A Cook’s Finger, or, A Pearl Beyond Price, Part 2

Continued from January 7, 2010:

Africa landscape
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

In the beginning, dealing with Michel’s injured finger didn’t bring out the best in me.

Truthfully, I longed to wash my hands of my cook’s ineptness. I did not want to take the time to deal with any of it. And yet, seeing Michel disintegrating in pain, well, I knew that I had no choice. Like it or not, I was involved.

With a Burkinabe friend’s help, I found a local doctor willing to look at Michel’s finger that very same day. After waiting for hours at the doctor’s clinic, seated on long narrow wooden benches laden with more splinters than quills on a porcupine’s back, we finally saw the overworked doctor, who announced that he would have to amputate Michel’s finger within the next 24 hours.

Stunned, I could not believe it. Like a frightened toddler about to get a vaccination, Michel frantically clawed my arm, whimpering, “Non, non” without ceasing. Either that, the doctor said, or Michel would die from the systemic infection that was by now beginning to race through his blood stream like fire on gasoline.

Street scene Africa
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

With desperation, and not a little fear, I called Paulina Julia, the Embassy nurse, begging her to help Michel. She urged me to get Michel over to the Embassy Health Unit immediately and she would examine him.

Her news also was not good. Infection gnawed away at Michel’s flesh, now invading bone tissue. I shuddered, for the pain I knew Michel suffered had to be of the writhing variety. A splinter in a finger makes my whole body ache …

Amputation. The thought frankly horrified me. Deformity is never good, but in this harsh place, any disability is just one more strike against life. What would Michel’s life be like if the amputation took place? How would he cook, as bad as he was at that, much less clean? How would his family manage?

And then Paulina mentioned that perhaps a young French doctor — doing his required two-year public health stint in Burkina Faso before returning to France to private practice — could save Michel’s finger. A quick telephone call brought the young doctor bounding into the Embassy Health Unit within the hour. The prescription: Daily debridement of dead tissue, strong antibiotics, pain killers, and absolute cleanliness. Only that treatment might work to save Michel’s finger.

Africa house 4
The Embassy (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Every morning at 9 AM for two weeks, I drove Michel to the Embassy, and every morning the young French doctor and Paulina worked on Michel’s finger. On the day that we finally saw pink healthy tissue beginning to grow back, we danced, laughed, and hugged each other. The treatment was working!

Michel did not lose his finger. He did not die.

Paulina took no pay for her part in this act of mercy.

Photo credit: Nate Marsh

And the young French doctor asked only for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black whiskey, which I bought at the Embassy Commissary for a very low price.

And I am sorry, but I cannot remember that saintly young man’s name.

[Note: I doubt today that either Michel or the French doctor would be allowed so readily into our embassy. In our fear of the stranger today, we close off ourselves from healing both ourselves and others.]

© 2010 C. Bertelsen



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