By Karen Alford
The last several weeks of March were all about death and dying. I suppose it was an appropriate precursor to Easter. I’ll tell you about just one of the several cases I’ve been dealing with, the one has been the closet to my heart.
Marie came to our wound care clinic about six months ago with untreated stage 4 breast cancer. Forty-three years old, married with three children, though her husband and two of her older children are living in Nigeria where her husband is working. Marie is Christian but most of her family practices local forms of voodoo/ancestral worship.
When she first became sick, relatives told her their family gods would heal her with herbal treatments. But then when the tumors in her left breast grew to the size of a grapefruit and became infected, she came to our clinic.
We initially sent her to a Baptist Mission hospital in the north that specializes in oncology, but they said it was too far advanced and that treatment wasn’t an option. She came back to Vogan, and we began treating her three times a week at our wound clinic to control the infection and provide palliative care. Since she speaks good English we became friends.
Her condition began to worsen and her health went into severe decline. She became too weak to come to the clinic so we started making home visits to her village, about 40 minutes from Vogan on bad roads.
We knew her time was getting close.
A women’s Bible study group in the United States heard of her plight and was sending money to supplement her care, so we were able to buy things like protein powder when she stopped being able to eat.
Then March 21st at 8 p.m., there was a knock at my door. Her sister was there and Marie was sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi being held up by the driver.
Marie whispered that the pain was too much and asked that I clean her wounds. Cleaning her wounds was not going to take the pain away but I knew that was not what she meant. She was desperate for relief of any kind.
Given the time of night and condition of the roads, I can’t imagine the agony that drove her to make that journey in the dark especially as weak as she was.
So we went to the clinic. I called Hammer, the pastor who runs the Mission, because knew this situation called for pastoral counseling more than anything. He called another staff to join me. By the time the two of them showed up, I had cleaned her wounds, but she was restless, couldn’t get comfortable, and kept telling me to hurry. Then she started talking about how all she wanted to do was sleep.
By then I knew what was happening. I told her to relax and let herself sleep, then stroked her hair as she started Kussmaul breathing…Literally, in minutes she passed.
The other staff, Dela (who is young and had never seen anyone die), helped me clean her up, and Hammer brought us sheets to wrap her in. Her sister was beside herself with grief and we decided it was best if I drove them back to their village so they wouldn’t have to worry about keeping her upright on the motorcycle all that way. Plus it is what I wanted to do for her anyway. We had been on this journey together for almost 6 months and it felt right that my last act be to return her physical body “home.”
We got to her village by 10 p.m., but then things got weird.
Turns out if a person has a cut or physical injury or deformity that is related to the cause of death (like huge tumors sprouting from her breast), he/she cannot be buried in the regular family grave plot, but rather has to be buried somewhere else far away. So they had to call in their extended family, make blood sacrifices in their house and consult with the local gods for guidance. We sat in plastic chairs outside waiting because they refused to take her body out of the car.
Hammer was angry, saying this was backward. They should have taken her into the house, then started deliberations which would have freed us to go. Basically, they were not wanting to take responsibility for her. Finally at 11 p.m., when we were about ready to just take her body out and leave it in front of their house, they came and got her. I got home by midnight, exhausted and numb. You’d think after doing health care all these years I’d have better boundaries for these kinds of things, but I never do.
With Easter just a few weeks later, it was impossible to not ponder the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death in light of Marie’s own suffering and passing.
I found comfort in Richard Rohr’s Good Friday meditation where he reminds us that Jesus dies for us “in solidarity with all human suffering.” And he quotes James Alison suggesting that Jesus does this to prove his love to us. I am comforted that Marie died knowing that.
I am also deeply relieved she is not suffering anymore and glad she came seeking help in her final moments. Part of me thinks she wanted to be at the clinic because that is where she always received comfort and love. And as I said, we have become friends. Her family is not terribly functional and did not give her good care at home for a variety of complex reasons. Sometimes providing comfort and healing in my line of work is not about helping the physical body at all.
I am even more grateful that we serve a living God who gave up his life to show us that through Him, death has no victory, death has no sting. To quote Rohr again from the same meditation: “On the cross, the veil between the Holy and the unholy is torn and the ‘curtain of his body’ becomes a ‘living opening’ (Hebrews 10:20). We all can enter the Holy of Holies, which is the very heart of God. Nothing changed in heaven on Good Friday, but everything potentially changed on earth!”
Karen Alford is a CBF field personnel serving in Vogan, Togo, West Africa. You can learn more about and support her ministry at www.cbf.net/alford.