Becky Douglas is the founder of Rising Star Outreach whose mission is to lift those with leprosy. See their website at risingstaroutreach.org
Four short video clips, shot over a period of seventeen years tell a haunting story of one woman’s’ courageous struggle against a debilitating disease and of the loving people around her who made her suffering tolerable.
First clip: I first met Saral in 2001 in a destitute leprosy colony. None of the patients in this colony had any access to medical care. They were desperately poor and had multiple medical needs. Saral had a terrible ulcer in her foot. Without treatment it had festered, with the infection eating deeply into her foot.
Instead of digging out this wound myself– using my handheld video camcorder, I recorded Paul, another volunteer, doing the procedure. Saral had her foot propped up to make it more accessible. She had asked her 13-year old grandson to hold her foot so that she wouldn’t pull her foot away when the treatment became painful, which happened when the person digging out the wound reached proud flesh. This was a very basic setup and we unfortunately were working in the dirt without either anesthesia or sterile facilities.
Saral was very bonded to her grandson, whom she had raised when his mother died. He had lost his mother when he was only 13 days old. His father had already succumbed to leprosy by the time he was born. Saral was the only mother he had known. He was clearly devoted to her. Once the volunteer hit proud flesh the procedure became very painful. Saral grimaced and grit her teeth. She shook her head back and forth in pain as tears ran down her face. With the encouragement of her grandson she was able to endure.
But as the procedure dragged on the volunteer somberly announced that the infection had reached the bone and that the foot would need to come off. The camera captures the agony in Saral’s face as she receives the news. Saral knows that when her foot is amputated she will not be able to go out begging in the nearby community. Without money, not only is her life at risk but she worries about what will happen to her grandson. Tears flowing freely, she collapses against her grandson who tries to console her.
It’s impossible to watch this video clip without tearing up, as Saral’s pain is so visceral, contrasted to her grandson’s love and devotion, which is deeply touching.
The second video clip comes as a surprising happy conclusion to this first miserable scene. In the second clip, Rising Star Outreach has now been working in Saral’s village for a couple of years. Doctors were able to treat the wound instead of amputating the foot. It is healing up and Saral’s joy is boundless. She dances around, bubbling with enthusiasm as she describes to me how successful her “business” has become. Through a loan, we had arranged for Saral to own a milk cow. We brought it in artificially inseminated. The cow produced a male calf, which she promptly named “Becky Douglas”, in appreciation of this opportunity. She was now a woman of importance, owning a cow that produced milk. She tended to the cow like a tender parent. Her devotion paid off! By selling the milk, Saral now had been able to improve her home. Her home now had simple furniture, where before her hut had been completely empty. She had remarkably even managed to buy a TV for her grandson to watch. She proudly announced to us that she had $200 dollars in the bank, which she was saving to educate her grandson. It was a stunning sea change from the first video.
The third clip is about twelve years later. Saral has had a pleasant and meaningful existence. Her grandson, now grown into a handsome young man, has married another girl in the leprosy colony and is the proud father of a baby boy. This video was shot after I had not visited her colony for a period of three years while I served with my husband, who was called to preside over the Santiago, Dominican Republic mission. I was so eager to return to my friends in the leprosy colonies of India after my mission ended. When I reached Saral’s colony I could hardly wait to see her. When she came out of her home and saw me, she burst into tears. Talking a million miles an hour, she reproaches me for not visiting for three years. “How could I abandon them for so long?” she demands to know. I tried to explain about mission calls and how I had been on an island across the world and it wasn’t possible for me to visit. Saral is speaking in Tamil, but her tone is unmistakable. She repeats the word “Ama” over and over again. Ama is the Tamil word for “mother”. She fiercely scolds me telling me, “You are our mother. Mothers cannot abandon their children! For many days we have not known what happened to you and we have missed you dearly. We have prayed with much faith for your return. Don’t you ever leave us like that again!”
The fourth video clip is heart wrenching. I had been informed by Dr. Susan, our doctor, that Saral was very ill and possibly dying of a stomach infection. Dr. Susan told me that Saral desperately needed to get to a hospital and get on IV antibiotics if she were to have any chance of surviving. Dr. Susan said that her family had refused to let her go. Dr. Susan was hoping I could convince them otherwise. I dreaded seeing my dear friend in a desperate condition again. She was now over 80 years old. I prayed that God would give me the wisdom to know how to convince her family to let her go to the hospital.
