Feet First

“It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.” - Sir William Osler

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    Saturday, March 15, 2003
    My friend Chuen-Yen is an internist, doing a year's volunteer stint at a hospital in Malawi. Her emails never fail to entertain, educate and inform. Today we take a look at life without water.

    Without. Water.


    Though I stopped taking electricity for granted long ago, I have always expected water to run from the faucet on demand. Even when Blantyre�s hydro plant was down, storage tanks ensured an uninterrupted flow. This week, taps ran dry across the country. Based on experience, nobody believed the supply would resume in the projected two days. Thus, in the interest of self-preservation, people fought desperately over what remained.

    At the hospital, inter-appointment hand washing has ceased. Spirit swab rubdowns could be used instead, but most of us just ceased touching patients. Floors weren�t mopped. Linens weren�t washed. Stenches fermented. In town, the effects were more substantial. Stores rapidly sold-out of buckets. Hygiene went to the wayside. Cooking was nearly impossible. Thirst was rampant.

    My neighbor Darryl and I are lucky enough to share a fairly large water tank with the dental clinic over which we live. So, we weren�t so worried when the shortage began. With a little conservation, our supply could last several days. However, droves of people materialized to fill containers from an outside tap. As darkness set in, clandestine arguments over who should fill their vessels first pierced the air.

    Though inclined, we couldn�t overtly deny water. However, Darryl did put the dogs out as a deterrent. And, as a precaution, I filled three water bottles, my only bucket, a rubbish bin, all four of pots in the kitchen and eight cups. I also collected my bathwater and dishwater for toilet flushing.

    To make matters worse, an inconstant electrical supply exacerbated the water shortage. �Power sharing,� by which only a few areas can simultaneously use electricity, meant water stagnating in unclean vessels often couldn�t be boiled.

    Fortunately, the hospital is considered a high need locale. Water resumed ahead of schedule here. Now we�re more relaxed about sharing with those whose pipes are still dry. And we are enjoying the luxury of suppressing our survival instincts.

    Bye for now.



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