I don’t recommend visiting the Rabat Children’s Hospital when you’re having PMS because you will be transformed into the type of woman you never wanted to be–the weepy kind. (Gosh I am rocking this middle age thing! Zits, wrinkles, and overt emotions! Woo-hoo! Bring it on!)

Since no one had the consideration to tell me this ahead of time, I visited the Hospital yesterday with my friend, who has volunteered there for about 12 years. It was the day they were passing out the Christmas boxes, and she wanted to be there. You might think, isn’t Christmas over yet?, and you would be right of course, but these are boxes that are packed up by children in privileged countries at Christmas, labeled “boy” or “girl,” and shipped overseas. There is a fair amount of administrative detail, planning and shipping and coordinating, that goes into these things.

My friend told me about the first year they passed out Christmas boxes. They took a collection in to a group of children who were having dialysis. The children spent the entire first day just hugging their boxes. No one opened theirs. They just held them. After all, the joy of anticipation is a huge part of receiving a present. It wasn’t until the next day that they opened their boxes, shared out their presents with their brothers and sisters. In subsequent years, the volunteers helped them start. “Someone has to go first and everyone else will wait for that,” my friend explained. I agreed, although we both know it’s not like that in American families.

I loved seeing the amazed smiles on the faces of the children yesterday as they clutched their boxes to their chests. I am not sentimental about third-world children; I have driven through too many villages where the children ran up to beg for my pen and cursed me when I didn‘t give it to them, or threw rocks at our car as we passed by. But the kids yesterday were the stuff of which appeals by children‘s charities are made; shy sweet smiles of gratitude, pure joy as they clutched their boxes to their chests.

The boxes themselves were pretty awesome too. Many were hand-decorated with pictures of Christmas trees and snowmen and candy canes, and most had some version of “Mery Cristmas” on them, written lopsidedly in colored marker.

The Children’s Hospital is not a depressing place. It is bright and freshly-painted in rainbow colours and there’s even a play room on this floor, put in last year, with big windows and a good variety of toys. My friend told me of the many, many changes since she first started coming. She gets frustrated that various volunteer groups have spent money on paint instead of on medicines for desperately-ill children whose families can’t afford their care. I understood her point–who wouldn’t?–but I also pointed out that the feel of the hospital is important. It feels like a place with hope.

At the same time, that hope can be hard to sustain. We saw a tiny apple-cheeked baby, cocooned in the thick polyester blankets ubiquitous in North Africa, just a bright-eyed little face in a wad of material. She was sporting that thing when they’ve got to keep a vein open so they stick a needle in you, plug it off, and tape it in place. I know there is a single, simple word for these in the English language, but I can’t tell you what it is. Hers was in her hand. Next to her, a toddler howled disconsolately; he had a vein-open thing (whatever that word is) in his head, wrapped in purple cloth; his mother and aunt were fussing over him. Ilsa gave him a Christmas box but he didn’t even look at it, just kept wailing while his mother pulled a much-washed-but-clean t-shirt over his head. These tiny ones are already on dialysis. I don’t know the details of their conditions, but I do know that their futures aren’t bright.

At this hospital, a female relative (usually the mother) stays with the child; they sleep in the same bed. On the one hand, that obviously isn‘t ideal in all circumstances, but I can see the appeal of this too–how nice for a sad scared child to snuggle with his mother, enjoying her undivided attention.

We met baby Adam, who was bright-eyed and curious but very thin, in with a kidney infection that just wouldn’t clear up. He sat on his mother’s lap and reached for a blue teddy bear. We met a woman my friend has known through the years, in with her daughter. They have no money to pay so the girl has gone a couple of weeks without her medicine. She lay there on her bed, curled up on one side, absolutely still, her eyes inwardly-focused and unaware of us. In the other bed, a girl of about 10 was getting her dialysis; she also didn’t move but her eyes stared back at us, curious. Next to her on her bed was a Christmas box, opened and spilling forth its brightly-colored contents.

We didn’t stay all that long, but it was hard to leave. People kept coming up to us. My friend has cut back on her hours there and so many people wanted to talk to her, wanted to give her updates on their children, wanted to show her the lists of expensive medicines they can’t afford.

We walked down four flights of stairs, each one with a different colour stripe (which is brilliant for a clientele that is often illiterate), and out into the warm spring air. “If I break my arm, will I come here?” Ilsa asked me. “No,” I told her. “You would go to a private clinic.” My friend’s daughter chimed in. “Your parents have money,” she told her. “You wouldn’t come here.” And that is the case. In a land where a visit to a specialist costs about $25, we can afford good care if we need it.

The woman whose daughter lay so still? She only needed about $12 to bring back life and movement, at least for a while.

Advertisements