90 minutes I just can’t forget

By  Tim Mannat S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • April 24, 2007

The summer before my last year of theology studies, I spent seven weeks in East Africa involved in various ministries related to HIV/AIDS outreach. One of the outreaches consisted in accompanying social workers from a Catholic hospital in Kampala on home visits to check on patients who had begun anti-retroviral drug regimens (ARVs). This is how I came to know Katana Stella. 

When I first met Stella, I mistook her for a 10-year-old girl. She weighed perhaps 75 pounds, spoke very softly and was curled up in the fetal position under blankets. However, her diction and sophisticated sense of humour quickly revealed that I was in the presence of a high school student. She had been in her grandmother’s care for nearly a year after various symptoms of AIDS began to manifest themselves. She had inherited HIV from her parents, both dead.

In conversation with her and her grandmother, the social worker learned that Stella was only occasionally taking the ARVs. Comments from members of the church she had joined about relying solely on prayer were competing with the advice of health care workers, thereby resulting in the on-again, off-again approach to the meds. In any case, she spoke hopefully about recovering and resuming her studies. To that end, she asked me to remember to bring her a laptop computer (!) the next time I visited so she could brush up on her French.

Stella’s vulnerability and resilience stuck with me throughout the ensuing week. Consequently, I asked the driver of the social workers to draw me a map to get to the grandmother’s house on my own. “She’s over there,” he replied, pointing to an examining room in Sambya Homecare clinic. “Her grandmother brought her in this morning.”

Stella was weak from bronchitis and lying on her side. I told her how happy I was to see her. I noticed blotches of dry skin on her head and arms and realized her condition was much more grave than I originally understood.

At the end of the afternoon, the staff had not admitted her to the hospital on account of a lack of beds, at least that was the story. Miffed and thinking about registering a complaint with the hospital administrators, I nevertheless carried Stella, placed her in the back seat of the pickup and accompanied her and her grandmother back to their house 45 minutes away.

Over my shoulder, I kept turning to look at Stella in the back seat. Passing in and out of consciousness, she wasn’t about to let me forget the request from a week earlier. “Now Doctor (she would alternately call me Doctor or Father), you remember your promise?  About the computer? And my birthday is coming up. Will you bring me a present for my birthday?” 

Try as I might to focus on the gift of being together then and there, she kept coming back to the computer. What was I to do?

Back at her grandmother’s house, I placed Stella on a sofa in the living room and fetched the guitar I had been playing for children at the clinic. Showing the chutzpah from her healthy years, she listened to me play for maybe a minute before she reached for the instrument and wanted to strum it herself (for the first time).

I promised to visit her soon and she of course reminded me of her birthday and the computer.

I returned three days later to find Stella’s immune system further compromised. Indeed, it was clear that the hospital’s refusal to admit her earlier in the week was not for lack of space, but rather because members of the staff knew her body had reached a point of no return. She was dehydrated and disoriented; her breathing shallow and laboured. Meanwhile, recalling the dry splotches on Stella’s skin, I had brought some lotion with me. After asking Stella and her grandmother for permission, I spread the lotion on her forehead, face and arms. When I told her that her arms, in particular, were thirsty, she replied, “Yes, and hungry too.”

Meanwhile, there was a trashy British novel next to her bed, on loan from a schoolmate.  Copping a British accent, I read to her for about 10 minutes. This seemed to have a calming affect. However, the salacious details of the story made me quickly lose interest, and I invited her to listen as I prayed the Our Father for her.

Kissing her on the forehead, I promised to return two days later. I also thanked her grandmother Aisha for everything she had done for her granddaughter.

Taking a walk around the compound where I was staying that night, I said to Jesus, “Lord, I couldn’t help but feel like the woman who anointed you for burial at Bethany today.” And I asked Him to teach me how to pray for someone like Stella. Was it for recovery or a peaceful death or something else that I should pray?

The next day, being so close and having been moved by the previous visit, I decided to visit Stella again, taking with me one of the staff members in the hopes that he would get to know the family and keep contact with them in the future. As we turned the corner off a main road, there were men sitting on sofa chairs outside the grandmother’s house.

“That does not look good,” my companion said. 

Aisha met us at the door to announce that Stella had died before midnight, perhaps four hours after I had left. Inside the house, Stella’s body was laid out on a mattress with a sheet pulled over her. A small photograph of her was placed against the body. It had been taken a year before, and captured Stella as a full-bodied 16-year-old. I was flabbergasted by the contrast. I was invited to offer a prayer for her amidst the many women sitting on the floor of the living room. The next day, I attended her burial.

It is hard to put into words the impact that my brief contact with Katana Stella had on me. On the one hand, I was only with her three times for a total of about 90 minutes. And yet time and again my mind’s eye takes me into the room where a teenager lies in the fetal position, her dignity intact, her dreams for a computer and French classes and a boyfriend still alive in her imagination, leading me to tears over the privilege of having accompanied such a dear young woman in her final hours, indeed, of having been entrusted the task of anointing her for burial.

(Mannat is a Wisconsin Province Jesuit who will be ordained this June in Milwaukee.)

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