Thursday 20 December 2012

I am privileged to have known this woman

Last night the huge school theatre was packed with well-wishers for the school nurse's leaving presentation. What quickly became clear is that there were scores of other families who she'd helped - way over and above the call of duty. And the funny thing was, I suspect each family felt that they were the most important family to her. Unlike many other clinicians, Sheila didn't always keep a "professional distance" when genuine love, humanity and compassion were needed. She is loved by hundreds, probably thousands of people.

One mother stood at the front, talking about how Sheila had been amazingly supportive to her and her family when her daughter developed a serious heart condition. It could have been our family she was talking about, only it was a different illness and a different situation. Just as with Ben, Sheila had opened the medical centre as a "bolt hole" for when this girl was being bullied by her peers about her illness. (Some children are really horrible, aren't they?) And Sheila and this family became very close.

"I can't describe what it's like to hold your unconscious daughter in your arms, seeing her turn blue in front of you," the mother said, choking back the tears, describing one of the lowest periods in her daughter's illness. It was Sheila who helped her come to terms with the illness, pick herself up, dust herself down and do what needed to be done. In other words, to find the courage and strength to face it and deal with it as best she could - and help her daughter towards a recovery. And Sheila was always there, at the end of the phone, email or text, or in person, to provide extra support and advice - or simply a shoulder to cry on.

It all sounds so familiar. Like the time Sheila invited me round to her house for lunch. And the other time she took me out for lunch so I could chat. She didn't have to do that. It wasn't part of her job description. But she did. And I suspect she did it for many other people. As someone said: "Her house is like an 'open house'. There are always people there - friends, neighbours, people from church, former school pupils and families...

"Big hug!" I said to Sheila as we left, giving her a massive bear hug and wishing her all the best for the future. "I can't thank you enough for what you've done for us."

She wanted to know about the book. After all, it was she that insisted I write it in the first place.

"I've got a published proof," I said. "But I want to re-write some of it. Parts of it just don't get across exactly how bad things were - or how good once things began to turn around. It feels a bit flat. I'll be doing some more work on it." I promised to mail a copy out to her in Uganda when it's finally finished.

Why has Sheila decided to leave everything - a comfortable house, lovely job, good income, friends and family - for a village in Northern Uganda? ("I've insisted on a sit-down toilet," she said. "And a big table where I can sit down and talk to people.")

"It was one of the boys in this photo," she explained during an illuminating power-point presentation. "He'd seen both his parents killed in front of his eyes and would sit there silently, blank eyes, no emotion. And he'd shrink from human contact." During the summer that Sheila was in the rescue village, she gradually began to get through to this boy. It took weeks and weeks, and wasn't until the penultimate day of her stay that she finally got a result.

"We took the boys swimming," she said. "I decided to place a towel around his shoulders. He didn't need a towel, of course, out there it's so hot you just dry naturally, but I thought, hey, I'll just do this and see what happens. And almost immediately he pulled the towel around his shoulder and nudged himself over to me for a cuddle. Probably his first warm human contact since his parents were killed. It was at that point that I realised you can't just dip in and out of this thing. You can't just go for 8 weeks or whatever, do some good and then come home. By coming home I was breaking that precious new bond and I found it difficult to handle." That was when Sheila decided she had to do this full time.

And, you know, she's not being paid for it. She is depending on prayer and her rock-solid Christian faith to see her through the next few years. Plus, as her (equally amazing and also on the school staff) brother suggested to us, tiny monthly donations from friends and other contacts. As he said: "Sheila's worked out that she can live there and do her work for just £500 a month. If 100 people each pledged £5 a month, then she can do it."

What a woman.

What a faith.

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