Once, when I was looking for Aicha, I found her hiding behind her father. Since the day she arrived on the ward, she had been uneasy. I thought I could lift her spirits. I assumed cheering up a four-year-old would be easy, but, as I approached, she gripped her father’s arm. She looked terrified. Aicha’s big brown eyes met mine, and they told me something sad–she did not want to be found.
Aicha was burned in a house fire. Flames had licked the sides of her face, the backs of her arms, her thighs, shoulders, wrists, neck, and hips. Her right ear was missing. Because she went without proper wound treatment, the skin on her elbows, arms, and sides contracted. This caused her skin to regrow in such a way that her inner elbows became stuck to her forearms.
Aicha received surgery onboard the Africa Mercy to release her contractures and graft new skin, but her glassy eyes remained round and wary. This little body had endured a lot in its four years, including heartache. The fire that left her this way had also killed her mother. Underneath Aicha’s wounds was a child scarred by anxiety, grief, and an inconsolable fear.
From her hospital bed in the furthest corner of the ward, Aicha could see everything. Abdom, her father, sat on a stool at her bedside and smiled apologetically to people who sent her into tears just by glancing in their direction. Abdom could not leave Aicha’s side without sending her into hysterics. He was the only comfort she had left. During bandage changes, she called out for her mother.
Aicha was scared of everyone. It seemed like there was no remedy for her fear. She didn’t care for toys, or treats, or hugs. She wasn’t interested in playing games. To approach her with a smile could induce panic. We are professionals when it comes to winning the hearts of even the most stubborn kids, but Aicha was different. Aicha was heartbroken.
Because Aicha’s recovery took several months, time was on our side. Slowly, she regained her mobility with rehabilitation exercises. Slowly, she became curious about the strange people in blue scrubs who brought her balloons and sat with her father. Sometimes these people in blue sang and danced. Sometimes they gathered in a circle by the door and bowed their heads. From her corner bed, Aicha watched.
When Aicha was well enough to go outside, she liked to sit on the deck in her father’s lap. Maybe it was just the sunshine, but she started to warm to us. Her grip on Abdom’s shirt loosened a little.
There were days that involved dressing changes and bitter medicine (on those days, we lost some ground), but they were followed by days with little smiles. We took what we could get. Winning over a broken heart means victory comes in shattered pieces.
Then came patience and love. Over those next few weeks, we loved Aicha until she asked to color. We waited until she smiled at our silly faces. We gave her space. We pretended not to notice when she took a little step away from her father’s side. We played it cool when she explored the ward on a scooter. Each time Aicha left the safety of her corner, there we were. We were safe, too.
Then came the day she fell into our arms. Winning Aicha was worth the wait.
Today, Abdom no longer carries the burden of being his daughter’s only comfort. When he leaves for work, he knows she is alright in his absence. “You have set me free. You have given me my life back,” Abdom says.
Now if I go looking for Aicha in the hospital, I know I won’t find her, and that’s okay. It’s not because she’s hiding—Aicha stopped doing that a while ago. It’s because she doesn’t need a hospital anymore. Today, Aicha is at home in Congo—hopeful, healed, and unafraid.