The head of the hospital let us start shooting pictures before he asked what use we’d make of them. Massa Kanneh – the Liberian reporter I’m mentoring – and I had shown up out of the blue at Ganta Methodist Hospital, a facility serving a large jungle region of northeastern LIberia. Patrick Mantor, the hospital’s chief administrator, had taken us on a tour of the wards, and agreed we could take pictures. Massa answered his question: our photos would be published so the public could see the reality inside the hospital. Mantor said he hoped publication of the images would bring some help, as the government contributed very little funding but relied on the hospital to provide health services to a vast population.
Mantor’s hospital is clean, and bit by bit he’s modernizing the infrastructure, replacing old tile floors that gather unsanitary grime, putting in a few private rooms for the grievously ill and injured. But paint is peeling off the walls; the bedding of many patients is composed of swaths of cloth brought in by family members; in one corner of the pediatric ward a sick child lies on a torn-up old foam mattress on the floor because the beds and cribs are full.
When we enter the adult ward a rank smell hits us immediately. It’s not the odour I’m familiar with from other hospitals in the developing world, of blood and urine and diarrhea and unwashed bodies. This is the reek of something rotting, and it doesn’t fit with the otherwise fairly sterile environs in the hospital. We walk around, take photos, talk to a doctor and on the way out I walk into a room to the side and discover the source of the stench. The woman is probably in her 60s, and she has what a doctor tells us is a “necrotic wound.” What he means is she cut her left foot, it became infected, and her tissue and bone are dying and decomposing. Her three middle toes are gone, and about a third of her foot has become a black gooey mess. Maggots squirm between dead brown metatarsal bones like tadpoles wriggling through a reedy swamp. The patient remains quiet, pain and confusion written on her face. Likely it’s been weeks that she’s endured unimaginable agony with not even aspirin to reduce the pain. Her family left her at the hospital entrance and fled, a common occurrence among desperately poor villagers afraid they’ll be held financially accountable if they stick around, the doctor says. He wants to amputate immediately, but he’s in a quandary: the patient is in no condition to provide legal consent for the removal of her lower leg. For the doctor to act on his own she must be in imminent danger of death, and she’s not there yet. Her family, who could provide consent, is nowhere to be found. If the doctor cuts off the patient’s leg without consent from her family, relatives could later sue the hospital, Mantor explains.
There are moments in this journalism business, scenes I will always carry with me. There was that teenager in Calgary outside Foothills Hospital, when I told him five of his friends had been killed in a crash. I can still hear the disbelief in his voice when he said, “They’re all dead?” and I can still see what happened when I nodded and said yes, and everything inside that boy collapsed. There was an Afghan interpreter shot through the spine, and whenever that recollection crosses my mind I hear his panicked voice, full of a terrible understanding, saying, “I can’t feel my legs, I can’t feel my legs.” And this woman in the hospital, suffering in silence with this awful, awful wound, she’ll be in there too, and I know from time to time I’ll see her, that face full of bewilderment and pain.
I hope Mantor gets the help he needs. And I hope that poor woman gets her leg cut off soon and survives. It’s the 21st Century, we walk around with supercomputers in our hands – such preventable suffering should not exist in this world.