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One of many long lines of patients wrap along the tin sheet walls of doctors’ offices in a field clinic near Balukhali Refugee Camp. Photo by Mike Kai

The army officer lifted his gun he had been using as a leaning crutch and walked off down the road after he told the girl just diagnosed with diphtheria she wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital.  The Prime Minister of Turkey was visiting and the Bangladeshi military had installed new checkpoints, restricted traffic, and called out their soldiers in full force to line the streets all the way to Cox’s Bazar, an hours drive away.  Coughing with low energy, the child and family took the news as if they had heard this line of logic before; they didn’t bat an eyelash as the volunteers around them erupted in protest.  Despite the fact that Turkey has a population of around 3.5 million registered refugees themselves, they are donating funds in mass for Rohingya, compelled like Indonesia by the plight of fellow Muslims.

Around 200 patients a day filter through this makeshift medical center on the edge of a massive refugee camp.  Staffed by doctors from an international placement organization called MedGlobal and run by HOPE, a Bangladeshi hospital, the tin roofed structure does indeed provide hope in recovering from some of the worst conditions imaginable.  Two months ago, people were coming in with fresh gunshot wounds.  Respiratory illness and rape are common reasons for visits as well.  Most wait from 3-5 hours to see one of a handful of doctors and nurses paired up with volunteer interpreters after they are registered by the dozen other volunteers who handle the less technical though still important clerical work and triage.  Everyone gets a prescreen for diphtheria as the camps are on official outbreak status with hundreds of suspected cases and 27 deaths as of December 26.

Today, the number of patients were fewer because the military would not let people up the road to seek medical attention and they also ordered the medical center shut down early, even though the Turkish Prime Minister came and left in the early afternoon.  Because of lower numbers, it was easier to sneak away to do a check-up on a woman the medical team was not sure would still be alive.  She was suffering from heart failure and after an assessment the day before, the team concluded she had little time to live.  With nothing to do, but ease her suffering in the final hours, they literally carried her over a broken bamboo bridge and up a hill to her sweltering hot (it’s currently winter in Bangladesh) tarp and bamboo constructed shelter.

The critical problem is that there could have been something done besides just easing her suffering.  In a country with decent medical care, her nurse told me her heart failure was treatable in many ways.  They could drain the fluid that had built up making her heart weak and unable to pump blood properly.  They could repair her lungs, also filled with fluid.  They could get her a heart transplant.  But here, they could not do surgery. Here, the Rohingya are stuck in a restricted area, not even allowed to travel to nearby Coxs Bazar where there is a hospital I casually walked into at the end of the day to get a diphtheria vaccine with no questions asked or money exchanged.

Instead, the scene this 50 year old woman faced as her ultimate reality was to be clinging on to life and literally to the bamboo beam keeping her tent and her torso upright.  Unable to speak or to even open her eyes, one of her seven daughters spoke for her while holding her tightly and another daughter along with her only son waved hand fans to create circulation in the tent so the medical team would be more comfortable.  The men of her family were presumably killed and a heart condition quite often linked to extreme stress that the western world normally sees around mid 60’s and 70’s according to her nurse, had become terminal…but only terminal because of who she is and where she is.  In the true essence of a mother’s love, her chief concern was for her daughters and wishing for them to get married.

It’s sometimes hard to find hope here.  Surrounded by children literally rolling tires with sticks past the medical clinic where people cough, cry, or internalize their pain; it’s impossible to shrug the reality that pain is all around.  As I was thinking back to my childhood of playing with all the toys a kid could want while watching a child pull a plastic bottle he tied a string to as a play-thing right in front of me, my daze was shook by the thunderous crash of a tuk-tuk into a goat on the road behind the medical center.  Three goats scurried off, but a crowd a men gathered and within a minute had chased down the goat that got hit while another man rushed from a nearby shelter with a curved machete and slit the goat’s throat clean to the neck-bone.  “Life just isn’t fair,” I thought to myself as I stood over the goat and watched it twitch its final movements while bleeding out on the soft sand beneath.

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