Some stories are so hard to tell with written words.
How do you make the images, emotions and struggles come to life? I don’t really know, but I owe it to a young man named Bonney to try.
Gray clouds filled the sky when I woke up that morning, and I wondered if village life would end up being “shut down” by rain as it had the day before. The clinic workers hadn’t shown up to open the medical clinic and everyone had stayed indoors all day, which is apparently very typical and something I don’t understand at all.
After a day cooped up inside, I was more than ready for another day at the clinic, practicing my pidgin while observing small children being treated for skin disease, mothers and babies with malaria or old women fighting infection. I sat in a hammock chair by the front window in the missionaries’ village home waiting for a health worker to come get the clinic keys. I sipped my mug of black coffee, iced my black and blue swollen knee (that I’d injured the day before by falling through a hard word floor of an old classroom) and kept watch on the muddy path below.
Every now and then, I checked the time. 9am passed, then 9:30. 10am crept by and still no one came. Around 10:30am I heard someone approaching, but instead of the worker I had hoped for, I saw a crowd of people following six men who were carrying a makeshift bamboo stretcher on their shoulders.
I immediately called out for the missionary as the villagers rushed by the house. She hurried to the window and yelled down to the stragglers at the back of the crowd to see what had happened.
As soon as Karie heard that a boy had been attacked by a wild pig, she grabbed her shoes. I quickly found my flip-flops and raced down the stairs with her, despite the pain in my knee. There was a small crowd outside the “haus win” several village doors down and seeing the tell-tale sign, we hurried in that direction, trying to avoid falling in the slippery mud. The small mob that had gathered parted as the “whiteskins” arrived and we clumsily climbed up the homemade ladder, then carefully made our way over the soft bark flooring (testing our weight with each step) to get to the boy. A young man, in his early twenties, lay on the limbun floor in front of us. He was pale, restless and had blood pooled around his legs where a soaked, makeshift bandage and tourniquet signaled that his right knee was seriously injured.
Karie instructed the family to rush him several doors down to the clinic while we ran back to the house to grab the keys we’d left behind in our hurry to get downstairs.
On our way through the village, Karie (who has no formal medical training, but is looked to during emergencies which is typical for missionaries) warned me that starting IVs and giving shots always put her on the verge of passing out and that I may have to take over. I was promoted to “nurse” on the spot.
We opened the clinic ahead of the crowd, searching the exam rooms for a large plastic sheet to spread on the floor, along with bandages, IV fluid, scissors, needles, guaze and anything else we might need. Karie quickly prayed as the boy was laid gently in the middle of the floor of the waiting room, while 30 or more curious villagers piled into the small space to watch.
Bonney muttered something about being thirsty, so another young man pulled his body up then sat behind him on the black plastic, propping him into a upright position so that they could give him a sip of water. He immediately grew dizzy so they laid him back down, but as soon as he was placed back on the floor, he began having seizures. People crowded around to hold him still so he wouldn’t injure his legs worse than they already were.
We were informed that as a little boy, Bonney had contacted cerebral malaria which had left him with partial eyesight and epilepsy. He’d insisted on living a normal life and had been on his way to his own small garden to pick cucumbers that morning when he had unknowingly crossed the path of the wild pig that had been riled up by a dog. A child nearby had heard the screams and found him in the condition he was in as he lay before us.
His face was pale and Karie knew he needed an IV, so I found a rubber glove to use as a tourniquet. Karie tied it on tight, hoping to encourage his veins to show, but his blood pressure had dropped so low they were barely visible. Her hands shook as she tried to start an IV on him, and I held his arm still. I tried putting pressure on the vein at his inner elbow to see if blood would pool into his lower arm. Finally, a little vein showed itself, but several tries later, there was no luck in starting the IV. The situation was growing more critical by the minute and Karie whispered that she thought she was going to pass out. She laid her head down to rest a minute and I put my hand on her head, praying silently for her and for myself in case she went down and I ended up having to try to start the IV. A sense of calm flooded through me and fear vanished. All of the sudden, I knew that if it came down to it, I could take the needle from her and try my best if it meant saving this kid’s life.
Thankfuly, Karie came to quickly and tried one more time, finally getting the needle in. Instructing me to hold it tight and not led it slide out, she slumped down to the floor again, feeling dizzy and light-headed. I grabbed the port and taped it to his skin with bandaids, while the village women fanned Karie to cool her down in the stifling heat. A minute later she recovered, sat up and hooked up the IV bag. This time it worked.
She began cleaning the less serious wounds first as we watched Bonney slowly regain color. We quietly discussed the more serious injury hidden behind the bandage on his right leg, waiting and hoping the nurse would arrive before it was time to address it. Blood had pooled under his knee and the bandage remained bright red. Each of us had silently begun to wonder if the pig may have hit the artery. When we’d run upstairs to grab the clinic keys a little while earlier, Jesse, Karie’s husband, had left on his four-wheeler to find a nurse from a nearby village who happened to be the only person in the region that knew how to tie off a vein.
