Carmel Lawry: My moment of “seeing” and not “judging”

The “See – Judge – Act” method is part of the Catholic social teaching and practice developed by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn in 1961. These three little words seem simple enough but experience has shown me that to follow it isn’t as straightforward and can have enormous consequences.

First, we see and observe – I thought that was easy but I tripped up recently because seeing really means finding out as much information as possible. Often we don’t know all the information but think we do and jump to the next step of judging far too quickly. As a nurse and administrator I am trained to see, observe, gather information and consult before making any decision about care or any issue.

The small boy's grave
I am not saying that I haven’t had these “little moments” many times before, I am sure we all have but when faced with a new culture we can draw on our own experiences and lifestyle and see things far too simply and in the wrong context.

At Holy Family Care Centre we admitted a 14yr old boy in January – 6 weeks later he died. In that time he spent 2 separate weeks in hospital and before coming to us had been in hospital several times for extended periods. The boy weighed the same as a six year old, had no fat or muscle on his tiny bones and had the malnourished distended abdomen. The boy was HIV positive and in the final stages of AIDS. He was a lovely boy and despite his situation he managed to attend school for a little while and spent a bit of “normal” time with the other children. The children had to carry his school bag as he was unable to manage the weight of it. He would sit and watch the children playing because physically did not have the strength or energy to join in.

I, in my ignorance hoped that with good nutrition and a proper medication regime there was hope but by the second visit to hospital he was in total liver failure – all hope was lost. I had been to visit him in hospital several times and visited him the day before he died. He was very responsive and asked us to come back the next day to visit again but he died 1am the next morning.

So where did I go wrong in my thinking? I had not been exposed to seeing sick children in the HIV/AIDS clinics and hospitals only very sick adults. Treatment has been available for many years now and I could not understand why this boy was in such poor condition. On admission to Holy Family it was reported by the social worker that his family could not afford the bus fare to go to the clinic to get his antiretroviral treatment. He had many episodes of treatment failure , of commencing treatment and then lapsing.

I met the boy’s adult sister at the hospital and again after he died she visited Holy Family with her brother and aunt. They all looked reasonably healthy. I wondered how they could let their brother go without medication. It is common to hitch at ride in South Africa so without money why couldn’t they get to the clinic by jumping on the back of a truck or bakkie. It didn’t make sense.

In my mind I began to place blame on the family for not making an effort to care for him. Wouldn’t you do whatever you could to ensure your little brother was getting help? I moved towards judging them without knowing enough.

A group of volunteers and children from Holy Family attended the funeral a week later.

We drove way up into the mountains and the higher we went the worse the dirt and gravel roads became. Then I began to see…

It was a very poor area with no local medical clinic and no water supply. Water had to be carried in containers to the house. The home was made up of 3 single one room shacks, simple mud and brick, very small and in disrepair. There was only room to sleep – all cooking and other activities were attended to outside.

The procession of the coffin went through an overgrown area through the bush down a steep hill and to a small area with two other graves. It was not a village cemetery – just an area on the side of the mountain. Those two other graves were new and as the ceremony went on I found out that the boy, his mother and his sister had all died within the last 10 months and were now buried together. The sister and brother I met had been the ones trying to care for all three and now they were grieving for them.

I knew the moment I reached their home that I had misjudged them as they obviously lived in poverty in a place high in the mountains but I was not prepared for the shock of finding out at the burial site how sad their lives had been this last year struggling to look after 3 members of their family and then having to bury them. I could not begin to imagine how they were feeling, nor imagine myself coping in their situation.

I was in the fortunate position to speak on behalf of Holy Family Care Centre at the funeral. I was able to tell everyone that in the short time we knew him that he had touched us all deeply and he would always remain in our hearts and memory. I was also able to speak with the sister later (with someone to translate) and express my great sorrow for her and the family.

I have learnt a lesson. I know I will probably make the same mistake again and again but I hope this unique experience will make me more attentive and reflective. I know I will not forget.

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Our security does not lie in bigger and better bombs, bigger and better targeting or
surveillance systems. Our security lies in building better relationships. - Jim Dowling