December 9th, 2010

I was having lunch in a Kabul hospital cafeteria on Monday with a handful of Afghan nurses and midwives.  The black tea poured freely and the rice, beans and naan were filling.  The staff's chatter hummed gently with bursts of laughter   I was learning a little Kabuli Farsi when a woman in a white surgical cap sat down next to me.  One of the nurses introduced me to Dr. Maryam*, the neonatologist.  I shook her hand and she smiled unassumingly.  My mind began to move quickly.  There was only one Dr. Maryam whom I knew of by reputation in Afghanistan.

"Did you work in another region of Afghanistan before coming to Kabul?" I asked.

"Why, yes," she replied, slightly taken aback at such a direct question early on.

Of course, this was Dr. Maryam.  In 2007, I traveled to work with a NGO serving a province in Western Afghanistan.  Prior to my departure, I was told that I might be able to volunteer in the Neonatal ICU of the local hospital.  It was the only NICU in the province and recently developed by a neonatologist from a nearby country.  I was told that this doctor was a woman of great perseverance, highly skilled in her specialty and committed to training local doctors to compassionately fight for the lives of infants.  Having worked as a NICU nurse myself for a while, I was eager to meet Dr. Maryam and work with her.  I purchased a brand new, shiny black neonatal stethoscope for the trip--it's small size perfect for small hearts.

Unfortunately, when I arrived in the city Dr. Maryam had left on holiday for her home country.  I never met her, and I never experienced her budding NICU.  Despite this, I decided to leave the stethoscope for her use upon her return; my colleague was to give it to her.  In the last three years, I never learned what happened.

But now I was sitting across the table from Dr. Maryam.  A smile broke across my face as I told her how I knew her name and previous home. We discussed our mutual friends in that city and then I said, "I left a stethoscope for you.  Did you happen to get it?"

Before the words were out of my mouth she laid down her naan and reached into the pocket of her lab coat.  When she extended her arm towards me, her hand opened to reveal a small black stethoscope.

"This one?" she asked.  "I have used it for the last three years."

I looked up, shocked.  "Yes, that's it," I said.

"Thank you," she replied, her eyes sincere.

My own eyes teared up.  I had seen the NICU at the hospital right before lunch.  Eleven babies were in isolettes; their tiny bodies limp under the weight of IV's and heart monitors.  Triplets had just come in and none of them were doing well.  Their premature lungs were not permitting them the breath they needed to survive.  I imagined that stethoscope listening to so many heartbeats and lung sounds over the last three years.  How many warm skins could it have possibly touched?

I was humbled that I had been allowed to supply this small tool, the most basic in a physician's kit.  I took no active part in this service of caring for the most vulnerable; yet, I still felt connected to it and in awe.  Afghanistan is a beautiful land full of gifted, strong and passionate people working to bring freedom and hope.  It is a privilege to serve alongside them through Silk Road Development.

*name changed

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