Gotcha Day #2

It’s been two years since Leon joined our family and it’s been the wildest two years of our lives. Leon has brought more love, spice, and flavor into our home than we ever knew was possible. He was just 4 months old when we got him… he was a fireball then, and he’s a fireball now. Happy Gotcha Day, Leon!

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Apparently these guys got the memo about the party colors!

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When Leon saw me put the sign up, he immediately said, “Oh, cake!” (not knowing I had made a cake). He is certain the two go together.

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Leon was fast asleep for his own party. When he woke up, Ethan and Zara went to get him out of bed. I don’t think he’s ever been happier to wake up from a nap.

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Leon was mostly into the candy corn.

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He’s getting used to this “blowing out the candles” thing: So far, 2 Birthdays & 2 Gotcha days.

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We sang, “Happy Gotcha day to you…”

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Leon sometimes acts shy for very quick, flash before your eyes, split seconds.

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821 Drawings

Aramatou has created 821 pieces of artwork since arriving at the hospital 15 months ago. Aramatou is from Mali and she came to the hospital in August 2013 with legs bowed and feet turned completely backward . We have already written about her before. When she arrived, Aramatou was solemn and withdrawn. She has been through a lot in her life, and it was clear that she needed healing that went beyond surgery on her legs. In the past 15 months, everything about her has turned around. After several surgeries and a lot of physical therapy, her legs have been straightened out and her feet are facing in the right direction. Though she still has a ways to go in the healing process, she has come so far. Aside from the physical transformation, her spirit has changed in the process as well. She is no longer solemn or withdrawn – she is the life of the party! Aramatou is so full of joy that it permeates throughout the hospital and is completely infectious. It is hard not to smile when you’re around her.

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Before Aramatou was admitted to the hospital.

Aramatou has been coming to art therapy sessions since day one, and from the beginning she has been making beautiful drawings. She loves to draw flowers, and has been drawing flowers from the start. She draws very interesting flowers, with intricate motifs and designs. Today we sat down and counted – she has done 821 drawings. That is a lot, and actually the real number is higher, because she has probably given away around 100 drawings to staff, visitors and other patients. Aramatou doesn’t have any money, and obviously cannot buy presents for anyone, but she regularly gives away drawings. She is proud of her work, and enjoys giving it away, and even with all that she has given away, she still has 821. She said that she wants to reach at least 1,000 before she returns to Mali. She also said that she plans to take her artwork back with her when she is done here so that she can decorate her whole house with it. Her artwork has been an important part of her stay here in Niger, and she wants to show her family and friends back in Mali the work she did during her long stay in the hospital.

We decided to lay out all of her work on the ground so that we could see it all at once. It took us over an hour just to spread it all out. When we first started lining up the drawings, I thought,”Uh oh we’re going to be here all day.” But I’m so glad we did it. Aramatou was so excited to see her work laid out in that way, and it was visually striking. She kept saying, “I can’t believe I did all this.” It was a powerful image, not just of the fact that she made some pretty pictures, but of all that she has accomplished, and of the fact that she has changed, she has grown and she has blossomed just like the flowers that she loves to draw. After we finished taking pictures of her work she said that she is so excited to be able to show people back home what she has done while she’s been here. It has given her a confidence a boost and she now knows that she is capable of so much. Aramatou will be leaving with new, beautiful legs as well as a whole stack of beautiful drawings.

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Aramatou and friend, Binta laying out her artwork.

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Laying the artwork out in rows made it a lot easier to count.

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The artwork took up almost all 3 sides of the play area outside the art therapy room.

 

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She loves to pose!

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A closeup of some of her work.

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Child-like

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” (Matt. 19:14) NIV.

Dr. Stefano Bolongaro is our new pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the hospital. He arrived in Niger a few months ago and it’s been great having him here. We are excited about the increased capacity we have as a hospital with his arrival, about his skills and talents, but most of all by his caring heart. Today he came by the art therapy room to give me some colored surgical tape because he thought that we might be able to use it and there was some extra. I was very excited to get it because sometimes it is hard to figure out how to decorate bandages, and this kind of colored surgical tape is perfect. The casts are easy, but when our patients have bandages and not casts, we want to make sure they do not feel left out.

As soon as Stefano came to the room, the children in the room called him to come in. They started shouting, “Doctor! Doctor!” After some coaxing, he stepped in. That wasn’t enough for the kids, and they told him that they wanted him to draw a picture. He immediately got on the floor and started to draw. The kids loved it.

