The Not-So-Ordinary

There are some days of living in west Africa that I just want to remember. Not because anything extraordinary happened, but rather because what ordinarily happens is just so unordinary. Sometimes I can’t believe what happens in a “regular” day. And it’s funny: I used to think the western world I grew up in was the norm and that Africa was the exception because of poverty. In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. In most things – wealth, social structure, access to jobs and health care, literacy, even the size of your house and the amount of clothes you own – the United States is the exception; the majority world is the norm. 

Today was one of those days – just a totally “normal” day – but I write about it because it doesn’t just represent a day, it represents an entire lifetime. 

It was a pretty crazy day, but I’ve gotten somewhat used to crazy being the new normal. Our four bed labor and delivery unit was constantly full. As soon as one bed opened, another person came and filled it. Since we were short staffed, I was working with another nurse who hadn’t done maternity nursing since clinicals in nursing school. It was her first time working in this unit, and I think we officially scared her off. I kept telling her that maternity is not always like this (although that might have been a slight misrepresentation) because if it was, she would never come back. We kept joking about how this was her initiation. She handled it like a champ. 

All in a day’s work:

One patient was getting her third blood transfusion because she arrived with a hematocrit of 7. Normal range might be considered 30-50. Anything less than 25 merits a blood transfusion at our hospital. I didn’t know you could be alive with a hematocrit of 7 and a hemoglobin of 2. 

Women deliver without any form of pain medication, and they don’t complain about it. 

We did a cesarean on a woman whom we believed to be 41 weeks pregnant, but later realized she was only 33 weeks after an incorrect dating mishap. Six hours after her surgery, she took 400mg of Ibuprofen and then got up and walked. 

A woman came in whose water had broken prematurely at 32 weeks gestation, but she waited four days to come to the hospital. 

We discharged a baby who didn’t breathe normally on his own for two hours after birth despite long resuscitation efforts. He was proclaimed dead and handed to the family to hold as he passed. Two hours later, the family called me over to look at the baby, who had started to breathe somewhat regularly on his own, so we initiated resuscitation and care all over again, and he lived. We have yet to see how extensive his deficits may be, but he is breastfeeding and interactive, so today he was discharged and went home. It really doesn’t make sense, but we stand in awe. We call him baby Lazarus. 

Three of my patient’s names were Nossoro, Nokouma, and Nossokou (or something like that…I still can’t get it straight). Two of them had the same first name. Two of their charts got confused and it took twelve hours for anyone to figure it out. 

A woman offered me her newborn baby boy as a husband. 

I ran over my foot with an incubator and totally destroyed my toe. I already had a bummed thumb that was bandaged. One of the moms kept making fun of me for working with only nine fingers and one foot. 

I got lunch at 3 pm and spotted a mouse in the kitchen. 

You can’t make up these sort of unbelievable cases and stories. I’m tempted to write more, but I’ll limit myself just to what happened in one day. Sometimes nursing here feels like putting out one fire after another. Yet even in the craziness, there are moments that matter, moments like these:

A tiny green grasshopper was hopping around the desk as I was charting. I put it on my shoulder, and surprisingly, it stayed there. When I limped over on my bleeding toe to get a blood pressure on my patient undergoing the blood transfusion, I pointed him out. “Look,” I said, pointing to my shoulder. She raised her hand to swat him off, but I stopped her. “No, leave him. He likes me. He’s my friend.” I hadn’t seen her smile in three days until just then. She thought that was hilarious, and my own heart lightened just to see her smile at a tiny green grasshopper. 

My post-op C-section lady had received an anesthetic that made her very groggy and kind of out of it. As a result, she didn’t handle waking up to the pain very well, and she became very demanding and whiny, calling me over every five minutes to ask for a sip of water or for me to adjust her sheets or reposition her. Just when I was getting annoyed, she called me yet again, and I went over to ask her what it could possibly be this time. “Thank you,” she whispered. My heart softened. “You’re welcome, of course. Is that all?” “That’s all,” she said, and turned over and closed her eyes.

At the end of the day, I crashed on my bed and just thought about everything that happened all in one day. Hard work. Mistakes. Injuries. Disappointments. Conflict. Miracles. And moments. All in one day. Every bit of it mattered to construct the story of the day, to make it worth telling. All those elements plus more make up the stories of our lives, and if we choose to embrace them instead of resent them, we might find and treasure more grasshopper moments. If we try to unbury the meaning in the seasons of life instead of just getting past them, we might even begin to see something more, to see the connected whole instead of just the isolated parts. For all in one day (or all in one life), sometimes our feet dance; sometimes they drag. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail. Sometimes we will laugh and cry and try and sigh and sing, and it all makes up the story of one unbelievably unordinary ordinary life.

I know someone who is really good as making ordinary things extraordinary. He turned ordinary water into extraordinary wine. He came in an ordinary stable and left an ordinary tomb, revealing the most extraordinary love the world has ever known. He turned ordinary fishermen into extraordinary evangelists that turned the entire world upside down. He turns ordinary bodies into temples of his Holy Spirit. He’s still in the business of turning what is ordinary, even our daily lives, into something more. 

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