Last week little Natolt (his family’s nickname for him) finally got to leave the ship. I never met the little guy before his surgery but I heard stories about the tumor pressing into his neck and occluding his airway more and more each day. The nights leading up to the day of his operation were nerve racking for some of his nurses as his oxygen levels would desaturate to as low as 40%, and his breathing sounded like a train passing through the room. His dad never left his side and sacrificed hours of sleep to keep his son breathing and comfortable.
I was introduced to my little friend for the first time in the ICU after returning from surgery. Over the next few days we tried a couple times to take the breathing tube out and let him breathe on his own but the swelling and extra tissue that are common after such a major surgery made each breath a struggle. Each time the team had to re-intubate after only about an hour. After the second failed extubation, the decision was made to take him back to the OR for a tracheotomy, which can stay in as an airway more comfortably for a longer period of time. His auntie had been staying with him during this time as his caregiver because his mother was just about to have a baby. She had been really brave but got scared when she heard about the trach. Right before the OR staff came she broke down and started crying for him. She told me she was so thankful that we were here and that I was taking care of Natolotra and that she trusted me and the doctors here to do the best thing for Natolotra but that she was still afraid. It was a moment where I realized that I really cared about her and her little nephew and was so thankful to be there with her right then as well. His trach placement went as planned and we were able to take little Natolotra off the ventilator and move him back to the ward from the ICU after the surgery. His recovery was much slower than anticipated but he definitely surprised us more than once with his feisty little spirit. One evening after the trach placement we were discussing how listless he had been, unable to stand and uninterested in anything. Not long after, we learned that his legs worked just fine when his dad left the bedside to go to the bathroom and Natolotra tried to jump off the bed and run after him. You sure had us fooled for a couple days, little guy…
We eventually took the trach out and our next challenges centered around the trach site healing and Natolotra being able to eat and drink without coughing or aspirating. Again, we took baby steps every day and the small hole in his neck healed even better than I could have imagined with only a tiny scar showing. A couple days before he went to the Hope Centre, I went into his room to do an assessment and vital signs. He still usually fussed a bit during this part of the day, but that day he was such a good boy and let me take his temperature and pulse and listen to his lungs with a smile on his face. As I was leaving I heard a little “bye bye!” and turned around to see a tiny wave and smile. It kind of melted my heart a little bit. The next time I worked I learned that he had been discharged but that he would be coming back to the ship for an outpatient appointment the next day. As I walked down the gangway to look for them to say hi, Natolotra’s father saw me first and gave me a big hug. Natolotra was riding around in a little tractor and came over with a big smile and gave me a hug. He looked so good and was so happy and it made me so happy too.
Each week on the wards we have thankful Thursday. This week I am thankful for the people here who help me to see Jesus a little more clearly. I’m thankful to be able to see stories like Natolotra’s from start to finish. Whether it is Natolotra’s father and his constant vigilance in making sure all of his son’s needs are met, or the kindness and humility that I see displayed every day in the fellow doctors and nurses that I am serving with, I know I’m not going to be the same after my time here on the Africa Mercy.