Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Death of a Bright, Young Woman

As I live here longer, I think I become inured to some of the outward signs of poverty. But when I see people I’ve come to know suffer and die, I’m brought back to the terrible realities of poverty.

I returned from my vacation to America to find out that one of our employees miscarried while in her seventh month. Some say it was due to stress at work, others say she fell.

Even worse, I returned from Moscow to find out that one of our employees died from kidney problems. I’m going to use her real name, Mairam, to honor and remember her. Her name means “holiday” in Kyrgyz and she was born on the 8th of March (International Women’s Day), one of the most important holidays of the year. Just last month she turned 26.

She was a bright, vivacious and hard-working woman, who was popular among her co-workers. She graduated with honors from the university in 2001, majoring in French and English, yet showed just as much talent in math and finance. I had no idea that she’d been sick. Some of my colleagues knew, but they didn’t know it was so serious.

She died on Monday and was buried the same day. Since I missed the funeral, I went to her parents’ home today to pay my respects and to bring some money, as is the tradition.

With our driver Malan and our office manager Gulnara, I drove out to a rural area just outside of Osh, where her parents had recently built a small house. It was just at the base of an imposing and beautiful mountain, flowering with green spring grasses.

An older man, probably her father, was working in the garden. He came to greet us, his face locked into a grimace of grief. An iron settee was placed outside, covered with colorful woven cushions. A withered old woman, probably her grandmother, sat cross-legged there, staring down at the cushions below her.

We took off our shoes and entered the house. As I was removing my shoes, I could hear the sound of crying inside. We were led into a small room with a window looking out into the front yard. Four women knelt on cushions on the floor, facing a narrow bed covered with a thin, red sheet. All of them wore headscarves and all of them cried and wailed, looking at the bed where Mairam must have taken her last breaths.

Gulnara had told me that the women had been allowed to see Mairam at the funeral and she’d lain on that bed, her face puffy and one eye open. Gulnara said that the sight hit her in the stomach, filling her with intense grief.

Gulnara cried and my eyes teared at the pitiful sight of grief. Gulnara stood up, approaching Mairam’s mother, and hugged her. After a few minutes, the younger women switched from crying to prayer, while the mother continued to cry. I later found out that the three younger women were Mairam’s sisters.

Her older sister faced me. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Were you the one who called on Thursday?” she asked.

“No,” I said. I’d been in Moscow.

“Someone called from work, but Mairam was lying right there. I couldn’t explain things in front of her. So I just said everything was fine and hung up the phone.”

I wanted to show the family that I cared for and respected their daughter and sister. But I was uncomfortable, not knowing how to handle myself in a Kyrgyz home of morning. When I sensed that we were about to move into another room, I went to hug the mother and handed her the envelope of money.

“I can’t believe she worked with someone like you,” she said, crying anew and refused to take the envelope. I hugged her again and pressed it into her hand. I’m sure her family has become accustomed to her monthly income, and with no life insurance here, it will be hard for them financially, not to mention emotionally.

We were led into the second room, where colorful cushions surrounded a white cloth trimmed with gold embroidery. We leaned on pillows against the wall while Mairam’s sisters brought out round loaves of bread, dried apricots, raisins, candies, tomato sauce, soup and tea.

Gulnara told me that there was a similar spread at the funeral. “Usually people don’t put out a lot of food at funerals,” she said. “Maybe just some bread or something simple. I was surprised that her family had so many expensive things and so much meat. I wondered why they’d go to the expense. But when I asked, someone told me that because Mairam was young, they hoped that feeding people well would make her happy.

I wasn’t in any mood to eat. I took only a tiny piece of bread in order to satisfy the Kyrgyz hospitality rule of needing to offer bread to houseguests. While they brought out the food, Gulnara whispered to me. She told me that Mairam had had a dream in the winter in which she’d married a man who was already dead. Never having been married, she was preparing to marry someone she didn’t love. Twenty six is old for a Kyrgyz woman to marry and her parents felt it was time. Toward the end of her illness, she told her female friends from work that she wanted to have children and she wanted to have a wedding and a pretty dress. “I think those things might not happen,” she said, regretfully.

