BANGLADESH, 2017: Jahanara lies still on the hospital bed, staring into the distance, her thoughts far away beyond the metal walls of the floating hospital where she now is. The doctors remove the three day-old dressing around her hand, slowly exposing her forearm, her palms and finally her fingers. She does not flinch; expressionless, as cotton and surgical gauze are removed, an antiseptic solution poured over, and fresh dressing repacked as padding between her fingers.
Dr. Tracy works efficiently and swiftly to replace Jahanara’s splint and cover it with elastic bandage. This plastic surgeon is part of a team who has travelled to Bangladesh to volunteer their services on one of Friendship’s floating hospitals. After arriving from the United States, the group potentially faced a lengthy journey to then reach the remote stretch of the Padma River where the vessel is docked. Flying with MAF has instead saved two whole days of traversing roads in dire condition and crossing myriad rivers –time that is instead spent helping the country’s poorest patients.
Like all those who received treatment, the story behind Jahanara’s injury is laced with
poverty and despair. After being divorced by her husband, she had returned to live with her widowed mother. Barely two months later, the kerosene cooking stove her mother had been filling, burst, covering Jahanara’s two year-old child with burning fuel. Scrambling to remove the infant’s clothing, Jahanara acquired third degree burns to her left hand. The physical pain of the injury was magnified by the mental anguish of losing her child to the burns five days later.
At 23, Jahanara was now a childless divorcee with a useless left hand. A bad situation in any country, but living on a char (sand island), her prospects were especially bleak. Banners and announcements in their village had however broadcast the arrival of burn-specialist doctors to the Emirates Friendship Hospital (EFH) anchored nearby. With the coaxing of a neighbour, Jahanara’s family decided to take a chance.
After eleven months of bearing a useless hand, the operation performed by the plastic
surgery team removed keloid tissue and repaired tendons, giving Jahanara a new lease in
life. Eventually, with physiotherapy, Jahanara will be able to flex her fingers, if not form a fist. During this time, Jahanara will stay in the makeshift wards on shore and cross over to
the floating hospital every other day for free medical assistance in changing her dressings.
Dr. Saifuddin, resident doctor on EFH, suggests that maybe an NGO placement could help
train Jahanara. Employment would give her a sense of independence, even an identity;
perhaps even a better standing in society. At this suggestion, and for the first time, a small
smile flits at the corner of Jahanara’s mouth, her eyes reflecting optimism. "The foreign
doctors have given me hope", she says shyly.