Compassion at capacity
JUTICALPA, Honduras — Carlos Rivera didn’t seem to understand the…
JUTICALPA, Honduras — “It seems like an unnecessary risk,” one of the doctors told me the night before Erik Tryggestad and I headed to the COVID-19 unit at Hospital Regional San Francisco.
Driving to the hospital, these words echoed in my head and joined a chorus of my own doubts: Was this necessary? Were we motivated by some misplaced sense of duty? Did we actually need to go inside?
“It felt like we were on the cusp of death. Indeed we were, just not our own.”
Erik shared my hesitancy.
“We can decide at the hospital how close we actually need to be,” he said.
Why exactly I was nervous, I’m still unsure. I’m young and fully vaccinated. The worst fate that could have awaited me was an isolated room for two weeks. And yet, as the van pulled into the parking lot, it felt like we were on the cusp of death.
Indeed we were, just not our own.
A doctor and chaplain guided us through the hospital to another parking lot, where we were provided personal protective equipment, or PPE, and instructions on how to don it properly. Fastening our face shields, we met a doctor outside an open doorway and followed her inside.
I’d rehearsed this scene in my head based on my knowledge of U.S. hospitals: We’d enter the building, where there would be a series of doors cordoning off different sectors, giving me the option to stop before we reached a point of no return. Perhaps I’d watched too much TV.
Instead, Erik and I walked through the doorway directly into the middle of the ICU.
The room was small and crowded, lined by 10 beds sharing too little space, monitored by frantic doctors with too little equipment. Patients wore the bare minimum: hospital underwear and sheets. The air-conditioning, like the ward, was overwhelmed by the fevered bodies. The doctors told us hundreds had died.
Oxygen masks hissed, machines beeped, and doctors — wearing two masks and a face shield — yelled to be heard. The patients couldn’t breathe.
And neither could I.
I was not prepared for the sudden confrontation with such a concentrated amount of human suffering. I had reported on coronavirus testing and spoken with relatives of people who had died. But I hadn’t seen COVID-19 until I looked into a patient’s eyes and saw no one looking back.
Related: Compassion at capacity
Related: Compassion at capacity
As I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing, I reminded myself to do my job. “Find the shots that show the story. Respect the patients’ privacy,” I thought at least a dozen times.
The 30 minutes inside felt both like an instant and an eternity. Every wheezing cough and ragged breath slowed time. Every monitor alarm and oxygen mask hiss accelerated it.
When we left, we were welcomed back outside by diluted bleach spray, trash cans for PPE and a plastic bag to quarantine my camera. The goal was to leave with nothing more than the knowledge and imagery of what was inside.
I spent my evening trying to understand what I had experienced and why it mattered. Not until later that evening, when we were reunited with a Predisan Health Ministries team, did I find the answer.
“What was it like?” one person asked. “How was the hospital equipped?” another wondered. “How many patients did they have?”
With the outflow of questions, I found I had answers. The COVID unit for this region’s 500,000 people had 50 beds — 10 of those designated for critical patients — with zero ventilators. Overflow patients were being put in the hall.
I knew what the inside looked like, and I had the skills to express it. That is why we had to take the risk — it was a story that needed to be known.
AUDREY JACKSON is associate editor of The Christian Chronicle. Contact [email protected]
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