by Nathan Burns, Founder
As the mid-afternoon sun beats down, we move through the far western blocks of Kutapalong refugee camp. The landscape resembles a Hollywood depiction of Mars – dusty, bare, ferociously hot. Sweat gushes from our foreheads in a constant stream and we’re moving slowly, but deliberately, guided by a rotating group of curious Rohingya.
The request comes casually- almost an afterthought in a constant stream of conversation between our brilliant interpreter, Mr Moslem, and the Rohingya.
“Would you mind coming to check on my wife?,” asks the gentleman, “She’s been sick for some time”.
And so, we head left and up, into the squeeze of temporary huts, shadowed by 30-40 curious minds with little else to do. As we stoop low and remove our packs to enter the hut, an oppressive wall of heat strikes our faces, raising the temperature by at least five degrees. In the oppressive heat cowers a young woman**- no older than 25, but its hard to tell as half her face is shielded by a scarf. A huge crowd crams around the doorway, straining for a look and eliminating any chance of airflow.
“This is my wife,” says the husband, “Would you please take a look?”.
Despite her immense shame, slowly the woman removes her scarf, revealing a hideously swollen and disfigured face. The entire left side of her head is bloated and taught – at least 2-3 times its normal size. Her eye socket is puckered inside this mass of swelling, her vision completely obscured. Spots of dried blood streak from below a dirty, poorly-applied dressing and have plastered her hair. Deep, yellowed bruising stains her entire face and pus seeps from the edges of the bandage.
She will not look up, but we must investigate so, gently, we lift her head and look into her one good eye. Shame pours from her gaze and the sadness of her condition is plain to see; now we must avert our eyes lest they fill with tears.
We set to work, almost unsure of where to start, but conscious that we must do something. We begin by peeling back the outer layers of the dressing and, as we do, we also unfold the woman’s patchy story.
Not long after fleeing to the refugee camps some eight weeks earlier, the woman presented to health services to have a facial tumor investigated. Somehow, she ended up in the hands of a doctor in Cox’s Bazar and had the tumor removed – a major surgical procedure. She was then discharged after 3 days with the instructions to “just remove the dressings after one week”. It had now been nine days and this poor woman could neither remove the bandages (for the gauze had adhered tightly to the dried blood around the wound site), nor would she leave the house for shame of being seen in such a state.
Now the complications of sub-standard after-care were evident for all to see. As we cut away the festering bandages, we revealed a terribly grotesque wound stretching from the corner of her eye to her ear. It appeared that her scalp had literally been hacked open, then pathetically sewn back together using heavy-guage sutures and little care. In places the edges of the wound barely met, in others the skin bunched in a swollen, infected ridge. With the sutures still in place the skin had begun to grow around the twine and infection had set in. Each place where the skin had been punctured now oozed with thick, yellow pus.
We worked slowly, methodically, carefully. In some cases we needed to incise tiny pieces of skin to remove debris; in others, the dressings had become part of the skin matrix and needed to be torn apart. Our hearts broke with every layer uncovered, with every new, horrible unveiling.
Through it all this brave, beautiful woman made hardly a sound. Her pain must have been immense, yet she barely winced, biting down on her scarf and enduring a process she knew to be essential. With her head resting in her husband’s lap and a small group of family members looking on, this woman placed her trust in a trio of western strangers and endured unspeakable pain, indescribable shame.
Whilst our patient lay suffering, our hearts and minds raged. We couldn’t shake the thought of what this poor woman had endured even to just get to the safety of this sweltering refugee camp. Now she had been treated in such a barbaric, inhumane way by those supposedly here to help her, to protect her.
Was it because she is a Rohingya? Or was it because someone well-meaning had paid for her operation and the hospital had seen this as a chance to profit from suffering? Or was it simply a case of standard third-world medicine.
Perhaps we will never know. What we do know, however, is that this brave woman will receive all our love and care whilst we are here.
After all, if we choose to do nothing, then we will take all the blame.
**Note: name has been deliberately withheld.