On Connect 4, IV’s, and Rawness

As part of my study abroad program in Granada, we can sign up to be a volunteer in the community we live in.  There are many volunteering opportunities, including helping Spanish teachers in their English as a Second Language classes,  working with the elderly in their homes, and volunteering at local hospitals. A few weeks after signing up to be a volunteer, I received the news that I was chosen to volunteer in one of the hospitals in Granada on the pediatric oncology floor. Two days a week, I travel on the city bus to the Maternity and Pediatric Hospital, where I take the elevator up to the seventh floor to see which patients I’ll be working with that day. My role is something similar to a volunteer within the Child Life Department in US hospitals; some days, I play card games or board games with the patients, and when they’re feeling well enough, we work on their English homework and they ask me to help them practice speaking in English.

The first question people always ask me when I tell them that I am a volunteer on the pediatric oncology floor is, “Oh, wow. Is that hard?” To which I try to answer as honestly as possible: some days, it’s very difficult, but most days, I feel so privileged to have been chosen for this position. During my first week, I was paired with a young girl who had just finished a round of treatment. I remember that day as my most difficult visit by far because everyone in the room was required to wear a face mask, and no one was allowed to touch her things without gloves on. I remember thinking, “I have 20 minutes to remind this beautiful child of how much she is cared for and loved. And I can’t use my smile, or my hands. I have just my eyes, because that is all that can be seen of my face. And though I can’t be close to her, I can talk, and laugh, and remind her that today is a beautiful blessing because here we are, in the middle of “it,” and we have no choice but to accept whatever God has planned with open arms.”

So yes, there are very difficult days, like that first week, but there are also wonderful days, like my time spent with a young boy who is in the last stages of recovery.  As he is a little older than the rest of the patients, and quite energetic, we like to play dominoes and Connect 4. He is very self-conscious about his English (even though I remind him often that he speaks well), and he loves to talk about his favorite soccer and basketball teams in the States. On days when I am paired with him, it feels so much less like a hospital, with its beeping IV’s and heart rate monitors.

Every time after I volunteer, I stop in the chapel on the main floor of the hospital to say a few prayers for the patients I worked with that day. It was there, with the faint sounds of the hospital in the background, I realized that yes, it is difficult to go back, week after week, and be prepared to see children who are so much smaller and sicker than they ought to be because the cancer and treatments are snipping and cutting away at their cells. But, within those hospital walls, I am privileged to encounter not just the Spanish people of Granada, but humans, in all their rawness, in varying degrees of sickness and health. Through my three  hours a week of volunteer time, I have the blessing of encountering brothers and sisters in Christ, in a position where I am capable of helping them realize the beauty of the day before them, whether it is a day spent inside on a hospital bed, or the day that they are able to go home. I am thrilled and humbled to continue my volunteering, despite all the difficult moments, for it is in those difficult moments I am given the gift of connecting my life with another’s, halfway around the world from home. And there is so much inexpressible beauty in that realization; there is so much inexpressible beauty in the difficult.

A note from me: for privacy and legal reasons, I can’t include the names of any patients, or any photos, but please keep the children I work with in your prayers.

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