They thought it was great that he was drawing along side them, and they each wanted a picture from him. After he finished drawing, he stayed for a bit and joked around with them. But after a few minutes, he told them that he needed to go back to work, since the consultation would begin soon. But the children didn’t want him to leave. They kept trying to get him to stay, and it was so clear that they truly love him and were very comfortable with him. It was beautiful to see. He kept making them laugh with funny faces, and they couldn’t stop laughing and giggling. When I reached for the camera to take a picture of the group, one of the patients jumped into his lap.

Dr. Stefano didn’t spend that much time in the art therapy room. Maybe a total of 20 minutes. But it meant so much to the children. Where else do doctors get down on the floor to play and draw with their patients? That is what I love about CURE, and what I love about the people I get to work with.

At CURE we talk a lot about our values as an organization, and some of them are being child-like and Christ-like. That might seem kind of vague and hard to pin down or define. Someone might reasonably ask, what does it mean to be child-like or Christ-like.

This.

This is what we mean by being child-like and Christ-like. This is what it looks like. This is creating an environment that is healing and full of hope. This is welcoming our patients and treating them like our own. Like family. This is what it looks like to treat our patients like our own sons and daughters, our own brothers and sisters. This is what it looks like to be a family. This is what it looks like to heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of God.

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Dr. Stefano tracing Ibrahim's hands

Dr. Stefano tracing Ibrahim’s hands

Making funny faces

Making funny faces

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CURE cousins

Living far away from family is difficult, especially now that we have Leon. I often think about how much fun he would have with all his cousins and how much they would love him, and it makes me a little sad to think that he has so many cousins that he hasn’t met yet. To be honest, I dwell on this more than I should, but I am also reminded regularly that even though he isn’t around his family that lives far away, he is growing up in very unique circumstances, and is getting an experience that he wouldn’t have anywhere else. His cousins may be far away, but Leon has an entire family at CURE.

Every Friday morning I take him to the hospital. It’s our little ritual. He loves going and as soon as we pull up to the hospital gates he screams, “Opisol!!” (which is how he says hospital). He has so much fun playing with all the patients and they enjoy having him visit. They love playing with him, and love getting visitors, but also, they like him because he’s different. He is kind of a novelty to them. Many of the children here in Niger are so quiet and reserved, and he is pretty much the exact opposite of that. He is a bundle of energy – hyper, loud and spastic, and they think it is hilarious.

It makes me so happy that he has a big group of kids to play with whenever we come to the hospital, and it kind of serves as a play group, but it’s so much more than that. Leon is constantly interacting with other kids who are bandaged up from burns, or have limbs in casts, or have metal bars (external fixators) protruding from their legs. Since he has been coming to the hospital regularly for as long as he can remember, when he sees these things he is not surprised by them. Seeing all kinds of physical deformities is commonplace for him, but that does not mean that he doesn’t notice them, for he most certainly does. He always says, “Mama regard, ça fait mal!” (Mama look, that hurts) as he points to a leg or an arm. He’ll then lean in to whoever he’s looking at and say, “Bon guerisson” (get well).

You can see the real look of concern on his face, but he is not scared and does not shy away from them. He doesn’t treat them differently and look down on them or overlook them or avoid looking at them by averting his gaze. He doesn’t treat them differently because he hasn’t learned to do that yet. He is innocent in the best possible sense, and I hope he stays that way. Maybe he will, since he is learning it from such a young age. Maybe that is what it takes to inoculate people against the cruelty and discrimination that seems to come so naturally to us all. Leon sees these kids and realizes at his young age that they are hurting, but he also realizes that they are getting better. And most importantly, he realizes that they are fun to play with!

I love the fact that Leon is growing up with this as his normal.

Recently, he’s started to enjoy praying. He likes to pray around the dinner table, mostly because he loves to shout “Amen!” as loud as possible once the prayer is over. But he also likes to lead us in prayer. He will put his head down and mumble for awhile, tossing in a few words here and there, like, “thank you…(mumble)… papa…(mumble)… mama…(mumble)… food…(mumble)…eating…(mumble)… Amen!” The last few visits to the hospital, Leon has insisted on praying for some of the patients. He may not fully get the concept, but the fact that he wants to take the time to acknowledge the patient’s situation and “pray” for them is, I think, important and good. It’s as though he recognizes that their situation deserves some level of respect and reverence (to be punctuated, of course, with a loud “Amen!”).

So even though we aren’t around our family, I am glad that Leon has his CURE family, and that he is learning what it means to love and be loved. He is learning what it means to care for others, and he is learning to see everyone as they are: a child of God worthy of dignity and respect.

AMEN!!!

