Monday, June 4, 2007

Miracles at an AIDS Clinic

"You don't have to sit outside in the dark. If however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it nor demand it"
~Annie Dillard

HOPE Worldwide Thailand took on a project to take a group of medical students from the US to visit an AIDS clinic in Lopburi. I volunteered to come along as an interpreter. Initially, I was excited for a couple of less-than-noble reasons. I was dying to speak English since I hadn't used much of it for about 2 months, and I was bored out of my mind.

Anna, who was in charge of the project, took us to Lopburi, the land of the monkeys, on Friday of June 1, 2007. (Speaking of monkeys, I had never seen anything like it where they'd hang off power lines and climb buildings. We almost got attacked by one of them while walking on a street with bags of fruit. Oh, they kept their vigilant little beady eyes on us all the time from above, these monkey gods. Anyway, one scurried down the telephone pole and shrieked, and so we shrieked, and froze--until a man told us to put our bags of fruit under our shirts, looking like pregnant women scampering into somebody else's building wide-eyed and out-of-breath...)

Beside learning how to live with monkeys, we also made it to the AIDS clinic on our first day to survey what we could do tomorrow. Needless to say, I don't think any of us were prepared for it. I know I wasn't. We were given a tour around the facility. I saw a pile of bone bags the size of a small hill; each one represented a life that had passed away at this clinic. How was I supposed to repond to things like that? Then there was a museum of preserved body parts. I couldn't stomach it and opted to wait outside. We also went to the intensive care ward, walked through it, and I couldn't wait to get out because of the stiffling hot air and the looks of these patients. I mean, they were all skin and bones--not just any skin--but dry, wrinkly, blotted, flaky, never-felt-a-drop-of-lotion kind of skin. As if that wasn't enough, they all had to wear diapers and lied on their bed so quietly, so lifelessly. We were told that we could take care of these patients tomorrow. Really? I was kinda hoping that we could just hang out with the healthier ones.

Around the facility were pictures of Paradorn Srichaphan, a Thai tennis player and Natalie Glebova, a former Miss Universe and of Ashley Judd, a Hollywood star, kissing and holding these terminally ill patients. In all honesty, I wasn't planning on being that touchy feely. Initially Anna scheduled our visit the next day from nine to three, but I talked her down to nine till twelve. Even that, I wasn't sure if I could handle three hours of it!

Late that night, Anna and I looked at each other and knew that tomorrow would be quite a challenge. The thought of what to do with these patients sat heavily on our hearts and we decided to go to God early the next morning. We prayed for the strength to love these patients the way Jesus would. I personally would run from it and, believe me, I'm very good at that. But I remember how the sick and the lame were drawn to Jesus. This situation was a true test of our walk with God. While we read and prayed, I realized that if we could only brighten their day just for a couple hours, that wouldn't take much from us. After that we'd have the rest of our lives to do whatever. In Anna's prayer, she said something that struck me, that we too are ugly and dirty without Christ. Afterall, we are no better than them in God's eyes.

By the grace of God, I had the best time hanging out with the AIDS patients that day. Anna and I couldn't stop yakking about it the whole way back to Bangkok, so much so that it annoyed other passengers on the bus. But we were way too excited . It was like we didn't just pass the bar in Christianity but won a landmark case, or won the Grand Prix for immitating Jesus for a few hours. Go Anna and Nina! And of course, go God! Three hours just whizzed by and when the clock struck twelve, I wished I didn't turn into a pumpkin and had more time with these princes and princesses. For three hours, we mostly massaged them, but that was just icing on the cake. If you're patient enough to read on, I'll show you the different layers of this whole cake.

A scrawny blind man of 46, who looked 64 with good strong teeth, was so happy when I bought him a can of Sprite. Whoa! A can of Sprite can make someone all smiley like a kid with chocolate candy. Then Chris, one of the med students, fed him. The man only wanted vegetables and fruit. Anyway, he barely ate. He said Chris must be handsome, and I asked how did he know since he lost his sight ten years ago ( not that I didn't agree with him or anything). He said all white guys are handsome because they have pretty noses. He thought Chris was a doctor and asked him for a cane. He wanted to walk but the clinic doesn't want to give him a cane because he was weak and blind. So Chris took him for a short walk, so short it was about five steps from his bed before he got tired. He said I spoke good English and that he only knew a little and wanted to learn more. He asked if we'd come back. When I said 'no', he looked extremely sad. On our way out, I saw him curled in a fetal position and lied still with a blanket over him in this stiffling hot room.

April, another med student, started massaging and dancing at the same time, and the patient laughed. He thought she was Thai and started speaking Thai to her but I told him she's a Filipina princes who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. She told him in Thai that she doesn't drink milk "Mai Kin Nom", and he understood her. April was so excited she didn't say the wrong thing since Thai is such a tonal language and "Nom" has to be pronounced with a certain tone to mean "milk"; otherwise, it could mean "dessert." I wasn't sure how he heard it but, but he got it right. And he told us that he'd been at the clinic for two weeks and already wanted to go home but couldn't. As he was talking, something about the way he addressed himself told me that he'd rather be a she. At home, nobody would take care of him and he hadn't been able to call his family. He said his legs were numb and couldn't move them much. Later, like the blind man or a flower that blooms in the day and closes up without the sunlight, he went back to sleep quietly, facing the wall. Before that he told me he felt lonely a lot.

Another patient said that Sunna, another med student, was beautiful. And when she told him that she doesn't eat pork in Thai "Mai Kin Moo", he gave her the most confusing look. It's the tone thing. He thought Sunna was speaking Sanskrit or something really complicated. Then I laughed and she laughed, and when I told him what Sunna meant, he laughed. This man was a former monk and boxer with Khmer tattoos on his arms and had traveled to many countries in South East Asia. He said if he were strong he would take Chris to see Thai boxing near Channel 3 Station. At one point, three girls were massaging him and he told me he really loved it.

Anna, the project coordinator, sang a country song and many seemingly lifeless bodies rose and began to clap and dance as if she could raise the dead through music. She met a female patient who was from the same province, Kon Kean, and they began chatting away in their dialect. Anna is a great friend who loves to entertain people. There's never a dull moment with her. Many patients thought it was a recording and said she had a great voice.

Also a man with half a skull and long legs told me about how he had half a skull. During his narration, I noticed that he had big feet bones. I'd noticed many feet but never someone's feet bones. He didn't want me to massage him at first but later he called me over and gave me twenty baht for a massage. I couldn't be bribed to massage a man severely ill! That's a disgrace. So I said I couldn't take the money and he got really upset. All in all, I was harrassed into taking his money but later gave it back to the clinic. He wanted me to massage him harder and I tried to squeeze as hard as I could, but still, he said I didn't do it hard enough, which reminded me of how my dad always says I do a lousy job at massaging. Okay now the man with half a skull wanted hot oil for the massage, but the nurse didn't have it, and he didn't like that. He wanted to feel the burn in his muscles. His bed was near the door and he loved telling the same story to each person that walked by about how he had half a skull. I wonder how many times he tells the story of his half skull in one day. Like other patients, he asked if I'd come back, but then he added that there was this one Japanese guy who always comes and gives him a good massage where he could feel something. I really didn't want to answer his question, and he didn't like that either.

That day I was given a chance to love unconditionally and the courage to overcome my fear. After a couple months of feeling rather humdrum, this experience made me feel fulfilled in ways that money can't buy. Maybe God allowed our paths to cross, so these patients can teach me to see people for who they are on the inside. More than a label and decaying bodies, they are people with stories and they need love, just like you and me.

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