From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

One Life at a Time

As our car slowly made its way through the crowded streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital of 2 million people, I thought I knew what to expect. As leader of the American Voluntary Medical Team (AVMT), I had seen great suffering and devastation in Iraq, Nicaragua and Calcutta. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in Bangladesh.

I traveled there with a group of AVMT doctors, nurses and other volunteers after a series of devastating cyclones hit the tiny country in 1991. More than 100,000 people had been killed, and now, because flooding had wiped out clean water and sanitation systems, thousands more were dying from diarrhea and dehydration. Children were dying from polio and tetanus, diseases nearly forgotten in the United States.

As we drove to the hospital where we were to set up a clinic, I thought I knew what we were up against: humid, scorching days, heavy rains and crowded conditions. After all, since Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan more than twenty years earlier, some 125 million people live in an area slightly smaller than the state of Wisconsin.

I glanced out the window at the street teeming with people: men talking in groups, women dressed in bright red and yellow saris, and children chasing each other, darting in between the many carts and rickshaws.

Then I looked more closely. The people were walking through raw sewage. A man stepped over a body in a doorway, just as one of the many body carts pulled up to haul it away. At a busy corner, I saw a woman standing very still, holding a small bundle, a baby. As I watched her face, she pulled her shawl back slightly, and I clearly saw her baby was dead. I suddenly thought of my own healthy children at home, and tears stung my eyes. I’d never seen anything so horrible.

The following day, I decided to ride out to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in old Dhaka. A friend had asked me before I left home to visit and see what medical help they needed.

Two of the Little Sisters of the Poor greeted me at the gate and immediately led me to the infant floor. I was astonished to find 160 babies, mostly girls, squalling for attention from the few hardworking sisters.

“There are so many,” I said, amazed.

“Some were given up because their parents couldn’t feed them,” one sister said.

“And others were abandoned because they are girls,” said another. She explained that often females are aborted or killed at birth because they are considered inferior in the male-dominated culture. What little food there is must go to males.

The irony struck me hard. These baby girls were society’s throwaways, yet what had I seen today? Women everywhere: working in the rice fields outside the city, herding children through crowded Dhaka, trying to earn a living by selling trinkets on the street, and here, at the orphanage, caring for the forgotten.

“A couple of the babies have serious medical problems,” the sister said. “Would you like to see them?”

I followed her down a row of basket-style cribs to the tiny, sick little girls, both about two months old. One had a heart condition, the other, a severe cleft lip and palate.

“We can’t do much more for them,” the sister said. “Please help them. Whatever you can do will be a blessing.”

I held each baby, stroking each girl’s soft, dark hair and gazing into their small faces. How my heart ached for these innocent angels. What kind of a future did they face, if they had a future at all?

“I’ll see what we can do,” I said.

When I returned to the clinic, hundreds were waiting for treatment and much work needed to be done. I’m not a medical person, so my job is varied: I run the pharmacy, track down medicine when we run out, negotiate with local officials for equipment or transportation, and scout the patient line for critical cases.

By day’s end, my head was swimming. The helpless babies’ cries and the hundreds of faces on the streets and in our clinic all seemed to express the same thing—hopelessness. The thought startled me. These people are without hope. Even Calcutta had not seemed so bleak. Without hope. I repeated the words in my mind, and my heart sank. So much of what AVMT tries to do is give hope.

My inspiration was a woman who had dedicated her life to giving hope to others—my grandmother. We called her Lulu Belle, and she practically ran the Mississippi River town of Cairo, Illinois. She wasn’t the mayor or a town official, but if a jobless man came to her back door, she’d call everyone she knew until she found the man work. Once, I came through her kitchen door and was startled to find a table full of strangers eating supper.

“A new family in town, Cindy,” she said, as she set the mashed potatoes on the table and headed to the stove for the gravy. “Just tryin’ to give ’em a good start.” I later learned theman hadn’t yet foundwork, and Lulu Bellewas making sure his family had at least one hotmeal every day.

Lulu Belle had great faith, and it made her stronger than any woman I knew. Her favorite Bible verse was a simple one: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She believed that if you treated people right, the way you would want to be treated, God would do the rest. So she never worried about where the job or the food would come from—she knew God would provide it.

But God seemed so far away in Bangladesh. I struggled with that thought at our morning meeting. We were set up in a clinic near Rangpur, in the northern part of the country, and our team had gathered to go over the day’s schedule. At the meeting’s end I told them what I tell every team: “Remember, we’re here to give hope.” But the words caught a little in my throat as I wondered how we would do it. Where would hope come from for these people, especially the women, so overwhelmed by disease, poverty and circumstance?

Already, 8,000 people were lined up for treatment. Scouting the line, I noticed something peculiar. All of them were men, many quite healthy. Not until I reached the end of the line did I see any women and children, and most of them looked very sick, some near death. My heart pounded as I realized what was happening. The men expected to be seen first, even if they were perfectly healthy. The women could wait.

I wondered what I should do. I remembered the woman I’d seen on the street, holding her dead baby, perhaps because she couldn’t get care quickly enough. I thought of the abandoned babies in the orphanage, and anger and frustration welled up inside me.

Maybe a bit of Lulu Belle was with me as I rushed past the line and back inside the clinic to tell the doctor in charge what was going on. He was as upset as I was.

“Well, what do you think?” he asked. “We can either see all these well men, or we can get the sick women and children up front.”

“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s do what we came here for.”

I ran back outside and asked the interpreter to tell the men at the front to step aside. He did, and immediately I heard a disgruntled murmuring rumble through the crowd. The men were angry and the women were afraid to come forward. The interpreter repeated the announcement, and as we tried to get the crowd to move, a scuffle broke out and soon soldiers appeared, their guns strapped across their chests. They tried to restore order, but several men still pushed to the front of the line.

“Tell them no,” I said to the interpreter, gathering all the courage I had. “Tell them we treat the sick women and children first or we fold up the clinic.”

The men looked at me for a moment, then backed down and began letting the women forward. The fear and sadness I’d seen on the women’s faces gave way to joy as they rushed to enter the clinic first. They smiled at me, grasping my hands and arms in thanks.

As one woman stretched out her hand to give me a flower, our eyes met, and I saw something incredible: hope. Now I understood. We didn’t have to pull off a miracle. It was what my grandmother believed about doing unto others what was right. And out of that simple act, God had brought life-affirming hope.

Our doctors and nurses saved lives that day, and treated thousands during our two weeks in Bangladesh. When it was time to come home, I returned by way of the orphanage, to bring the two sick babies I’d seen back to the United States for treatment. On the plane home, I knew I’d have a surprise for my husband—that we would be adopting one of them, now our beautiful Bridget.

Several months later, I had the privilege of meeting with Mother Teresa about Calcutta’s medical needs. In her beautifully simple way, she crystallized what I had felt in Bangladesh.

“How do you deal with the overwhelming needs, the disease, the death?” I asked.

“You look into one face,” she said, her voice filled with peace, “and you continue the work.” And know that God will do the rest.

Cindy Hensley McCain

As told to Gina Bridgeman

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