We heard the four-wheeler approaching and breathed a sigh of relief when the nurse (equivalent to an LPN) walked in. She accessed the injury quickly, but was scared to unwrap Bonney’s right leg fearing the same thing we’d begun to suspect. As Karie and the woman talked, I asked the boy’s uncle, Aiken, whether or not the blood had been spraying before they wrapped the wound. When he nodded yes, my heart sank. I whispered the message to the others. We all knew that though he seemed stabilized for the moment, he was still losing blood and there was no chance for survival unless we could get him to a plane.
This particular village actually had a grass airstrip, and if a mission plane was available to land, it would only be about a 25 minute flight to town. Jesse rushed off on the four-wheeler to go the “Digicel” tree. There is one spot in the entire village that the mobile network can be reached and that is high up a tall tree. He climbed up to connect with the network but when he contacted the mission organization, the closest plane was near the border of Indonesia and wouldn’t be able to land in the village until 4 or 5pm. It wasn’t even 11:30am.
Jesse then called Samaritan Aviation, notifying Mark of the emergency. Mark confirmed that he would be waiting in the floatplane on the deep water of the lagoon, along with a nurse in two hours, the earliest a canoe carrying Bonney could arrive.
I shoved a long sleeved shirt, sunscreen, mosquito repellant and a bottle of water in my bilum then hurried to catch up with the crowd that was carrying Bonney down the mile long path back to the river. He was loaded into the 60-foot motor canoe (that was carved from a single log), while I slipped off my shoes and waded through the muck to get into the boat. We took off before I even had a chance to sit down.
The IV bag was strung up on a forked branch which Bonney’s uncle held, as Bonney’s mother and a friend tried to keep him steady. As we streamed past the villages of Painiten, Lol and Latan, people came running to the bank to see who was going where. News about the emergency was shouted to those on the bank, along with instructions to tell aunts, uncles and cousins what was happening. Bonney began to move around restlessly and his family attempted to calm him.
Several times, my eyes welled with tears, but the wind whipped them across my temples and into my hair before they had time to fall. My heart pounded as I prayed silently…some times saying the only words that I could form. Please, please, please, please, please. Oh God, please. Let us make it in time.
I had been on the river with another medical emergency just three days before and knew that there was a certain 30 minute stretch up ahead where the grass was so thick you couldn’t even see water. The boat would plow into a wall of reeds, momentum taking it only so far as blades of grass slapped you in the face. The boat would jolt to a stop and long wooden poles were used to push the canoe through the thick swampy tangle while swarms of mosquitoes, more than I had ever seen, descended into the boat. Eventually we’d break through, only to gain speed then hit another wall. It was impossible to go fast, in some spots, almost impossible to move at all.
Twenty minutes into our trek on the river, the family motioned for the driver to pull over so that Jesse could pray. Multiple voices desperately joined Jesse’s and as soon as the “amen” was heard, the motor roared to life again.
Less than five minutes later, Bonney began thrashing around, cried out in a loud voice, “God help me” in Pidgin, then went still.
And just like that, he was gone.
The canoe came to rest in the shade and we all sat in defeated silence, while the family leaned over his body calling his name over and over again, hoping for an answer. Something. But there was nothing. Sadly, reluctantly, Bonney’s uncle eventually lifted his head and motioned for the driver to turn the boat.
It was time to take him home.
The sound of the motor canoe slowly returning so soon sent a wordless message to each village we had just passed. One by one, people came running out of their houses, their faces frozen in screams of grief. Some threw themselves into the water, frantically trying to climb into the boat to cradle his body. His mother and uncle, who’d been riding in stunned silence, began to wail.
I’ve never heard the death wail before.
I’m not sure I’ll forget it as long as I live.
Clenching my jaw against the overwhelming emotion, I fought to stay calm as I prayed for his family. Prayed for his friends. Prayed about the so many things I didn’t understand.
We pulled away from the bank to head to the next village, Bonney’s village, and I slid along the smooth wood of the canoe closer to the boy’s mother and put a hand on her back. I sat hugging my knees as she laid across her son’s body and grieved. I didn’t know what else to do.
When we reached Painiten, family members came running and collapsed into the mud on the bank. Bonney’s uncle climbed out of the canoe and immediately dropped to the ground wailing. Everyone fought tears as a few came forward to lift him out of the canoe. With teary eyes, the boat driver turned to ask if I was okay to walk from this point. We climbed out, went past the hauswin where they’d carried the body and trekked the two miles back to Samban, crossing a long log over the river to carry the sad message back.
That day, I experienced the true need for what Samaritan Aviation does.
I felt the desperation as we raced along the river, and my heart clung to the hope the float plane provided. If we could have made it to the lagoon in time, Bonney might have had a chance.
Sometimes I imagine the relief it would have been to stand balancing in the canoe, watching the plane fly off toward Wewak with Bonney inside. But we didn’t get to experience that. And that’s okay. God has a plan. He always does and though I don’t always understand it, I can rest in it.
Later that night, the missionary told me that a few days before, he’d preached at the village church in Painenton and Bonney, despite his limited eyesight and medical issues, had proudly sat at the front of the building playing drums in worship to God. He told me that Bonney was the type of kid that did the most with the little he had. He also told me that Bonney would have wanted his story told.
And so I write because I’m the one who holds his story.
I don’t know what “good” this will do. There are countless untold tragedies that happen in these jungles day in and day out, but Bonney’s path crossed mine for a reason. Maybe in this small way, he’ll finally get out of the jungle and into the world.