Earlier today, I was the speaker for the Haddin Lecture Series, a cross-campus program established by former UAB English professor Ted Haddin. I’ve been looking forward to, and worrying about, this presentation for some time now. Usually, I can keep my nerves in check, but this presentation was going to be different.
I’d be telling stories–not just shaping an argument half filled with theory and half filled with academic prose. My greatest concern wasn’t that the stories wouldn’t resonate with the audience, or that I wouldn’t tell them quite right. Rather, I was worried that the stories, like the lives behind them, might be overwhelming–to the audience and to me.
My talk began with the story of Cecilia, a woman from Zambia diagnosed with cervical cancer. Despite her knowledge of the female body from years as a midwife, her cancer ultimately could not be contained . . . largely because of a lack of resources in a nation with too few facilities and doctors to treat her sufficiently. Cecilia died earlier this year.
Next, I shared the story of the 78-year-old man (and man’s family) I had met in the hospice along the Bagmati River in Nepal. I told of his suffering and the common approach to cancer in this culture–sacrificing one’s own life for the sake of the family. I showed images of the ghats that waited for this man outside the windows of the hospice, as they have for generations of Nepalis.
Finally, I told stories that are far closer to home, sharing snapshots of cancer among the homeless: Charles, Erwin, Edwina, and Lisa.
Told together, the stories added up to a deceptively simple point: that the revolution in global health care urging community-based outreach will succeed only if those who carry medicine and advocacy to the underserved recognize and respect their stories. However foreign and multilayered those stories might be.
When the time for ending my talk had come, I still had so many more stories to tell. So much I still wanted to say about the lives I’ve had the opportunity to observe and write about. Maybe next time.