In February this year I had the opportunity to go to the DR Congo. For two weeks I stayed at Mosango Hospital. It is a big hospital somewhere in the middle between Kinshasa and Kikwit and takes care of a area of about 100,000 people. Life is hard when you stay in the hospital. Doctors have to work in bad conditions with old instruments but they all do their best. And even though, when I was there, almost every day someone died, everybody was friendly and kept up their smile. I could talk to everyone and they all were very open. I heard to most amazing but also horrific stories. Everybody I met, earned my deepest respect.
I’m walking over a dusty path to the operating rooms. It’s hot and the sun burns. Being here all alone for the moment, I’m really starting to feel like I’m in another world. It’s strange… It feels like time is walking next to me, without it passing me all the time like back home. In and around the buildings there is a distinct smell I’m not yet used to. It’s a mix of sweat, dirty bandages and the typical hospital smells. All of it intensified by the muggy climate.
I turn around the corner and see the entrance of the operating rooms. There’s already a lot of activity. Nicaise Mwangu, a boy I met yesterday, will be brought in for surgery today and by the nervous walking around of everybody I have the feeling it won’t be a routine job. I observe everything quietly for a while. They told me that Nicaise fell out of a mango tree and broke his leg near his village. The village doctor the tried to heal the open fracture with herbs and plants in the following weeks. All efforts in vain of course and when he arrived here, his leg was already as black as charcoal. The doctors where left with only one option: amputation.
I’ve already been in the operating room but today is going to be different. I feel different too. Nervous or…? I can’t really put my finger on it. Apparently Nicaise is already on the operating table and the doctors are ready to start. I wait for a moment in a room next to the operating room, still doubting if I want to go in. The door is ajar and I can peek inside.
It’s busy in the operating room but I only see some shadows. And then suddenly I get a mouth mask and cap to put on my head. A nurse tries to tell me that it’s OK for me to go in now if I want. Of course I want to go in… I think…
I open the door carefully with my elbow because I don’t really like to touch anything in here. It’s not like it’s really dirty in here, but I still am used to other standards when it comes to hygiene in operating rooms. I shamble into the room and when I look down, I see my black Converse All Stars. The same ones I walked over that dusty path with. I decide to not to think about it too much and with my camera firmly held in my hand and the mouth mask flat on my nose I go in. It’s hot … very hot…and then the smell hits me in the face. It’s the combination of a with gangrene infected leg and the searing of the incisions. Soon sweat pearls on my forehead. I just try to concentrate on my job and not on fainting.
I watch the operation and take some pictures. From the doctors, the instruments and also Nicaise, who only had local anaesthetic. He looks a bit blank lying there. I try to imagine how he must feel now as he hears the doctors making incision after incision. Some smoke of the searing rises up above his leg. I take some more pictures. Most of the time he looks at the ceiling, but then, suddenly, like he can hear me think, he looks right at me. I make the picture and quiver. What was I thinking about…?
I wander around a bit between the buildings looking for images and stories. People are sitting in groups everywhere. Most of them family members of patients. They stay here day and night to take care of their relative. Most of the time they are cooking because I don’t think the hospital provides a meal for everybody. Others just wait, hoping they can return to their village soon.
In front of me there is a building with a lot of activity. It’s the wound care unit. A lot of patients end up here after surgery or an accident. They get assigned to a bed and from then on they just wait. There’s a wing for men and one for women.
It’s fairly easy to walk in and out. Patients are sitting on their beds, talking, or trying to walk with crutches. Most of the time there are nurses around changing bandages or taking care of wounds. A mouth mask is a necessity in here because of the smell that comes out of those dirty bandages. It’s always a struggle to keep wounds from infecting in this climate.
I’m walking through the men’s wing, heading to the otherside because I heard they are going to change bandages on a girl who is severely burnt. I see her lying at the end of the room. Her bed is clearly marked with the number 13.
Someone tells me she burnt herself and then someone tried to cool the wounds with motor oil which of course had the opposite effect. Nurses have to take care of her very deep wounds every day.
When they are ready to start, I can see from to look on her face she’s terrified. One of the nurses wants to touch the bandages and she already flinches. When he touches the bandages and tries to open them up she screams. It’s a harrowing scream. Her mother tries to comfort her but she doesn’t stop screaming. The poor girl screams during the entire terrible ordeal.
I’m having a hard time watching it. The feeling of being here to make profit of other people’s misery pops into my head again. I surely hope my pictures can mean something to help these people when I’m back. When it’s all over, she stays behind in her bed, crying. One of the next days I pass the building again and I go in. All I see is an empty bed with the number 13. A nurse tells me that the girl and her mother fled away from the hospital. They don’t really tell me why…
If she’s still alive I don’t know … no one does…