Three Months Previous:
Luka stopped at Carter's door just long enough to give him the e-mail he had received from Sean. “Thought you might like to see this. It's addressed to you too.”
"Interesting," Carter noted as he digested the information. "He must have been reading our minds. He certainly didn’t waste any time.” He tapped his fingers on the book he had been reading as he looked from the paper to Luka a few times. “I don't know if it can be done but I'd be willing to go and give it a try."
Luka stepped to the other side of the bed, turning off the annoying alarm on the IV pump. The nurses would change the fluids shortly. "Look, there's been a hiring freeze here. They aren't taking back anybody who was on leave."
"I know, Weaver told me. Seems we're unemployed."
They both paused waiting for the other to discuss what was on the paper, eventually evading it.
“How’s the head?” Carter perked up. “Get the sutures out yet?”
“Yep. On Monday. Susan fed me to one of the students down there. A ‘Morris’.”
“I take it it wasn’t a pleasant experience,” Carter smiled and stifled a laugh as Luka put his hand to the back of his head to survey the scar. Susan had been all too eager to unload on Carter when she visited, and Morris was not a stranger to the conversations.
“It wasn’t very nice of her. The poor guy trembled the whole time. I think he hurled next door in exam 3 when we were done.” They were both laughing now as Luka finally pulled a chair up. “How about you?”
“Well, I think I’m going home tomorrow with a PICC line - couple more weeks of antibiotics. The pharmacy had to borrow some Vancomycin from Mercy. Go figure.”
“Feel good though? You look good.”
“Couldn’t look any worse than I did ten days ago. You know, I really do feel good, physically. But just kind of…,” Carter halted unable to find the right sentiment.
“… useless?” Luka finished it for him as Carter nodded in agreement. Luka leaned back in his chair, looking down at his hands folded in his lap. The silence in the room was not all uncomfortable. In fact, it was almost a placating language between the two, born out of survival. "Sean offered me a position, but it's contingent on the proposal."
Carter looked surprised as he sat up and faced his friend. "After everything you went through, you want to go back?"
"You mean everything we went through." Luka's half smile and shrug gave his feelings and impulsiveness away. "It's not like there's anything here for me."
"I know what you mean." Carter took a moment to read the e-mail again before putting the piece of paper on the tray table, smoothing it out with his hand. Looking directly at Luka with a confident, if not cocky smile, Carter gave him the go ahead. "Count me in. Let's do this together."
Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will. -Jawaharlal Nehru 1889-1964, Indian Nationalist, Statesman
“You sure you’re up to this?” Luka asked as he walked over to Carter. They were both sweating, more so from nerves than from heat.
“Yep,” Carter quipped, leaning against the decorative post giving his back a rest, “I’ve been here before. More than I have cared to lately.” Just being there made him uncomfortable enough to want to bolt.
An occasional passerby did a double take, recognizing one or both of the doctors. Some even made a point to cross their path just to gawk at the two who had caused so much commotion.
“How long do you think it will be?” Luka sighed.
“I don’t know. They usually just take one person at a time. He could be in there all day.”
“Maybe I should leave,” Luka offered.
“No,” Carter raised his hand, waiving the thought away, “I need you here today. Don’t leave me stranded among all these … folks.”
Time moved at a snail’s pace as they were forced to wait outside where civilization seemed to disappear into the cracks. The two doctors whittled away the remainder of the hour staring at the images before them, occasionally smirking with each other in shared humor as they caught corners of conversations as the natives passed by. They dunked their hands in and out of their pockets, paced the perimeter, and did anything to keep from impulsively barging through the ornamentally carved colossal double doors.
Finally, a lovely young lady approached holding an ornate tray before her. “Excuse me Dr. Carter,” she tenderly delivered, her accent lilting over her moist, dark lips. “I thought you and Dr. Kovac might like a cold beverage.” Luka tilted his head down and away as he unsuccessfully hid a grin.
“Thank you, Colette,” Carter answered, his cheeks barely registering a crimson blush.
“Is there anything else I can get you?” The young lady’s eyes bugged out as Carter affectionately touched her elbow.
“No, thank you. It’s very kind of you, but I think we’re all set.” Carter cleared his throat before drinking down the ice water.