Upon arriving at the colony, I immediately rushed to find her home. But someone had run in front of me, loudly announcing to Saral that “Becky is in the colony”. Before I even turned down her street I could hear her calling pitifully, “Ama! Ama!” Her “daughter-in-law”, Jennifer—the lovely girl who had married her grandson, was struggling to carry Saral’s emaciated body out of the hut so she could talk to me. I was shocked at Saral’s appearance. She looked like she had shrunk down to 60 pounds. I ran to hug her. It was like hugging a skeleton. “What on earth has happened to Saral?” I asked Jennifer. Jennifer sadly informed me that Saral could no longer eat. She had been ten days without food! Jennifer had tried feeding her a little rice water with some powder mixed into it but Saral was unable to drink it. Together, Jennifer and I tried to coax some of this drink down Saral’s throat. But after ten days of not eating, Saral’s digestive system had shut down. The pain of trying to get the rice water down her throat was not worth the little nourishment it provided.
I hugged Saral and held her tightly to me as she wept, recounting to me her suffering. I asked Jennifer why she had not allowed them to take Saral to the hospital. Jennifer choked up as she struggled to speak. Unable to talk, she pointed to a lump underneath a blanket in the door of the house. “What??!!” Lifting up the blanket, I was stunned to see her Jennifer’s father. Also, over 80 years old, he had stumbled and fallen into a fire and been terribly burned. He was now burning up with fever and chills. What was he doing under a heavy blanket in 94-degree weather? The heart was stifling to the rest of us. How could he stay under a heavy blanket? It was a pitiful desperate try to stop his chills. I had some men come help Jennifer to uncover him and bring him out into the open. His face was drawn up in agony. He was clearly dehydrated, in addition to the third degree burns over his arms and legs.
Now it all made perfect sense to me. Sweet, loving Jennifer, who was trying so hard to care for Saral, was also trying to care for her father, who was dying as well. In India in the government hospitals, the family of a patient has to provide their own nursing care, otherwise the patient is ignored, and their needs are not met. How could Jennifer provide this nursing service for Saral when she would have to leave her father behind? She knew that no one would care for him.
Looking at these two, aging people, both of whom needed constant attention, all I could say to Jennifer, is “You are an angel!” What an overwhelming task she was attempting to do! Now as Claudette and I talked with her, Jennifer also broke down crying. She told us how hard she was trying to serve them, how desperately she wanted to help, but how helpless she felt to relieve their suffering. I marveled at her devotion to these two, elderly people. I couldn’t imagine how impossible her task was.
Claudette and I instinctively rushed to hug her. With our arms around her trying to buoy her up, I said to her, “Jennifer, we need to send both Saral and your father to the hospital. They both need IVs and treatment. Can you go and help them?” Not shrinking from an impossible task, Jennifer gladly agreed to go—if Saral and her father could go together. We quickly made arrangements to get both of them on an IV while they awaited transportation to the hospital which apparently couldn’t occur until the next day.
Looking at Saral, I doubted that she would survive, even with Jenifer’s devoted care and with proper medical treatment. She had simply sunk too far down. Realizing that this might be the last time I would see Saral, I hugged her and asked if Claudette and I could say a prayer with her. She was all too eager! The three of us hugged each other and held hands while I prayed, asking God to comfort her and to receive her into His rest. I kissed her goodbye, gave Jennifer one last hug, and then with my heart breaking, slowly walked away.
In spite of the pain, I felt a strange sense of comfort. Part of it came from knowing that Saral’s Heavenly Father would surely warmly and tenderly welcome her into His kingdom, after a lifetime of suffering and hardship. He would be able to finally grant her true healing. She would be leprosy-free at last. I knew that supreme joy awaited her in the next life. I also felt an overwhelming gratitude for Jennifer and her husband (Saral’s grandson), who had so tenderly cared for her through many years of trial and struggle. How grateful I was that God had chosen to send two angels to care for his afflicted daughter throughout her journey in life.
There are many among us who are unsung heroes and angels; many who care seemingly endlessly for Alzheimer patients or emotionally ill family members. There are so many single mothers and fathers who give gentle and unending care to their children, shouldering the burden of being both parents to a child. There are teachers of the physically or emotionally handicapped. There are so many people who unselfishly give of themselves to help alleviate the suffering of others. These are the people that not only inspire us, they ennoble us. Too often their service is not heralded. Often it goes unnoticed by others caught up by the busyness and rush of life. But seen or unseen, acknowledged or unacknowledged, I believe these angels are both seen and acknowledged by God, who accepts and sanctifies their service. To my mind, they also serve as Saviors on Mount Zion, quietly and lovingly doing the work of the Master. How grateful I am for their example and service!