that day. It’s a complicated issue. They’re all complicated issues, complex and interrelated. Until reading Kidder’s book, I’d never thought about the politics of health. To be honest, I still don’t. But I do wonder and fret about hungry children, cold children, sick children, fatherless children, motherless children (although there aren’t as many of those).
I have no answers. I just hope no one, child or adult, whines about not having grape jam when they really want strawberry within my earshot. Equally galling is hearing someone whine and pout about a meal prepared by a parent, grandparent, aunt, older sibling, or spouse. About the health issues, I learned from Kidder’s book that Cuba has meds and plenty of doctors for its people. How does Cuba do that?
The hungry thirteen-year-old getting the spinal tap lived in Haiti, but her plight is not unlike children all over the world. According to Dr. Farmer, “The only real nation is humanity.”
FYI. I didn’t mean to go overboard…just wanted to use the prompt.