“I think she’s sweet on you,” Luka quietly teased with a chuckle as Colette walked away, sneaking one last peak at Carter over her scantily clothed shoulder.
“Mmmm. You think? She’s awfully young.”
Luka finished his laugh, his eyes sparkling. “I didn’t think age was a criterion for you.”
At that moment the doors opened giving the two hesitation as the people inside hushed their voices in secrecy. Carter balled his fists to hide the perspiration and anxiety, then thought better of himself plunging them back deep into his pant’s pockets. Pushing themselves away from the wall that had been holding their bored yet nerve racked bodies upright, they found themselves standing straight, holding their heads high in hopes that they would get the answer they were looking for.
A nod of the head was all the invitation they needed to step back into the inquisition chamber. The congregants spoke a language familiar to one but almost foreign to another as they secreted words among themselves before acknowledging the presence of Carter and Luka.
“Mr. Griffin has presented us with quite a challenge, don’t you think, Dr. Carter?” The older, tall gentleman at the head of the opulent table stood, joining Luka and Carter above the rest of the clan.
“I prefer to think of it as an opportunity.” Carter looked down and winked at Sean who had obviously worked his Irish magic on the mass. “You have … WE… have an opportunity here to do something other than invest in an invisible entity that proves valuable only on a ticker tape.” Carter moved to the head of the table standing by the elder. “This is a win-win situation. We cannot lose in the world of public opinion. The dollars needed will not be dropped into a stranger’s hand,” Carter cupped his hands together presenting them to the group as he walked around the table, “but they will be delegated by you through me right where the need is greatest. Nothing frivolous. Everything for a greater purpose than to simply double the investment.”
Carter paused, staring straight into the elder’s eyes from the opposite end of the room. “My grandfather was a very wise, very shrewd businessman. He loved Winston Churchill.” The man sneaked a short smile back at Carter. “We had a game when I was growing up. A game of matching quotations to their authors. He always started out the game with his favorite Churchill: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life … by what we give.”
Luka pulled from his pocket pictures of his friends, giving himself a slight pause as he looked at each picture before presenting them to the assembly. “This is Toomay. She is a Congolese woman whose husband was murdered in the jungle just to make a point. He risked his life every day to get medical supplies and volunteers where they were needed most. He risked his life for us, and probably died because of us.” Luka dropped Toomay’s picture in front of one of the council members, continuing his slow stroll around the room.
“This is Paulette, her daughter. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Statistics show she has a better chance of being a victim of rape or dying in childbirth before the age of twenty.” Paulette’s picture landed in front of two women.
“This is Tolo, Paulette’s sister. She wants to be a teacher. Unfortunately, the rebels keep burning the schools to the ground. The only schools left in the rural areas are in refugee camps, if you can find one.” An old man picked up the picture of Tolo, transfixed on her dark shining eyes.
“Joseph is Toomay’s only son, named after his father. He carries that name with distinction and pride. And rightly so. Like many of our own sons, he wants to be a famous football player… or soccer, as we know it. But statistics tell us that he is much more likely to die of AIDS, malaria, hemorrhagic fever…,” Luka moved his eyes from one seated group member to the next succinctly with each mention of disease, defining the urgency of his pleas with his haunting eye contact, “… TB, Ebola, cholera or malnutrition long before that could become a reality.”
The silence, as the collection of faces in the room focused on the pictures, was deafening. The elder threw open a window either in disgust of the rising temps or as a way to escape the reality set before him.
“And this,” Carter stepped in producing a slightly larger picture in a frame, “is Mbuto.” Instead of passing the photograph down the line of dignified men of stature and the few women among them, Carter hung on to it, staring lovingly into the eyes of the child. “In Africa… in the Congo… family is revered. Families do not separate. They value each member, old and young.” Carter’s voice cracked as he purposely walked to the head of the table again and delivered the picture into the hands of the older man. “Mbuto was put into our hands by his father - a rebel himself - in hopes that we would get him to safety sacrificing his ever having contact with him again. Mbuto barely escaped capture by rebels who force children into battle because they take orders. Because their culture has raised them to respect their elders and do what they are told. They use that high moral standard to kill their own children in the name of war.”
