August 8, 2008


Pitstop: when a racing car stops in the pits for refueling.

Layover: the time during a long trip that is spent at a terminal after disembarking one vehicle and waiting to board the next.

I boarded the shaky old Air Mozambique plane in Maputo two months ago. I thought I was popping home to Australia briefly to bring whatever support and refreshing I could to my weary family, after months of illness and struggles back home. I didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm that was beginning to develop in my work in Zimpeto, but knew that a quick trip back to my family was necessary.

The night before my departure, I sat on the floor of the Baby House, farewelling the one-year-olds as Francisco dozed in my lap, Alirio gulped from the bottle I held to his lips and Antonio climbed along my left leg, leaving a wet track of drool to mark his movements. I promised to return soon, telling them not to miss me even as I told my own heart to shut down now rather than endure the pain of walking away and not seeing these precious babes for a few weeks.

And then I left them, trudging through the sand as my heart began to ache. I finished packing, slept badly and made my way to the airport next morning. As the rattly plane took off to the north, I held my breath, tracking my way over the broken tin roofs of the Maputo outskirts. I cried for the babes I would not see for weeks and, even then, began to make plans for when I returned in July.

Ah, the best-laid plans…

Within a week of touchdown in Sydney, I was in a hospital bed, paralysed and unable to walk or write or even to smile. I had been hit hard and suddenly by an illness that gave no warning of its imminent arrival nor of its devastating power. Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a rare, non-contagious disease of the immune system, affecting the nerves which lose their ability to send messages to the muscles which, in turn, stop working.

After a harrowing day of invasive tests and endless, probing questions in the emergency room, I was admitted to hospital. From that moment, when the battle lines were drawn and the enemy’s name had been clearly established, I began to fight with every morsel of strength and determination I could muster. And with the steadfast support of my already worn-out family and the sustaining prayers of friends all over the world, there I stayed for six weeks.

This was a layover I never saw coming.

One day, tingling toes. The next, numb fingers. A few days later, paralysed legs. My body was betraying me with no warning, no alarm bells, no quiet whisper to prepare me for the coming trial. I was being betrayed by a body that had always served me well. One moment I was fine then, suddenly, my toes were buzzing. This body just stopped working, as if rebelling against some unseen enemy that I racked my brain to identify and blame.

Even in the diagnosis, there was nothing at which to aim my wrath, no virus invading, no bacteria causing this breakdown of my nerves which refused to do their job of making my muscles move. My body was attacking itself. My own immune system was in rebellion, eating away at my nerves’ endings, rendering them powerless to do their job of firing off messages to my now lifeless muscles.

“Your body will heal itself.” “Your nerves will regrow on their own.” “Soon, the deterioration will cease and you’ll begin to get better.” In other words, “We don’t know how to fix this”.

And so we waited.

For two very long, tense weeks, the paralysis spread, just a little each day. And somehow I coped. I refused to consider the worst. I could not allow my mind to think the unthinkable. I rejected fear and I snubbed depression. In my mind, I hunted for every positive thought and every faith–filled verse of victory and healing I could remember from my bible. And I mulled on these hour after hour, even as my blood was being pumped with round upon round of hopefully, possibly, maybe life-giving immunoglobulin, retrieved from the healthy blood of a charitable donor.

Note to self: give blood. Just do it.

Hope soared in the second week as my legs began to gain some strength. I’d hit bottom and was coming back up. I could relax. The worst was over and only good would come to me from here.

The next morning I looked in the mirror, horrified. I could not find my smile. My face was lifeless, vacant of expression or movement even as I tried to force my muscles to act. The weapon I used more than any other to fend off melancholy and hopelessness had left me. I was certain that someone was playing a sick joke, returning my legs then stealing my grin. I was smiling on the inside but my face would not obey. I looked tired and sad and defeated.

I wanted to shout, “I have not lost this battle! I’m going to win! I’m still smiling on the inside!” If I’d been able, I would have made fists with my weakened hands and shook them at my unseen enemy, threatening my invisible foe. Another sick joke: I could not make a fist.

I was scared for the first time. What if my supporters saw my dull expression and began to doubt, to falter in their conviction that all would be well? I needed them to be unwavering and resolute on my behalf. Our determination fed off each other. Please, God, help them to keep smiling for me.

And they did. My team, my cheer squad, my fellow warriors, stood firm, stubborn in their support. They kept smiling when I could not. My family, my friends, even my exhausted, indomitable nurses, kept smiling and laughing and feeding me with their good humour and faith. And so, because of them, I was able to keep smiling on the inside.

My smile deserted me for only a few days and then it made its sunny return. From that moment, I knew that I knew that all would be well. I continued to heal, regaining movement in my arms and legs over a period of weeks. My smile grew stronger daily and, when my wink returned, I knew the sun was shining more hotly than ever, bringing healing in every bright ray.

Each morning when I woke, I’d lie in bed and test my limbs: fingers first, then hands and arms. Move on now to toes then feet and legs. And, finally, my face. Smile… big… bigger… blow a kiss, make a fish-face, blink and wink. Check… check… check!

By this time, hospital had become a comfortable place for me. I began to fret about having to leave soon. What if I fall? What if there’s no one to help me? What if…? What if…? My weakened body was housing two different personalities: one brave and fearless, ready to go home and start life all over again, and one who wanted to stay in hospital where everything had become routine and predictable and safe, where I was cared for and where there were few demands placed upon me. My nurses had become my new best friends and I was having difficulty imagining how I would cope without them.

But, cope I have. Two weeks since discharge and all is well. My body grows stronger daily and only occasionally lets me down. The 14 stairs to my room have taunted me into action and helped me to work harder than I thought I could. And my heart has begun once more to wander back to the hauntingly beautiful land I left two months ago as I wonder what comes next for me.

One step at a time. The world awaits and will be there, waiting still, when I am well again.

This pitstop was not one I saw coming. If I had, I would have driven by, as fast as I could. But life had other plans. And I, despite being pummeled and bruised, was not defeated. In fact, I am now able to embrace the months of quiet and solitude handed to me so surprisingly. As my body rehabilitates, my soul has time to do the same.

This time is a gift given in the most unusual of ways. And this pitstop allows me time and space for the refueling my spirit needs before the next leg of the race we so lightly call life, which I will strive to treat with the greatest respect from here on in.

Here’s to life.