Aug
26
2014

It is 9 a.m. on Tuesday, August 26. I am waiting for our Land Rovers to arrive to take us from Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a closely monitored haven for injured or orphaned wildlife, where nightly armed patrols spread out into the 90,000 acre conservancy to protect endangered rhinos and other wildlife from poachers. My mind races uncontrollably through scattered memories of the four days since we left the community of Karen outside Nairobi to begin what has been an indescribably beautiful and humbling journey through the cradle of civilization, Kenya.

At this moment, I sit on the veranda of the Sweetwater Tent Camp, looking out over the waterhole where wildlife safely visit nightly, protected from the ever-present danger of poachers. The guest facilities include tents that overlook the waterhole, but the tents are more like suites in a 5-star hotel, with every amenity of service and courtesy imaginable. Yet I am drawn back to the first day's vaccination clinic in a small community just outside Naivasha, where the only luxuries are perhaps shelter, and certainly family and community.

We could barely contain our excitement as Dr. Kris Ahlgrim, assistant Melissa Aycock, and I (team Hell on Wheels) began to unload our supplies, ready to start the day-long vaccination clinic. I looked up and saw children who had brought their dogs and cats to us by whatever means they could. Dogs were on rope or chain leads and cats were in a kind of burlap bag. It surprised me how few parents had come along with the children, but in Kenyan communities adults work in the fields, tend their livestock, or work in the closet-size shops that line the streets of most communities. I was also surprised by how gentle their dogs and cats were. Having referred to them as "community" pets for so long, I expected them to be a bit intractable, but that was not my experience, nor was it the experience of any of the other teams. We were all touched by the gentleness of the children, and of most of the adults, too. Never did I see or hear physical or verbal harshness toward their pets.

One of my first patients was a 10- or 11-month old calico cat, who was carried gently by a girl of about 8 years old. She wore a pretty satiny purple dress that had been worn well for some time, but she radiated kindness as she stood first in the ever-shifting line the children formed. I reached to take the cat from her so she would not be injured and as I did, the cat became frightened and escaped my grasp. I stood, mortified, as I watched the cat run into a thick growth of Euphorbia trees, a cactus with needles about 2 inches long. Euphorbia grow to 10 to 12 feet tall in dense, deep growths and are so thick that there is little more than a foot separating one from another, their many low branches intertwining, making it impossible for anyone to follow.

The child ran to the thicket and watched as her cat disappeared before our eyes. I stood watching, knowing that I was responsible. Then, I was drawn back to the chatter and clatter of I-don't-know-how-many children scurrying about in the dusty place where we'd set up shop, now forgetting in my responsibility to the other animals assembled. Time and dogs and cats and children passed quickly and I did not look up again for quite some time until I caught a quick glimpse of the beautiful child standing only a few yards from me with Kris tending to her. I stopped immediately and asked Kris what had happened. She said that the cat had come out from the Euphorbia thicket and the child brought the cat back to Kris, whose calmness and technique are far superior to mine. As Kris administered the vaccine, the child was scratched ever so slightly and Kris stopped what she was doing to tend to the wound. She stool there before Kris, her eyes cast slightly downward, silently trusting Kris' gentle care. I gave Kris a small bottle of hand sanitizer to clean the scratch. The child spoke neither a word nor a cry. Kris spoke softly in a language the girl could not understand, yet she understood. In another moment, the beautiful child in the pretty satiny purple dress was gone. Kris and I returned to our duties.

 

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