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Leon (1 year old) walking with his friend, Larwan 

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Leon (1.5 years old) pushing Aramatou in her wheelchair

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This was last week. Leon asked me to take their picture and wanted everyone lined up on the wall.

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Healing through Henna

We had a henna party at CURE today.

Henna is a plant that is commonly used to make a dye here in Niger and around the world. The leaves are crushed into a powder and mixed with water to make a kind of paste, which can then be applied to the skin, leaving a long-term (but temporary) tattoo. Here in Niger, women get henna tattoos for every possible celebration: a wedding, a baptism, a holiday, or for any kind of party, and sometimes I suspect for no real reason at all, other than the fact that it is beautiful.

I’ve wanted to get a henna tattoo for a while now and I happened to comment on one of our patient’s hennafied hands. Her name is Rashida, and she had an operation on her leg, which is now in an external fixator. She is already up on her feet and walking around with a walker, and seems to be on a quick road to recovery.

It was Rashida’s first session with me in the art therapy room, and she was very reserved and quiet. I told her I thought her hands looked pretty and she suddenly changed. She was very excited and said, “I do henna! Do you want me to do it for you one day?” I said yes. Rashida lives in Niamey and so she isn’t staying at the hospital, but comes in a couple times a week for dressing changes. She said, “I’ll come sometime and bring the supplies!”

This week Rashida came with a small plastic bag of henna, and got to work on my hands right away. Beth Van Hall, our new Executive Director’s wife, has been coming to the hospital to spend time with the kids. She came by the art therapy room and Rashida did her feet when she was done with my hands. Then Aramatou, another patient came and Rashida did her hands as well. We all had a lot of fun in the couple hours it took to finish all the decorating, and by the end Rashida was totally transformed. She was in her element, and was having a great time. It was really funny because she told us that she had never tried putting henna on a white person’s skin before, and she said that it was more difficult than usual because of the hair on my arms. I told her that she was lucky she wasn’t trying to do it on Josh’s arm!

It was obvious that the whole process was empowering for Rashida. I paint our patient’s hands and feet all the time when they are wearing casts. Now she was working on my hands and Beth’s feet. In a way, the tables had turned. And not only that, she was showing us a part of her heritage and tradition, and you could tell she was proud. It was a great way of expressing her creativity and her culture, and she was able to share something beautiful, and leave a part of herself on me, marking me by our encounter. That is what therapeutic exchange is all about, and in that way it was healing.

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Rashida working on Aramatou’s arm.

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Leon’s 2nd Birthday

We didn’t celebrate Independence Day this weekend, but we DID celebrate Leon’s birthday! He doesn’t turn two until the 19th, but some dear friends will be on holiday later in the month, so we decided it would be best to have his party early. We had such a great time and Leon loved having people all over the house. He didn’t realize the celebration was all about him… until we pulled out the cake and sang Happy Birthday to him. It was the cutest thing. He was acting shy, by burying his head into Josh’s chest every once in a while, but then kept looking up to watch everyone sing to him. He was trying to act modest, but he loved every second of it. He also knew the cake was for him because it was a giraffe. He believes that anything “giraffe” is most certainly his. He has been crazy about giraffes forever. I’m thankful that this is the animal that he’s chosen to love above all else since Niger is known for their wild giraffes. Josh and I were actually counting the amount of times we’ve been out to see the giraffes (about an hour drive outside the city) and we came to about 15. Leon has been maybe 6 or 7 times. He most likely only remembers going about 3 or 4 times. I’m glad we can take him to see his favorite animal out in the wild!

Back to the party… the awesome giraffe cake was made by the master-cake-maker, Renee. She not only made Leon’s cake, but she made it when she was in the midst of packing her whole family to move back to Canada. They left about a month ago, so we put it in the deep freezer and pulled it out on the day of the party and it was good to go! The beautiful decorations were from my dear friend, Laura who ordered them from the States, which her family brought to her in Israel so that she could bring them to us in Niger!

For the meal, we decided to go Nigerien-style and do a stuffed lamb Mechoui. It was so delicious, and Leon loved it. He kept calling it “chicken” and taking huge bites.

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Women’s Day 2014

Last week we celebrated Nigerien Women’s Day at the hospital. Every year the women at the hospital collect money and pick out a pagne (a colorful piece of material) in the market a few weeks before Women’s Day. They buy a pagne for every staff member, and everyone takes it and has an outfit made with it. It is always so exciting to see everyone’s  creativity and personality shine through the different designs. It really brings home the message that we are all cut from the same cloth, but all cut differently. A wonderful expression of solidarity and sisterhood, without sacrificing any individual sense of identity (or style!).

