Les Roberts – “Day 42: 21 days since touching the hand of god”

Les Roberts – Freetown, Sierra Leone – November 15th

Day 42: 21 days since touching the hand of god

My very favorite thought from any poem or song is Louis Armstrong singing, “I hear babies crying, I’ll watch them grow.  They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.And I think to myself what a wonderful world.” 

I suspect that very few of us can really be at peace with the profound implications of the selflessness of that thought.  It seems to me it is the distillation of all that constitutes love of mankind. For people who crave the bandwidth of others, that want to be widely remembered after they are dead, who want to become Full Professors or have their music adored by millions, this is a thought inconsistent with their aspirations and lives.

I like to think that I aspire to be selfless. I take comfort that since leaving school I have never allowed pay to affect if I took a job (and because I have had fantastic bosses who always have looked out for me, especially at Columbia, I have usually been overpaid), I have never asked for a raise or a title. On the six occasions that I and Mary Grace have decided that something was more important than me, I have worked hard (but not perfectly) to never allow wanting to stay alive to curb what I did or where I went. But, if I am completely honest, it is easy to do the right things for slow intellectualized decisions where logic and reason can grapple with, and control, one’s inner workings. What is so great about the Satchmo lines is that he just exuded that love was his unprocessed default.

Three weeks ago today, I was in a quarantined village where my mates were building a Community Care Center (CCC). The town had perhaps a dozen sick people waiting in their homes. I have a bit of a zealous craze about giving and promoting Oral Rehydratation Solutions (ORS) use for Ebola patients stuck at home so as we left I gave a hundred sachets to a couple of young men hanging out playing checkers. They were completely familiar with ORS and I asked them to make sure every housebound Ebola case in the village had some and was encouraged to drink several liters per day. They were so grateful for something useful to do while trapped in their village! I got back in the front passenger seat, and as we pulled away, a man ran out of a hut, and up to the driver’s window gesturing to stop the car. With a look of fear, exhaustion, and helplessness on his face, he said, “My mother is very sick here,” gesturing to the open hut door behind him, “can’t you help her?” The plea was directed at me as I was in the chief’s seat. I was saddened, told him there were no open hospital beds to take her, and fell into my well-rehearsed line, “Do you know how to use ORS?” He did not answer and just looked dazed so I explained about one sachet per liter, and how if she went to the hospital, this would be the most important medicine they would give her… I then reached down into my bag and took out about a dozen sachets of ORS. He reached across in front of the driver and put out both cupped hands. As I handed him the bundle, my left pinky touched his right index finger.

I am not sure I was ever so electrified and aware of the contact of  human flesh, I suspect not even as an adolescent in initial romantic encounters. And the sensation I felt was sheer horror and revulsion. I said some pat drivel to him about getting her to drink as much as she can, and right away, he thanked me… so I hope he did not see my inner workings, but I cannot be sure. In my head, thought fragments formed and broke with dizzying speed: might I kill Mary Grace… no I am not leaving for 5 weeks, phew. I have openly committed to not being medivacked and squandering $500,000 to increase the chances of survival by 20%… but the British military facility to which I assumed I would go was weeks late in opening…  I said to the driver under my breath, “Let’s go, let’s go” as I kept my left elbow bent and my hand sticking out in front of me.  We pulled away and I turned to a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) colleague in the back seat and said, “Do you have your hand sanitizer? I just touched his hand.” He poured a puddle in my right hand and I stuck the part of my left pinky that had touched the man in the gel.  I let it sit there for about 30 seconds and then spread the gel around my left hand.  In case Mauricio’s gel was bad, I asked another colleague if I could have some more and I repeated the process.  As we drove, I then hung both hands out the window in the heat and the sun for a few minutes (until the car developed a flat… and the car did not have a spare, or a working jack… but that is another story).

That man with the dying mother was in a hell of helplessness that I will hopefully never be able to fully appreciate. He needed empathy and love… Louis Armstrong kind of love… like few I will ever meet. I hope a professional veneer protected him from knowing that instead he triggered in me quite the opposite feeling. It might be understandable, but with 21 healthy days of hindsight, I can’t help but have this sinking feeling that I am not on my last life.




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