On the Breath of a Song

Six years, five months and four days into her dream, Dr. Dorothy Kinney tumbled to the realization that she wore it quite easily now, that mantle of womanhood that had slipped and slid across her shoulders in fits and starts through medical school. But tonight, the realization hit her squarely between the eyes. It fit her almost as elegantly now as did the white coat of her trade, the crisp linen jacket that defined her mission as healer to these people. Her people now. The women and children of Gauhati, India.

 

Tonight the hospital seemed to be holding its breath in this dark hour. Its new walls and windows buffered the sounds of the nighttime jungle, creating a haven of sorts. Quiet. Waiting.

 

At the fringes of her mind, Dorothy became aware that someone had opened an outer door, letting a gentle breeze trace its fingers across the doomed child who lay before her. It seemed a welcome embrace.

 

She’d seen hundreds of children in her six years here. Trembling little boys and girls and hysterical toddlers, most of whom left her care with smiles and hugs before bounding back into the arms of their families. 

 

Not so this dear child. Not even in the world’s finest facility would this child survive.

 

And certainly not here in Gauhati.

 

The hospital Dorothy transformed in those six years boasted running water these days. And electricity. These were luxuries she remembered doing without when she arrived in 1928, fresh from the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She never touched the tap without thinking of it, of the early days when her inventive genius was birthed of necessity. 

 

In those first chaotic months, gleaming new sterilizers sat covered and unused, waiting for her to marshal the locals into an effective workforce, to lay pipes, to plumb the surgery, to string wiring along thin, newly plastered walls. Waiting for her to show by example what progress could mean to their rustic community. How many more lives could be saved. And then waiting yet again until some provincial male authority examined every aspect of the carefully designed blueprints and pronounced that yes, this plan would work. Never your plan. Never her plan. That would have rankled their brains too greatly to identify the plan as one drawn up by a mere woman.

 

But it had always—in large part—been her plan, unfolding in its own time, adding new grains of patience to her oft-challenged core. And she could not help but believe that it has changed the face of survival in Gauhati. 


On this January day, dusk has come and gone and night has overtaken the hospital grounds. Dorothy continued to maintain her long vigil at the child’s bedside, the thick, damp night hovering beyond the ward windows like a lost soul come to take the child away, the child she has tended for the last ten hours. The delicate eight-year-old girl struggles less now, as she slips from this life to the next.

 

Dorothy leaned closer, careful not to touch the shredding, blistered skin of the child engulfed in flames just hours earlier. It was an accident. A horrid, tragic accident. When would her people begin to recognize that feeding their cooking fires with kerosene put their entire village at risk? 

 

The stricken villagers had borne horrified witness to the little girl’s stuttering progress as she stumbled into the hospital on spindly, singed legs, her family swirling around her, wailing, desperate to help, knowing they dared not touch her lest she shriek in agony once again.

 

The Satribari nurses experienced the same horror, by nature needing to sweep her into their arms and take away her pain. But they dared not. Their cries had drawn Dorothy to the central hallway, and in a flash she discerned the child’s desperate condition and darted back into her office. The beautiful sari she kept there wafted its delicate wings around her as she dashed with it back to the corridor.

 

Take the other end, she had called to Lahaori, her steady right hand. Come behind her with me!
In one delicately maneuvered scoop they swept the child into the soft hammock they’d created. The little girl keened, jarred into new heights of pain. From every mouth came an answering keen. 

 

We did not mean to hurt you, little one! Be brave, little one!

 

Quite without realizing it Dorothy began to rock the makeshift hammock as she called out instructions to her staff. It was the most natural movement a mother might make to comfort her child.

 

Make the softest bed you can, Dorothy cried to the student nurses, and together they created an improvised cradle of feather down pillows.

 

Through the next sobering hours the young nurses stood at their stations on either side of the child’s bed, spraying a fine intermittent mist laced with honey into the air above the unconscious child’s body. The droplets fell in slow motion, keeping the beautiful fabric of the sari cool and damp. 

 

The breaths were fading now, fragile puffs escaping the child’s lips in between long stretches of silence, little whiffs of air still carrying the kerosene fumes up from lungs the lethal gas has viciously decimated. 

When peace like a river attendeth my way…
When sorrows like sea billows roll…
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

The song was a mere whisper, spilling from Dorothy’s lips that hovered just inches from the child’s ear, more prayer than melody. The bamboo fan whickered softly in the corner. 

 

Go now, little one

 

And there it was. The chest stilled, the face quieted.

 

Dorothy waited until the silent prayer roiling within her own heart found its tortured resolution.

 

She looked up, unable to dispel the grief from her eyes.

 

Outside the wailing resumed.