An Operation Called Hope
After a few days, a natural trust and camaraderie evolves between the American team and the Zimbabwean staff. Their wariness and reluctance to speak about the political situation subsides, and we start hearing what life is really like here. One nurse used to work in a clinic where rebels brought their wounded comrades and demanded treatment on pain of death. A medical student who makes $20 a month has a house payment of $250 a month, so he sold his car, took in relatives, and is now buying and selling sugar on the black market. Daisy, setting up the OR for the next day's procedures, gently teases one of the nurses who's trying to leave early; it turns out that she lives without electricity and is hoping to get home so that she can see her baby in daylight. When Daisy notices another nurse washing her underwear in a bathroom sink at the end of the day, she learns the woman has only one pair, and no running water at home. Before she leaves, Daisy gives the local nurses all the underwear and socks in her suitcase.
Jennifer brings lavender spray to freshen a small, dank space that her sister and daughter have dubbed "the mom room": It's where the parents (mostly mothers) wait for their children in surgery. Every child gets a new going-home outfit, selected from a prodigious collection provided by Jennifer's friends back in California, but they're so small for their age that Teryn has to convert their weight from kilos to pounds to figure out the appropriate size. Mari takes pictures of the moms with the "photo booth" function on her computer and conducts an impromptu art class, with drawings done on hole-punched cards that will be sewn together with yarn as a "quilt." (One card says "Thank you for the job well done in our country." Another has a stick figure and the words "This is a boy"—the girls in this culture tend to have close-cropped hair, and there's been some gender confusion.) Somehow we manage to communicate pretty well despite the language barrier, with a few comical slipups: When Jennifer tells a group of parents, "We'll take you to the floor now," everyone looks down at their feet. When the moms try to comfort their crying babies in the recovery room, they chant a soothing phrase that sounds like "so-ree, so-ree," and Nancy finally asks them to explain the Shona word, only to be told they're saying, "Sorry, sorry."
One of my jobs is helping the parents get into hospital gowns, caps, and booties, so they can walk into the OR with their children. Lisa tells one mom she can kiss her daughter before leaving, but the mom doesn't speak English, so Lisa and her whole team demonstrate with air-kissing. It's crucial that the kids not eat or drink anything within at least a couple of hours before surgery, but for Claudia, just explaining NPO (nothing per oral) orders can be challenging: One little girl has drunk something orange—is it juice? is it soda? is it a problem?—and her surgery must be postponed. The time that I fail miserably to communicate is when a woman arrives at the hospital with her 9-year-old son, too late to be put on the surgery schedule. I give her a "priority card" and, with the help of a Shona-speaking nurse, hope I've conveyed that the boy will be pushed to the front of the line when Operation of Hope returns in six months. Her face is weary and resigned as she accepts the slip of paper and thanks me. A few crazy hours later, I notice the two of them still standing in the hall outside the doors to the operating room. Gingerly, she comes over and says, in halting and heartbreaking English, "Is there hope for him?" I haven't been credible, haven't made her believe that she'll get the help she so desperately wants for her son.