Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays bring dressing changes in the burn unit. This means that every patient—as many as 42, plus the many others who come in from home just to get their dressings changed--line up at the end of the hallway and wait their turn, while 3-4 intrepid nurses unwind and wind miles of bandages, slather ointments, and squirt morphine into their mouths. Except when there is no morphine. Then it’s diclofenac, which is, I imagine, the equivalent of getting a swig of ibuprofen right before you get scalped alive.
Walk with me. From the outside, down a dark hallway filled with people, toward the light at the back and up the stairs, three flights. The staircase is open to the outside and on each flight there's a big window with a view of the city--today it's hazy and hot, so the buildings are distant under a screen of red dirt and smog--but it's not airy or breezy. The stairs are worn from countless people walking up and down it for years, and on the second flight a woman wearing yellow wellington boots is mopping, with a broom that's seen better days and concrete-colored water. On the third floor we briefly bump along behind two policemen, big guns swinging freely, talking exuberantly and walking oh-so-slooooooowly—and finally we arrive on the third floor, and walk down the hallway to 3B, the burn unit.
Before you open the door, take a little deeper of a breath, for you're about to experience that smell. On a good day you manage to take 3 steps inside before it hits--the odor of maize meal cooked into grits-like porridge, or a paste, or a hard cake (nsima); of bodies, urine and boiled cabbage, dirty wounds, feet, doughnuts, and fear--and then you see the mother carrying her five year old daughter wrapped up like a mummy with an IV tube sticking out of her neck--and you feel ashamed for even noticing the smell.
There are six rooms, 4 beds each, lining the hallway to your right. Linking them is the open breezeway down which you’re walking, which opens onto a shared courtyard where people dry their laundry and family members cook their meals. On the other side of the rooms is another hallway, the khonde, or “outside,” which becomes another long communal room during the months when there are more patients in the unit than there are beds. During the cold season—June, July, August—the khonde is full.
Two boys, aged four and six, one with a bulky bandage around his leg and the other with a belly dressing, are playing with a glove balloon, and you toss it back and forth with them for a little while, their smiles lighting up the day.
Next, the nurses soak the bandages in saline to help with removal. Since there are 42 patients and 3 nurses, waiting for a complete soak would take way too long. Some of the kids start screaming in the hallway; some when the mothers take them on their laps; some with the morphine; but all of them are screaming by this point. These kids are burned over 10-40% of their bodies, on average; over all possible body parts; in two main ways: they scald themselves or catch themselves on fire. It's the cold season in Malawi, no one has heat at home, and very few people have stoves; cooking happens over open fires, outdoors, and accidents happen frequently. Malawi is burnin', y'all:
It's the absence of skin that exposes its absolute necessity. This six year old girl being unwrapped now has full thickness burns (what we used to call third degree) over 55% of her body: anterior and posterior thorax, both legs, both arms, a bit of face and neck, buttocks. Her big, deep brown eyes look at me with tears trickling down her cheeks as her mother’s helper raises the IV bag above her head and arranges it so the tubing is not kinked. This is a bad burn: flame generally causes deeper burns than hot water, and in this case, it looks like her clothes were on for some time, and the contact did a lot of damage. Like countless others, she was playing with her friends and tripped into a fire, where her clothes caught the flame. She cries, but not much: a bad sign. Although we teach that full thickness burns are insensate, since by definition the heat has destroyed the skin's sensory apparatus, not everything burns to the same depth, and partial thickness areas surround most full thickness burns—and those do feel pain. Her name is Chisomo, meaning Grace. She will die in 3 days.
I think about the ones we can’t save, back home, and here. I hold on to them for motivation to keep studying, keep waking up, keep leaving my family, and keep trying—and to honor their memory, although I see them usually only in a dehumanized form, although I know them usually only as bodies wrapped in dressings and not as children chasing goats, eating mangoes or diving into the lake. Knowing what makes a patient human makes me a better doctor but it also hurts more—and many times I don’t want to admit they are people because doing so makes me transiently incapable of returning to work. It’s like this in the States and it’s definitely like this here. The constant blur of activity insulates you from processing both the good and the bad, but both stay with you, and sometimes when you get a breather it all comes out, and it’s very hard to figure out what to do with all of it—so I try to just notice it and not cry, and carry on, because in the end, there are more of the ones who get to be human again than the ones who don’t, and so you keep going. As shown by the parents and patients in this burn unit, every day, with their smiles, their high fives, and their endurance, despair is a luxury. Ain’t nobody got time for that.