Perhaps this isn't the photo you expected? Keep reading. Late August, always a time that turned our focus back towards school, now fills our Facebook feeds with smiling children perched on front porch steps, toting backpacks or lunch bags, dressed to face the new year. Little "L", above, is no exception. She's 6. The photo on the right if from fb last week. The one on the left is her about a week after she was born here at Kijabe. She had hydrops fetalis, meaning a severe heart failure and swelling of her whole body in utero. The mortality rate even in the most modern hospital is over 50%, and can be up to 98%. We struggled with her pleural effusions (water in lining of lungs) for weeks, and after too many chest tubes to count the paediatric surgeon got down to the last chest tube in the hospital, and we knew this was it. If she needed another, she'd die. But against all odds, she not only survived but is a cute, smart, normal 6 year old going to school. I guess if I had more former patients whose parents posted on fb (not exactly my usual population) I might see these miracles more often. But L's photo this week made me very, very happy. Happy for my Kijabe colleagues who worked so hard 6 years ago and still do. Happy to see this story unfold. Happy that NO ONE who watches L walk into her first days of school would every dream of her nightmare appearance at birth, her weeks on death's doorstep. Mardi hunted down the old photo, and so we get a time-lapse of redemption.
The next photo you'll have to imagine. Just up the hill, 4 young men the age of my own college kids have started Bible School at Moffatt. They are studying Counseling, and Community Development. And they are another snapshot of redemption. Because their entire life has been spent in civil war in South Sudan. A few months ago they were facing bullets and starvation. LAST WEEK they were shot at by thieves on the way to the airport for this course. They have all lost family members. Their life experience is nearly unimaginable. But after our team had to evacuate, they did not stop trying to help the people they had grown to love. Yes, there are thousands and millions more who did not get to escape. But for these four, a season in a country at peace, at a school, amongst people like the Massos who care about them, getting counseling themselves from our excellent and skilled Bethany, studying the Word of God, gaining skills they can take back . . . surely this is another first-day-of-school snap where the smiling faces represent triumph over very dire circumstances.
And lastly, two more first-day snapshots close to my heart. You'll notice a theme:
Jack returned to Duke for his sophomore year in Engineering; Julia was being dropped off in Washington DC where she will launch Saturday into a 3-month 3-continent comparative global health study abroad. They both flew into Charlotte a week apart, and my 80-year old mother drove them each to their programs and helped them settle in. They've been seriously ill in their childhoods, though not as sick as baby L. They've been shot at in their childhoods, though not as many times as the South Sudanese Bible students. But even for them, the first-day snapshots show a smiling and comfortable facade that would belie the struggle and trauma they have seen. They are embarking upon challenging semesters, with parents 7000 miles away, which is never a small thing.
I could go on and on, Ivan starting a bachelor's in nursing in a new University, Katuramu waiting for the Ugandan MOH to settle on internship arrangements, Luke plugging through his Neurology rotation, Caleb spending hours in 100-degree heat learning to fire a machine gun, Biira the daughter of the late Dr. Jonah starting a law degree, Noah my nephew starting college, Tanya my Kenyan colleague's daughter entering British school for two years because of her dad's surgical training. So many kids stepping into places they have never gone before, with no assurance of success, but with hope.
So this first-day-of-September, let us salute students everywhere who have overcome some steep challenges. Who have perhaps left their families or countries. Who have physical or mental or emotional hurdles most of us can only imagine. Students whose smiles and health seem to blend in with the crowd, because we may not know even a tiny portion of the struggle that has brought them to this point. It is the very poignant cost of their progress that will make them great, I know, but my heart wishes I could smooth each of their paths.