The women all worked really hard to prepare a delicious meal, and in the meantime everyone had fun listening to music and dancing. We also had the privilege of having Dr. Victor Nakah as a special visitor during Women’s Day, and he gave an address to the whole staff which was great. He spoke about how women are really under-appreciated, and about the strength and influence that women have. He reminded everyone of the saying, “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” and the women on staff were all nodding their heads in agreement. I am pretty sure someone even said, “Amen.”

Overall it was a great day and a really fun celebration. I look forward to next year.

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Dr. Nakah’s talk

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Photo credit: Anne Negrini

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Dr. Victor Nakah with the Executive, Medical, and Spiritual Directors

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Aicha and I decided we wanted to get matching outfits made. It was fun picking out a design together and then getting them made by her dad, the tailor.

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Anne had her outfit made by her night guard.

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The whole team

 

 

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Drawing with children in Niger

In order to help determine the emotional state of a child, art therapists often use what is called the House-Tree-Person test. The child is asked to draw a house, a tree and a person, and then asked questions about their drawing. The thinking behind this test is that everyone can easily draw a house, a tree and a person, since everyone encounters houses and trees and people every day. Even children. In fact, children will often draw houses or trees or people even without being asked to. They are common, and thus can be drawn almost without thinking, and because of this the way they are drawn can speak volumes about the person doing the drawing. Those being tested project their inner feelings onto what they draw, and the person evaluating them can pick up on those projections by analyzing the drawings, as well as by asking them questions about them.

These kind of tests have been criticized because they often assume a Eurocentric worldview, and are therefore not applicable outside of the West. I can definitely say that in the close to two years that I have been practicing art therapy with children in Niger, I have seen very few drawings of houses or trees, or even people. However, there is something that appears in the children’s drawings over and over again – the mortar and pestle.

In Niger the mortar and pestle is a staple of every home. Whether you are in the village or in the city, you will find a mortar and pestle in the kitchen, and you will find that it is used for everything. It is used to grind grains, millet, corn, etc. and It is also used to make the spicy sauce that goes along with every meal. Children of all ages know how to use it, and I am not talking about a counter-sized, hand-held mortar and pestle that you might find in a pharmacy. Here the mortars are usually about knee-high in length and the pestle  are as long as your arm. To use them requires real physical strength, and to get into a good pounding rhythm you really need some muscles. It is harder than it looks!

It is so interesting to me that so many of the children choose to draw the mortar and pestle, without any prompting. Certainly some of them see the drawings others have done and copy them, but that does not account for all of the drawings. Perhaps the principles of the House-Tree-Person are not wrong, but it needs to be contextualized. It seems clear to me that the mortar and pestle is the go-to object for Nigerien children to draw when they first come, when they are feeling unsure of themselves and do not know what to draw. And it makes sense. They are drawing what they know, what is familiar to them, especially since the art therapy room is such an unfamiliar place (at least at first). They often branch out and draw other objects or designs after a few sessions, but the mortar and pestle serves as an ice-breaker.

I love the variety of color and design in these drawings. There are many examples, but here are a few of them:

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I love the specs of grain in this one.

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Some have handles

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Mortar and pestle made out of play dough

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Sometimes it’s a joint effort.

 

 

 

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Stitches on the dining room table

After a long week at work, we were excited to get together with our friends for a nice relaxing evening. As we were enjoying our dinner, Leon was doing his version of relaxing – running around the house like mad. This resulted in him tripping and his head meeting the corner of a doorway. He came up crying and bleeding from the gash on his forehead, and even though it wasn’t very big or deep, it needed stiches.

Thankfully, our very own Dr. Negrini was part of the dinner party. He graciously offered to run over to the hospital between dinner and dessert, so he could pick up what he needed to stitch him up. When he returned, we cleared all the pots and pans and plates off the dining room table, and turned it into an examination table. Two stiches did the trick, and 10 minutes later we cleared away the betadine and gauze and brought out the dessert. Thanks to Dr. Negrini our party wasn’t interrupted for long – Leon went right back to running around, and we went back to enjoying our evening.

Jean Francois getting everything ready

Jean Francois getting everything ready, right next to the caramel popcorn

Dining room table surgery

Stitches on the dining room table

Don't let this smile fool you. He was crying hysterically just minutes before this

Don’t let his smile fool you. He was crying hysterically just minutes before this

And now, ready for dessert

And now, ready for dessert

Home and ready for bed

Home and ready for bed

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Hunger

Last week, our son Leon was sick. He tested positive for malaria, and had such bad diarrhea and vomiting, that we were very worried. He couldn’t keep anything down, and so he had to be hospitalized. He was so dehydrated that he had to be on IV fluids, and in the end, we stayed with him in the hospital for almost a week.