I asked if the woman cried all day and she said they only cried when visitors came. I asked if they cried again when money was offered and she said no, that wasn’t part of the tradition.

Mairam’s mother looked so much like her that I could almost feel her presence. When she spoke from her place on the sofa (the only piece of furniture), it seemed it was Mairam herself speaking. Her mother pulled out a black and white picture of Mairam and handed it to me.

“This is her in first grade,” she said.

“Third grade,” her sister said.

She had two ponytails on the sides of her head, a questioning expression, and she wore a badge pinned onto her white blouse.

“Yes, she must be in third grade,” Gulnara said. “She’s wearing the Young Pioneers badge.”

“She looks just like she did as an adult,” her mother said. And it was true.

They told me that she’d been sick for the past few months. She had piercing headaches. She used her last vacation to get treatment at the local hospital. But they misdiagnosed her kidney problem as high blood pressure. And it sounds like by treating the high blood pressure, they exacerbated the kidney problem.

By January, she couldn’t keep anything down. Gulnara had told me she was eating only mandarin oranges.

“Anytime she put anything into her mouth, she’d have to go right to the bathroom and throw up,” her mother said. “But she didn’t say anything to anybody at work.”

She recently took another vacation to treat herself again. This time, they went to the regional hospital and got a correct diagnosis. But by this time it was too late. They gave her a blood transfusion and she went downhill from there.

“After the transfusion, she lost all her strength,” her mother said.

“Her coworkers told me that after the transfusion she couldn’t walk and her face got puffy,” Gulnara said. “She joked that she must have gotten the blood of an alcoholic.”

The hospital sent her home to die.

“We tried to get her to Bishkek,” her sister said. “We sent them the test results, but they rejected us, saying it was too late to do anything.”

“Why couldn’t she get a new kidney?” I had asked Gulnara and Malan in the car.

“How?” they asked.

“By donation.” I told them I’m already signed up to donate.

“Muslims think that’s a sin,” they said, looking disgusted.

“But what’s the point of putting a functioning organ in the ground and letting a 26-year-old woman die when she could live? What a waste,” I said, and, surprisingly, they seemed to agree.

“Our medical technology hasn’t developed that far,” Gulnara said.

“But they do it in Russia,” I replied.

“Yeah, there they cut open people before they are even dead and sell their organs,” Malan said. “You just get in a little car accident and you’re killed for your body parts.”

He was referring to a much publicized trial of several doctors in Moscow who are accused of taking the organs from a car accident victim instead of treating him.

Mairam’s family brought out her college diploma and a small photo album to show me. “She didn’t take many pictures,” her mother said. As her younger sister carefully put them away, I felt sad that their physical reminders were so few.

Her mother explained how the regional hospital said Mairam was eligible to be an invalid of the first class, a status that receives some government benefits.

“Mairam refused,” she said. “She wouldn’t even fill out the paperwork. She told me that she wasn’t going to lie around and be an invalid. She said she’d be back at work soon. I told her she was sick and if she needed to, she would lay at home and not work until the fall. She started to cry.”

I don’t know what it is that causes kidney problems, but they seem to be pretty common here. One colleague thinks it’s due to sediment in the tap water. Another thinks it’s due to improper nutrition.

In any case, it’s just tragic that a kind, intelligent, good-hearted young woman had to die. It seems like with a little better healthcare, she could have been treated and lived a full life. And at such times, the inequities in the world loom in front of me like a sharp-tooth tiger, making me feel powerless. I think and worry about two other employees, both young men, who are sick. One has had persistent stomachaches, and can’t get a diagnosis either in Osh or Bishkek. Another regularly receives shots. Both continue to work and to live their lives, hoping for the best.

And while I could use my resources to give the family a little financial help, I’m powerless to do what really counts, to bring this promising young woman back to life and give her the chance to realize her potential.

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