We got out of the bus, dragging our suitcases behind us, and started to climb the guest house stairs—in the dark. At the second landing, caretakers handed out thin, white candles to light our way. We found and settled into our rooms in the dark, and it was only the faint, warm glow from the candle-lit stairway that gave any sort of orientation as to where we were.
In different circumstances it could have been a little romantic—if we hadn’t just spent the last 16 hours traveling into Libya and working our first day at the hospital.
The days during surgical trips are very long and packed with emotional moments. Many memories linger, but there are three moments that stay with me still, after I’ve unpacked my suitcase and settled back into regular life in Iraq.
1. The first time I stood over an open chest, and saw a heart beating.
A heart is an amazing thing! I didn’t pass out. I stood in wonder—in utter fascination and wonder!
I confess—I was concerned about how things would go on my first surgical trip. I wasn’t worried about being in Libya. I was afraid that I would faint or get sick in the operating room (I didn’t), and even more, that the language barrier with Libyan families would prevent connection (it didn’t).
2. Late afternoon in the small, yellow room at the end of the hallway.
The room is the colour of fresh butter and sunshine. It is the last room patients stay in, where they wait to be discharged. I came in and sat on the edge of Norea’s bed, beside her mother. Tasnim and her mom sat in the bed beside us, until Tasnim’s mom quietly got up, laid a colourful mat down on the floor, and said afternoon prayers. Tasnim was happy to chew on the handle of her rattle. Ayet’s mom arrived next for a visit and sat across from us. Three more moms soon joined in, dragging white plastic chairs to accommodate us all.
I distracted Norea, who was fussy from hunger, while her mom prepared a bottle. The other women called out to me ‘Sister!’ when they wanted me to see something. We laughed over small things and nothing at all.
I didn’t understand a word of the conversations that happened in that room, but it didn’t matter. When I chose to stay, just for their presence, these women rewarded me with welcome every time.
3. Khalid became my favourite dance partner.
Khalid and I had become friends of a sort upstairs in the ward, through games of peek-a-boo over his mom’s shoulder. In the operating theater, as he laid on the operating table wrapped up in a blue sterile gown, I was the one familiar face he looked to for comfort. In the wait for last details to be made ready for his surgery, Khalid got himself seriously worked up, and the scrub nurse could see his little arms reaching out for me. She suggested that I hold him, so I scooped him up in my arms. Music from the surgery team’s iPod drifted through the room. Gentle swaying to the music soon became a full-on dance party. Khalid did not judge my dated dance moves. He just stayed in my arms and took it all in, until his crying stopped, his breathing slowed, and he settled into calm.
Khalid’s mom waited outside the ICU during the long hours of surgery with her mother and a handful of other ladies. When Khalid was wheeled upstairs in his bed, his mom got one look at him and smiled. Then she clutched her mother and they both wept—out of relief and gratitude and pent up fear. I cried too.
Over the last month we received a lot of questions about who we are as an organization. We are first and foremost a peacemaking movement. We make peace through pediatric heart surgeries in conflict zones, business start-up grants for those displaced by war, shared cups of tea and impromptu baby-calming dance sessions. We believe in loving anyway and the world changing power of presence.
And me? I have never been more grateful.