Steps, Stitches, and the Blood Ward

It was late January or early February and we had only just arrived on the field. We were scrambling to get our two toddlers out the door for our weekly team fellowship. This week it was being held at the home of some teammates just down the hill. It was a sunny, but chilly winter morning. We ambled down the hill, arms stuffed with Bibles, kids’ bags, and a guitar, trying to remember which street was the right one. Our kids were thrilled to be outside and excitedly ran ahead of us, pulling off some pungent leaves from the eucalyptus trees that grew on the side of the road.

We turned onto what we thought was the correct street and walked down until we recognized the familiar cement, plaster, and tile construction style of our teammates’ home. Like so many young parents on a church morning, we took a deep breath before we entered, trying to purge some of the stress that had accumulated from the mere effort to make it mostly on time.

Our three-year-old son, excited to be at our destination, stepped ahead of us up onto the stairs – and slipped. His forehead met the front edge of a step, a nice sharp corner where tile met tile – which is typical for Central Asia. So many sharp edges and corners everywhere, be they tile, cement, or metal. The roundness, bluntness, and general kid-friendliness of Western furniture and home interiors have never had greater fans than Western parents who live in Central Asia. Don’t be too alarmed if you invite us over and we admire how toddler-friendly the corners of your coffee table are. Such are the unintended effects of life on the mission field.

Anyway, our son’s forehead met the tile edge of the step and as foreheads are wont to do, blood started instantly gushing everywhere. As he screamed, we scrambled to pick him up and do damage control. I quickly grabbed one of my winter gloves, wadded it up, and pressed it against the wound. Our one year old daughter was screaming by now as well and my wife was bleeding also, having reopened a previous kitchen wound as she reflexively reached out to grab our son. Being in such a state, the rest of us remained perched on the steps as my wife ran inside to alert our teammates.

She burst into the kitchen, yelling, in search of our friends. But no one was there. Looking around, the kitchen seemed very different. I wonder if they’ve reorganized things? She thought to herself. Not missing a beat, she moved around the kitchen until she saw a roll of toilet paper and grabbed it, rushing back outside to try and help with all the blood. Why was the house so quiet when our whole team was supposedly already there for worship?

Moments later a local woman appeared at the kitchen door – looking extremely confused. We were confused as well. Neither of us could quite understand what this local woman was doing at our friends’ house so early on a sleepy Friday morning (the first day of the weekend here). Now, we knew very little of the local language at this point, but my wife knew enough to yell, “My son! My son!” as we wildly gesticulated at his bleeding forehead. The local woman squinted and stared, trying to make sense of this bizarre scene.

All of the sudden, it dawned on both my wife and me that this was not our friends’ house at all. My wife had barged into the kitchen of a total stranger, stolen their toilet paper, and woken them up. My son’s bleeding had been stopped by now, but we had by this point collectively bled all over their steps. Now mortified, my wife handed the roll of TP back to the local woman, who was still standing there befuddled and confused. She looked at the toilet paper, looked at us, looked at the TP again, and then slowly handed it back with a muted but polite phrase which roughly translates to, “Please, go ahead.”

We now did our level best to apologize in every language that we could and slowly backed away down from the doorway. Our family hobbled down the street and turned the corner. I was hunched over, still pressing the glove against my son’s head as we went one street down. Then we spotted it, the correct house. It was the same design except for the color of the decorative tiles. Blasted orange tiles instead of purple!

We burst into the house – this time it looked exactly as we expected it to – and announced that we needed to get our son to the hospital right away. Stitches were definitely going to be needed. Our team leader got on it right away, loading us all into his SUV and speeding off to the government emergency hospital.

At that point, this free hospital was the only place open on a Friday morning. And, grateful that there was a place open at all, we didn’t stop to ask any questions we normally might have of this particular kind of facility, which we would later come to call “The Blood Ward.” We called it this because there was blood everywhere, puddles of blood in the corners, smears of blood on the beds, and against the wall, a man washing his bleeding head in a sink. Quick action by my wife meant the sheet was adjusted just in time so that my son wasn’t laid on top of the previous patient’s blood (likely belonging to the man at the sink).

Because it was winter, the hospital was freezing. An electric heater, shaped like a standing fan, radiated heat close to the top of the bed where we all huddled, holding my shrieking son down so that the doctor could get to work on the stitches. He went right at it in a manner that showed great skill in stitching and an almost complete disregard that he was actually stitching the skin on the face of a human. We had to make sure the cloth on my son’s face left room for breathing and also had to remove the doctor’s elbow from my son’s eye at one point.

My team leader was doing his best to maintain morale, sharing their own stitches stories from Latin America and snapping photos of the event for posterity. I was watching the needle weaving in and out, a little too closely as it turns out, as I soon realized that I was on the edge of fainting from the concentration of heat, blood, and needle. I moved toward the wall to sit down before it was too late.

“Don’t sit there! That’s a puddle of blood!” my wife hollered.

I scooted over a couple feet and squatted down in an action learned from the muddy earth of Melanesian villages. Sometimes you really shouldn’t sit all the way down. So God in his kindness made us able to squat. Slowly the clouds began to lift.

“Come on, brother!” my team leader yelled, “Do America proud! Don’t faint on us now!”

I smiled and waved and tried to shake off the wooziness. By this point the doctor had finished. He had done an amazing job on the stitches themselves. And my son had stopped shrieking like a nazgul, which helped things calm down a good deal also (I would have shrieked too, if I were in his place!). We were ushered toward a window where we were given a prescription, which we filled at another window for the equivalent of three US dollars. That was it. No other charges at all. Not bad for a procedure that would have cost at least a hundred dollars back in the states! Still, I would have gladly paid ten times the amount we did if it would have helped clean up some of the blood puddles.

To this day my son still has an impressive scar in the middle of his forehead that he can be proud of. What a champ. And we regale friends with the story of how my wife broke into a stranger’s home to steal their TP as my son was bleeding all over their steps. We like to hope that it also makes for a good story for the poor local woman who witnessed our frantic intrusion that quiet winter morning.

“Hey Auntie, tell us the one about those foreigners who were bleeding all over your steps and broke into your house!”

“Well, it was a quiet morning and I was just waking up when I heard the sound… someone was rifling around in my kitchen! I emerged and what did I find? … A strange foreign woman shouting gibberish and stealing my toilet paper!”

Photo by Claire Mueller on Unsplash

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