Culturally Incompetent, Idiot Frogs With Scalpels


February 28, 2015 by rebelwithalabelmaker

So this one time, Gary breathed on a dead woman and brought her back to life.  True story.

He and Maureen were having breakfast in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was a fresh-out-of-school doctor missionary running a hospital.  And a friend of his knocked on the door and asked if Gary could come see his niece, who had just had a baby.

“Right now?  Or can I finish breakfast?” Gary asked.

“Whenever is convenient for you,” said his friend.  And then he went and stood beside the truck with the engine running.  So Gary grabbed his black bag and he and Maureen leapt in the truck at top speed.

When he got to the house, the ritual of death was just beginning.  The woman’s heart had stopped, from a postpartum hemorrhage.  Which is, apparently, not that hard to fix.  Gary began by inserting a needle into the artery in her neck, then began CPR and uterine massage to stop the bleeding.  I am a little amazed at this part.  Where the woman has died and they let the doctor walk in and stick his arm up to the elbow into a part of her that is not usually involved in funeral proceedings.  Not exactly respectful conduct, I think.  Gary tells me that a lot of things got filed under “white people are crazy”, and this must have been one of them.

He gets her heart started, but then she needs blood to survive, and he can’t donate any because he just donated way more than he should to his last patient.  So he turns to the Uncle, who is a match and says “give me your blood”.  Which normally they would refuse to do outright, but this time the Uncle didn’t refuse—which barely registered in the heat of the moment.  In retrospect, I can imagine that if someone walked in on my niece’s funeral and breathed on her and then she came alive, I would obey their instructions too.

They saved her.  She is fine, as is her little baby.  Who is named Gary.  All is well that ends well, although breakfast was completely ruined.

He didn’t see or hear from his friend for a month.  Finally, Gary cornered him and asked what was up.

“My niece was dead.  And then you breathed on her, and she came alive.” said his friend.

Gary explained about the circulatory system and CPR and rehydration.

“When a someone brings someone back from the dead, that makes that person a God.” said his friend.

Gary explained again.  His friend shook his head and frowned.

“White people,” said his friend, “do not know when to quit.”


I am not used to hearing the Red Cross spoken of in such vitriolic terms, but on our evening walk, Gary’s eyes are flashing with fury.

“And then the guy told this story about how there were a hundred war wounded, and he could only save ten.  And he’s telling this story about a person with 90% burns on their body and all the interventions… and he’s not even thinking about the context.  About what treatment would be like for someone to recover from that kind of injury in a country with limited pain meds, about the public health interventions that could be bought with all that resource, about whether the support exists for that person to live once they leave the hospital.  It’s like none of that exists, and it was just them versus death, and it’s all about whether they can win.  And not about finding out about the context in which they are practicing medicine.  You don’t pick the ten hardest cases to congratulate yourself for saving… you have to pick based on the whole picture.  An injury exists inside a person, which exists inside an entire life, which exists inside a community, which exists inside a culture…”

Or, put another way… “You white people don’t know when to quit.”

“Never give up” said the caption on the poster in my elementary school classroom.

What a stupid, privileged piece of advice.  Spoken like a culture with a glut of resources, that is accustomed to fighting harder, and not skilled in acceptance and in letting go of the struggle.  The words we use, even… give up, give in, quit… we presuppose that the right thing to do is always to keep fighting.  “Give up at about the right time” is what it should have said.

There’s a reason it’s called the Serenity Prayer.

“Dad’s job is to fight cancer,” Eric likes to say, “but sometimes he loses.  That’s what Mom is for.  For help with the dying.”

It is a tidy way of looking at the world, because it leaves no loose ends.  Unfortunately, it’s also wildly inaccurate.  I am not good at the dying.  I am a struggler, not an accepter.  In a culture that prizes those qualities.  I am cut deep by the times when all I can offer is a listening ear.  never-give-up-frog

Gary relaxes into death.  It’s one part of the process of living, in his world.

“I have two jobs,” he often says.  “One is to save lives, and the other is to help create a good death.”

And Gary’s job is not to fight cancer.  Gary’s job is to care for people.  To help people accept the things that cannot be changed, to help them change the things that can, and to provide the wisdom for them to know the difference.

8 thoughts on “Culturally Incompetent, Idiot Frogs With Scalpels

  1. Liz, you do know you’re writing a book here, right? I can’t wait to have you sign my copy!

  2. BuntyMcC says:

    Yes. A book. You must put many of these into a book. You would be the next “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” which is a telling remark because I remember the name of the book but not the author.

  3. I really appreciate this encouragement. I am actually thinking seriously about a book. I have trouble coming up with a common theme… I have lots of stories, but my narrative stringing them together is week. Also “autobiography of a random person from Saskatchewan” seems a bit week…

  4. Greta James says:

    I hate that prayer. Dad said it to me constantly….. I told him I didn’t even believe in God. He said I was missing the point.

    As a side note, there is actually a fancy psychological phenomenon based on the inability to give up. It’s called the sunk cost fallacy. The idea is that once we have put resources into something we feel we need to continue to try to achieve precisely because we have already put energy into it. This is irrational because the energy put into it is a “sunk cost”. You can’t change it. It does not justify continuing to throw good after bad. If you want to talk about white people never knowing when to give up then I think sunk costs are an important distinction. We give up easily….as long as we haven’t started 🙂

    • Telling him you don’t believe in God is only sort of effective since he doesn’t either. I don’t think. I asked him one time, and he said something about a mathematical equation underlying all of physics. That said… he didn’t say it all the time to ME, so I wonder if maybe it was something about what you kept doing that inspired him… what he said to me over and over was “a fool and his money are soon parted”. (Love the sunk cost thing, btw… ties into so many things…)

      • Greta James says:

        Did he also keep telling you that if you kept your mouth closed you’d be thought a fool, but if you opened it you’d remove all doubt? I could see him saying that to both of us 🙂

        You’d think if he didn’t believe in God he would have left it be…if you don’t believe in God then I doubt he will feel like granting you much. Which could explain why I never got any serenity or wisdom. I don’t imagine math equations grant that stuff too often.

      • yes. yes he did say that. all the time. i think that’s what he said. i wasn’t listening very carefully on account of i was talking at the time. at all of the times. also, did you just say that you don’t think math equations grant wisdom very often? i have to warn you that a strangely large proportion of my readers are mathematicians… that is some dangerous blasphemy you’re doing.

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