You never know where inspiration will come from.
One of the great pleasures in teaching a class of motivated New Hampshire students about ethics are the many personal stories they share. The pre-class assignment was to answer the question derived from the book’s title: What do you stand for – what principles do you live by? Describe a moment of principle in which your principles were tested.
Although this student writes that she hates ‘Freuding’ herself, her story speaks to a larger question: When faced with the unexpected, how will we respond?
“In the summer of 2011, I went to Ghana for seven weeks as a volunteer nurse. On my last day, I went to the airport, and was denied entrance to get my ticket. A stoic, brick of a hobbit-man stood there and told a dozen of us that ‘We were late.’ Five hours later, I paid $300 for a new flight scheduled for the next day.
“It was nearly midnight when I returned to my host family where three other travelers were staying – Avery, Sital and Cécile (with the fancy French accent thing over one of the ‘e’s). I woke them all up and said, ‘Get up, we’re going to drink!’
“The pub we frequented was a five minute walk down a dirty road. This particular night, a group of guys were congregating on our path, so we took a side street. Unfortunately, one of the guys followed us. He spent the whole time asking if we were from America and asking us to marry him. Avery, the only guy in our group spent the entire time politely asking him to leave us alone. I spun around and faced him, ‘Okay, none of us wants to marry you, ever. Just leave us…’
“I was cut-off by a grunt, cough, and wheeze from a child. We all stopped and found a boy crumpled in a pile around two grocery bags wheezing, squeaking and sleeping on the ground.
“I was the oldest with the only medical background so everyone looked to me. I stared at the boy, ‘croup,’ I thought, ‘now what?’ I had not yet gone through my pediatric rotation and was in over my head. Worst of all, the kid didn’t speak English. We asked our ‘stalker’ to speak to the boy who, at this point, threw his head up and wobbled to and fro. ‘AND he’s disabled!?’
“The boy was too disoriented to communicate effectively. He wore clothes meant for a girl with pants that were too big and fell around his ankles, leaving him half-naked.
“The man who translated told us that everyone in the neighborhood knew him. He was touched by evil spirits, possessed. He warned us to disregard this matter. We decided to get our host brother, Joachim. When he came, he told us that things like this were common in Africa. This boy was touched by an evil spirit and we needed to let him be.
“ ‘We have to help him,’ Cécile said.
“ ‘Let’s get him to a hospital,’ Avery said and Sital agreed.
“Avery picked him up and discovered the boy was soaked in bodily fluids. We piled into two taxis and went to the hospital where I had volunteered, closed. The second hospital treated him, but the guard told us that we needed to take the boy away. ‘He is touched by the devil. He will bring evil upon us all,’ he said.
“The next hospital was thirty minutes away and by then it was 3 a.m. We explained the situation to the nurse. Looking around the room, however, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason. People were lying on benches with IVs. One man began having a seizure, choking on his own vomit and blood. I grabbed his head and turned it to the side where a cascade of bodily fluids came out of him. Another woman was vomiting, clutching her arm where the IV had popped out. It was way beyond my experience, but I couldn’t just leave her there and the nurses showed no sign of action.
“I replaced the IV and ran the fluid. This was the first time I had inserted an IV. While waiting to see a physician, the remainder of our time consisted of me performing procedures I had never done before. My hands shook as I began questioning what I had gotten myself into. The doctor finally saw the boy and told us that he could not provide any further treatment. We needed to wait for a social worker who would not arrive until 9 a.m. the next morning. We decided to stay until the social worker arrived.
“Emergencies kept happening throughout the night. A woman next to us was writhing in pain and talking in her native language. We were not going to get any sleep. We took turns watching the boy and wandering the hospital grounds chain smoking and searching for bushes to pee in. The boy remained asleep for most of the night and looked so peaceful while we were a wreck.
“We all laughed at our misfortune. ‘I’m supposed to be on a plane,’ I said.
“By the time morning came, we were exhausted and smelled. The social worker showed up and the boy was admitted to a communal room consisting of about ten other families. We learned that his name was Bordi. As he became more alert, we were surprised at how cognitively aware he was. The place where we found him was where he lived with his family. They had abandoned him and moved on.
“Exhausted, I went and looked for him in a treatment room. He had been washed-up and been given new clothes. I stared at him and thought, ‘Were you really worth it, kid?’
“Bordi looked at me, took my hand and smiled. It made my heart melt.
“I run the situation through my head every now and again. What if I didn’t miss my flight? What if we didn’t go for drinks? What if we never found Bordi? What if we just gave up? Honestly, I just wanted to leave him. My spirits had already been tested to their limits. I was sick of the day and really just wanted a beer.
“I remember the community my friends had created. Cécile gave me the push that I needed. ‘We can’t just leave him here,’ she said and I knew we couldn’t. She stood firm on her convictions and because of her we never wavered. Avery was our strength. He didn’t hesitate. He picked Bordi up and did what needed to be done. He laughed and kept our spirits up throughout the night. Sital was scared. She was adopted and we knew this was hard for her, but that night she found courage. We were all challenged and together, did the right thing.
“I had never thought about ethics and just assumed that maybe I didn’t even have principles. That night, I learned that you always have to do the right thing, whatever that may be. You can’t just walk away hoping someone else will take care of the problem.”
“Compassion,” the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “is the basis of morality.” Through her own personal and compelling experience, this student reminds us all of the true meaning of compassion.