Leon in the hospital room.

Leon in the hospital room.

It was a very difficult time for both Julie and I. Physically, it was exhausting, since we had to take turns holding him to make sure the IV fluids continued to flow. He also reacted to one of the medicines he was given, which was supposed to be a sedative, but actually had the opposite effect. Imagine the worst temper tantrum you have ever seen, and then multiply it by 5, and stretch it out for about 6 or 7 hours. It took both of us to hold him down and keep him from ripping out the IV catheter (which he still managed to do about 4 times).

But even more difficult than the physical aspect was the emotional trauma. I know trauma is a strong word, but I think it fits. Seeing Leon in so much pain for such an extended period of time was like a nightmare. Of course he didn’t like being stuck in the room, and he didn’t like the IV and the constant diaper changes, but the main problem was his hunger. He was so hungry, and we weren’t allowed to give him anything to eat. He kept crying out for food, and it took everything in us to keep from feeding him. It went against every single natural instinct I have. I have always felt so good when Leon eats – feeding him is one of my favorite things to do because he is so happy about each bite, and on some kind of primal level it is so satisfying. Each spoonful feels like an accomplishment. Like taking a step in the right direction. Like I am doing my job as a parent. And here he was, literally begging for food, and we couldn’t give it to him.

The worst was when they brought us lunch in our room. Leon saw the plates and got so excited. They were covered up, but he knew they had food, and he said, “Yeah!” We quickly whisked them out of the door, but it was too late. Once he understood that the food wasn’t for him, he was inconsolable. Obviously we didn’t eat in the room, but as we took turns quickly eating in Julie’s office, neither of us were able to eat very much, knowing that he couldn’t have any.

We forget how dependent we are on food. This brush with real hunger was a good reminder. Leon didn’t eat for 5 days, and he was losing his mind. He would have done anything to get food. Here in Niger, that kind of hunger is never very far away. It is actually in your face all the time as you encounter beggars and people with real needs every time you leave your house. They crowd around your car at most big intersections. But the hunger can seem remote when it is seen through a car window, and unfortunately your heart grows callous when you see it every day. It still bothers you, but not as much as it once did, and bothers you less and less as time passes. That is an awful thing to say, but it is true. You might call it a defense mechanism, but that would be a little too convenient. The truth is, your heart becomes numb with time as you watch the hopelessness and despair around you knowing that no matter how much you do and how much you give it is only a drop in an ocean of suffering. But it is different when you see the hunger in your own son. Then the pain cuts right through the numbness and into your heart.

Interestingly, while all of this was going on, we were studying the Book of Philippians at the hospital. It struck me when Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12-13 NIV). He was able to say this because he knew even though he was dependent on food, he was even more dependent on God. He knew that man does not live by bread alone, and that just as God gave his people manna to eat in the wilderness, we all depend on him for our daily bread.

The key to what Paul is saying is in verse 13, where he says that God is his strength. That is why he was able to be content, even with an empty stomach. Not because of his own strength, but because of God who strengthened him. It is impossible to imagine a statement like this based on our own strength. In our own strength we are not content in wealth or in rags, and we complain when we are hungry and when we are full. That is because when we depend on our own strength, we never have enough. We are missing something fundamental inside of us. We are missing the connection to our God, our father who takes pleasure in feeding us.

I spend every day at the hospital visiting with the patients and their families. I go on rounds each day, visiting them, praying with them and just hanging out. And when my work is done, I go home. But this past week was different. I was staying at the hospital. It was my home, even if only for a few nights.

It was such a good experience (even though it was a terrible experience). It gave me just a little bit of insight into what our patients and their families go through. Many of them stay for weeks or even months, so I really can’t compare what we went through at all. But it was a taste. And it was amazing – throughout the week, the patients kept asking me about Leon every time I saw them, and some of them came to visit us in our room. They even prayed for Leon, saying, “You pray for us every day, so we need to pray for you.” We also had so many visits from the hospital staff, and other friends, it was so encouraging.

Leon with the patients who came to visit him.

Leon with some of the patients who came to visit him.

It was also a good reminder for us – we do not live by bread alone. We depend on God, on his love and his provision. We depend on God and on his every word. Sometimes God speaks directly to us, and sometimes he speaks through others who come by to visit. We do not live by bread alone. We depend on the support of others.

Leon after the hospital

Leon is happy to be back home and feeling better.

Happily reunited with his friend, Shap Shap.

Happily reunited with his friend, Shap Shap.

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