Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski & Triage

(Note: about four paragraphs below, I provide a very meaningful excerpt from the book. If you intend on reading the book, I suggest you not read the excerpt)

An Imperfect Offering is a moving description of humanitarianism told through the narrative of James Orbinski’s life experiences. The book covers his initial research in Rwanda in the late 80s while training to be a doctor and then his work with MSF in Somalia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Zaire, and briefly, North Korea, Kosovo and the Sudan. The work serves as both an illumination of what humanitarianism is, as well as the forces that inhibit its efficacy, both local and geopolitical.

An Imperfect Offering was compelling, disturbing and very informative. It should usefully challenge one’s beliefs about the world in which we live and our behaviours within it. Orbinski’s memoir is highly readable in terms of presentation, a feature that is all the more important considering the difficulty of the subject matter.
Go read this book.

After learning about some of the lives people have (had), it makes me think that nothing bad has every happened to me.

I shall also briefly mention that I saw the documentary Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma at the NFB several days ago. It was also very moving and educational; the latter even more so for me as I now had places and faces to go along with what I had read in the book. (The doc was filmed last year while he was writing An Imperfect Offering.) Most can spare the 88 minutes more than the time necessary to read his book, so try to see the documentary. Regardless, go watch this film.

(This excerpt is one of the most impactful in the entire book - from pages 226-227)

We were overwhelmed. The dead could not be moved fast enough. The wounded could not easily be carried over the dead bodies to the ER, the operating room or the wards.

I was on my knees on the dirt road beside a patient who lay on a tarp slowly bleeding to death from multiple lacerations. I started and IV line and pushed fluids into her. I examined her carefully, identifying slow bleeders on her head, torso and legs. I quickly tied them off with sutures as I went. Her body trembled. She was conscious and afraid.

A nurse called me to go to the next patient. “Maintenant! Tout de suite, Docteur!” The woman moaned and winced as I stitched. And then her hand reached to tough my forearm. I looked up to her face from the small bleeding artery I was sticking on her chest. She looked at me, and only then did I understand what had happened to her.

She was slightly older than middle aged. She had been raped. Semen mixed with blood clung to her thighs. She had been attacked with machetes, her entire body systematically mutilated. Her ears had been cut off. Her face had been so carefully disfigured that a pattern was obvious in the slashes. Both Achilles tendons had been cut. Both breasts had been sliced off. Her attackers didn’t want to kill her; they wanted her to bleed to death. They knew just how much to cut to make her bleed slowly. She lay on the road, a 1 taped to her forehead, and now we were looking at each other.

“Je m’excuse, je m’excuse,” I said, apologizing for the pain my pinching forceps gave her. She blinked once, slowly, to let a wave of pain pass. She held my forearm. I felt a wave of nausea as I looked again at the pattern someone had cut in her face. I turned from her and vomited for the first and only time during the genocide.

She waited as I spit out what was left of the bile in my mouth. Then she touched my forearm again. I looked into her brown eyes. “Ummera.” I wasn’t sure if she was saying it to herself, but then she continued. “Ummera-sha.” Sha, I thought, it means friend. She was speaking to me. “Ummera, ummera-sha,” she repeated. I tied the bleeding arteries where her breasts had been. The nurses were calling again, “Docteur, le prochain, le prochain! Vite, Docteur!”

The woman was one among many, among hundreds. She knew there were so many more. Again she reached to touch my forearm. She didn’t hold it this time. She nodded, looking at me. “Allez, Allez… Ummera, ummera-sha,” she said in a slow whisper. “Go, go. Courage, courage, my friend.” It was the clearest voice I have ever heard.


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