Thursday, December 30, 2004

A Year Without a Santa Claus

My Christmas was awesome last year. I got an e-mail from our facilitator in Ukraine, who wrote, "Pack your bags. You need to be here next week." I waited for those words for 17 months before I got to read them. No wait, it was more like four years.

This year was even better because I got to spend Christmas with our new son. It was everything I had hoped it would be and then some. The kid spent almost 30 minutes unwrapping his presents on Christmas Eve. Then he tried tearing into ours. Then he took stock of all his loot. He couldn't believe his eyes.

Hard to believe this time last year he was in the hospital in Ukraine. And when you think if "children's ward" what comes to mind? Perhaps some colorful wall murals, stuffed animals, mobiles hanging from the ceiling? You might smell anticeptic, but that's about as "foul" of a smell as it gets, right?

The hospital in Ukraine was a series of two- and three-story buildings on frozen grounds. We parked on the street alongside the hospital, across from a series of high rise apartment buildings built during the reign of communism. If you've ever seen projects or tenements in, oh, maybe the Bronx, Watts, Newark or South Capitol in D.C., the apartments in Ukraine made those look like palaces. There were stray dogs roaming through the streets, picking through various trashcans--at least those that weren't lit with fires for people to warm themselves or cook their food.

Lights weren't on during the day and so when we initially went to the "lobby" of the main building, it was dark. Someone pointed our translator to the "children's ward"-- a building on the far south corner of the hospital grounds.

Getting to that building was treacherous on the icy ground. And even where sections of paved path were dry, they were uneven and bulging from massive tree roots underneath.

One side of the building had a row of doors, almost like a walk-up for each room. The other side was the main entrance and stairwell, leading to the upper floors. The first thing I saw was a huge teddy bear mural painted on top of a Robins Egg Blue background. Then I looked outside the window as three orderlies wheeled someone on a guerney outside. The shapeless body underneath the sheet was more than just cold, it was stiff. I supposed the morgue was next to the children's ward.

Inside was as dark as the lobby of the first building we'd seen. A mixture of urine and feces permeated the corridor.

We were led into a physician's office, which seemed cozy, compared to the rest of the building, but that's not saying much. Everything in the building was as gray as the daylight outside. In fact, when they brought in our little boy, he was the only colorful thing about the place; and I mean that literally because they had dressed him in a bright yellow and red clown outfit that was three sizes too big for him.

Over the next few days, we had a chance to play with Mr. Na in his room because we assured the head physician that both of us had had the chickenpox as kids. His room was quarantined--and he shared it with two other babies and a nine year-old boy who was the pox culprit. There was no way to access his room from the inside of the hospital--we had to make our way outside and around to the other side of the building. The steps leading to the door were treacherous, if anyone could make it that far without sinking in a hole full of ice water.

Access to the room was through the bathroom, which smelled 8,000 times worse than the feces/urine combo in the hallway. It smelled like the entire hospital's sewage system was right there, in that 8'x8' yellow-tiled room with a toilet that was nothing more than a glorified hole in the ground.

Our son-to-be (Mr. Na) barely had the chickenpox, and looked a lot healthier than his roommates who were each covered in spots. To add insult to injury, they looked as though they had just returned from a paintball battle. Their faces were smeared with a blue iodine solution to minimize the pox itching. We nicknamed the little girl roommate "Bluebeard" and found the 9 year-old to be quite handy in terms of trying to quiet down the children. When they cried, he'd get up and rock them; and when the nurses came to change or feed them, he'd help. He was the only one in the room who wasn't an orphan, and his family would come by at least once a day to bring him treats or toys--all of which he'd share with the others.

Mr. Na had just turned 19 months when we met him on that day in January. He had been in the hospital for 21 days--a lifetime for a baby. He was there long before the boy with the pox came--and the staff figured he might as well get those, too, while he was recovering from bronchitis.

Santa managed to miss this little speck of rice on Earth and Christmas didn't come last year for him or for Bluebeard, or for the little baby boy who was always crying because he was always wet because the nurses never changed him. There were no twinkling lights. There wasn't a tree loaded with ornaments and lovingly wrapped presents stuffed underneath. There were no stockings filled with cookies or chocolates. Just a few community pacifiers and rattles that probably hadn't been washed since they were unpacked.

Even though Santa found Mr. Na this year, and more than made up for the two years he spent Christmas-less, I couldn't help but think about Bluebeard or the little baby boy who cried nonstop. I hope that families found them the way we found Mr. Na. I hope someone is showering them with the love that they deserve. And I hope this year, Santa found them too.

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