Morphine

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA β€” A spring breeze sweeps over the bright grounds of the hospice off Kamloops Road, and patients sit in their wheelchairs or on the grass of the broad lawns that are vast enough to stay unshaded by the walls that surround the place.

You couldn’t ask for a nicer place to die, except that because of strict government controls on morphine, the stuff runs out and then the residents, all with cancer, AIDS or both, live with agony.

In a sun-filled quiet corner room, the still young woman they call Mulegwa rests, the television on, a visitor sitting on the other bed and she looks up to greet more visitors.

Mulegwa is pretty, with clear skin, bright eyes, an easy smile and she greets visitors with the quiet affability of someone who just likes people.

She is lounging under the covers on her elbow, the TV control in reach, a deck of cards splayed in front of her, the way people who have been in the hospital for a while and are getting better do. An earlier visitor did her nails that day and they shine shell pink against her slender brown hands.

She is doing well today, she says calmly, although the nun who brought the new visitors mutters they have rationed her morphine to stretch the supply, to just enough, but it wears off too soon, giving her a taste of what it will be like if it runs out altogether.

That reminds Mulegwa of why she’s here, and she pulls back the covers to show her new visitors. Her legs are blister-covered logs, her toes swollen clumps of festering yellow scabs.

it goes all the way up to her “privates,” the nun tells one of the visitors, while the other visitor chats with Mulegwa in Bemba.

They don’t know how it got that bad, the nun says. Mulegwa came there a month ago, diagnosed and put on anti-retroviral treatment several months earlier after her husband died of AIDS. The Kaposi’s sarcoma, the tell-tale blackened spots of skin cancer that marked AIDS patients in the early days of the US epidemic showed up after the treatment began. By the time she got here, it had turned into this, and she will never recover.

The smell of dying flesh fills the room and Mulegwa wrinkles her nose and pulls the covers back over the wire cage that holds them off her.

She’s okay now, she says, again, because she got her medicine that day.

Outside the air is fresh and warm. The nun points to a window across the path.

My office is over there, she says. On good days, I can hear her singing. On bad days she curls up under the covers and cries.

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2 Responses

  1. Very moving. What can we do about the necessary drugs for these unfortunate people?

  2. Wow. I agree with Ken. How can we help?

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