In which I take short drive and run right into my privilege
Within a day of arriving home from an extended trip to California, I came down with what you might politely describe as intestinal distress. It wasn’t pretty. Everyone blamed the plane ride. “You probably picked up something on the plane,” they said. As if planes are somehow flying petri dishes, which enable us to get places fast but hyper-concentrate all the germs we normally encounter in the world. And then, in some cosmic irony, we end up spending two days (about how long it would take me to drive home instead of fly) on the couch recovering from flying. I don’t actually buy it. I think I could have easily picked this up anywhere, not just on a plane.
The stomach virus or flu or whatever it was hit me kind of suddenly. I’d been working at my desk for several hours (okay six hours) on my first day back, never bothering to get out of my pajamas (this happens more than you may realize. It’s one of the downside/upsides of being a writer. We can’t afford fancy clothes but we don’t really need them). But after the third visit to the bathroom I realized that things were not right (I’m a writer, not a doctor), and I was feeling a little queasy. I went to the medicine cabinet and couldn’t find any Imodium. After tearing through several closets, kitchen cabinets, and the garage (at my house, you never know) and realizing we really did not have so much as a few dregs of Pepto-Bismol to alleviate the symptoms I was experiencing, I felt a mild panic.
Thankfully, I live in suburbia where there is always a strip mall nearby, and by that I mean, in my case, about four blocks away. So I threw on my ski coat and boots over my pajamas, and drove my mini SUV to the Walgreens at the corner. (I know, I know. I drove four blocks. I’d like to tell you I only do that when I’m sick and it’s 15 degrees out. I’d be lying.)
At the drug store, the array of products just for digestive problems (from constipation to diarrhea to acid reflux) covered about a 20-foot wide span of the back wall, floor to ceiling. It was incredible, and a bit overwhelming to my fevered brain. What does it say about the pace of our lives and the stress we put on ourselves that the corner drug store needs more than 200 square feet of display space just for meds to calm our tummies?
After choosing from among about 50 different anti-diarrheal products, I grabbed a six-pack of ginger ale and a little bottle of pro-biotics for good measure, I headed for the checkout, ignoring stares from other shoppers who couldn’t help but notice my purple pajama pants and the statement I was making by pairing them with Ugg knockoffs and a dirty Columbia ski coat. And uncombed hair. I looked like death comes to Vail, CO.
One dose of the medicine and I was able to at least lie on the couch, rather than running to the bathroom. I kept “working” during the day, by which I mean I occasionally would pull myself to a sitting position on the couch, log on to my laptop and approve blog comments or re-Tweet, take a sip of ginger ale or tea, then collapse again for another nap. What’s astonishing is that this blog got its highest readership in months on the day I was sick, because we ran an interview with Micha Boyett in which she talked about how to pray when you can’t pray and we gave away a copy of her book. She’s an amazing writer so be sure to read both parts of the interview if you haven’t already.
I digress. That night I felt a little feverish. So I took an Aleve and went to sleep, waking occasionally to take sips from my water bottle on my nightstand. As I lay in bed, I thought—this will be over in a day or two. I just have to gut it out. I just have to wait, and I will recover.
And then it hit me (I could claim it was God talking, or I could blame the fever): all over the world, people without clean water or adequate sanitation die from the kind of thing that I am viewing as a bit of an inconvenience. They do not have a strip mall down the street with a 200 square foot display of meds just for stomach disorders. They cannot get in their freaking CAR and drive the less than half mile to that store. They couldn’t afford to buy meds and ginger ale, even if they did have access to a drug store. They cannot fill their water bottle with purified water from the faucet ten feet from their bed. In fact, they fill their water buckets from a stream that someone else suffering diarrhea might have used as a toilet (sorry, but we need to understand that this is preventable!) They do not have a warm bed, often. They do not have Imodium or Aleve, and as a result, intestinal distress is a hell of a lot more distressing. As in, deadly.
I knew this, in the back of my head. In spite of being exhausted, I had trouble sleeping, as this thought ran through my mind: Living my faith means caring about diarrhea, even when I am not personally experiencing it. It’s not pretty. But sometimes faith lived out is not pretty, but it can be beautiful. By yesterday, I was over the flu, (see?) so I did a little research.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day—more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. To put that in perspective, 2600 or so people died in New York on 9/11. That’s more than 65,000 a month. Or a 9/11 body count every day or so. It’s staggering.
Due to contaminated water and the rotavirus, tens of thousands of children around the world die from diarrhea every month. Friends, we can write a better story than that. Diarrhea is treatable, and in many cases, preventable. There’s a vaccine for the rotavirus. Clean water wells and sanitation training can prevent contamination in the first place.
One great organization leading the fight against these deaths is Bright Hope International, which happens to be headquartered in my home town. World Vision, through which our family sponsors some kids, is also fighting to bring clean water and better sanitation to communities around the globe.
On Mbabala Island, in Zambia, Africa, 30 to 50 people a month would suffer from diarrhea. This is on a small island with only about 5000 residents. Bright Hope partnered with local churches to drill new wells so residents had access to clean water, and the number of cases of diarrhea dropped down to 5 to 10 per month.
Imagine being a mom, and you and your kids all have some intestinal flu (I know some of you have been there this winter). Now imagine not having meds or clean water. Diarrhea unchecked leads to dehydration. And dehydration is a killer, literally. What if we could change the story for just one mom and her kids? What if each of us helped one mom, or one kid?
Wrapping my brain around the idea of 65,000 kids a month dying from diarrhea makes me want to puke.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by numbers. But what if I decided to let this “inconvenience” become an inspiration. What if I don’t just buy ginger ale for myself, but I make a donation to an organization that is not just handing out meds but working to make systemic changes to prevent waterborne illness in the first place.
This winter, I hope you avoid the flu. It’s a pain in the butt, really. But if you do, or maybe before you do, think about those who lack the privilege we have. And maybe click here, or here to donate to organizations who are trying to change things.