Carter found strength as he held his head high. “Ten thousand children’s fate have already been decided in this manner in the Congo. They are walking the streets with guns slung over their shoulders, hauling grenade launchers in red wagons behind them, playing with dolls and toys they find among the ruined buildings. Then, they kill. It’s kill or be killed for them. Rules to a game they cannot afford to lose, for which the winner is rewarded with life for another day. Refugee camps are few and far between, many simply holding tanks for the future child martyrs whose own parents have perished from disease, war, neglect. The UN has given up on them, their own resources stretched, their attention diverted elsewhere. WE have this opportunity to make a difference. To save lives. Don’t say no to the Mbutos, the Toomays, Paulettes, Tolos and Josephs.”
A woman who had chosen not to rest her decision solely on the pictures, passed them by to her fellow congregants without a gaze, spoke up and addressed Luka as his eyes fell on hers. “There are refugee camps all over the world. Millions, if not billions, of dollars are spent every year on them. Why not divert those funds?”
“That’s a fair question,” Luka graciously answered. “A few years back I spent a considerable amount of time in refugee camps in Kosovo and Macedonia. Let me ask you, how much money do you spend on yourself on average per day for food, clothing, shelter, hygiene and medical care? Fifty dollars? One hundred dollars?” Luka scanned the eyes not surprised that his question remained unanswered. “More? In those eastern European camps, one dollar and twenty-three cents a day was spent on each person. The largest camp I worked at held 33,000 people. There was one doctor for every 700 refugees. Food is relatively plentiful with the European communities donating fresh fruit, chicken pate, foil-wrapped cheeses, milk and even fruit tarts. Water is abundant in most of the camps in the Balkans; some even have modern sewage systems. There is shelter for all.”
Luka was on a roll and looked to Sean and Carter for help. They, on the other hand were just as sucked in by his description of his experience as the group sitting down was. “One dollar and twenty-three cents a day. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? In Africa, camps swell to an amazing 500,000 people. There is usually one doctor for every 100,000 people and refugees are given basic grains such as sorghum or wheat and sent off to make whatever food they can from those ingredients IF they have access to fire and clean water. Most do not have adequate shelter and upwards of 6,000 people a day die from preventable disease.”
Knowing that these people understood numbers better than words, he decided to cut to the chase. “In Kosovo, they asked the world’s countries and agencies for almost one hundred million dollars in aid. They received 77% of that amount. A similar request by African officials for camps housing many, many more refugees than in Europe netted only 22%. Less than 1% in Liberia.” Luka collected the pictures that had made the rounds and dropped them face up in the center of the table. “A dollar and twenty three cents per person, per day. Doesn’t sound like a lot. But that’s Kosovo. In Africa, they are lucky if they spend eleven cents … per person… per day.”
The old clock on the wall ticking was the only sound heard as the leader finally stood. “And what about your lives?” he quizzed them, “why should you put your lives in the middle of that again?”
“You’re making this personal,” Carter quietly answered. “We have been in the middle of that war. We have witnessed death, we have cheated death ourselves. We lived a short life of torture in a place where humanity is not an element of survival.”
Carter turned away from the man and addressed the group as a whole. “Our friend, Joseph, before his murder shared with us something that has become very dear to my spirit. He said, ‘I measure my personal credibility by what I have not done, instead of what I have accomplished.’”
Standing next to Luka, behind a seated Sean, Carter finished with the one-two punch. “Well, there is too much that I have not done. And to know what can be accomplished there and then turn my back on it would deny me and my family credibility. We have an opportunity to bring humanity back to a small area of the world. Don’t deny us that.”
With that, the doors were opened once more and the two doctors and Sean stepped outside again, where they stood, hands in pockets, staring at the walls, willing themselves not to hold their breath. It wasn’t long before they heard the chatter of the council members and shuffling of feet as the mass exodus of faces streamed by them from the chamber.
“Well, John,” the older gentleman shook Carter’s hand, “I don’t know why I would want to put you in danger again, but you will get the funding. You have a way with words.”
“Thank you, Dad,” Carter exhaled with relief, “I’ve never felt comfortable in front of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Mr. Griffin and Dr. Kovac… and yourself.”
“Well Mr. Carter,” Sean also put his hand out giving the elder Carter a hearty handshake, “it’s not the Congo. Uganda is a beautiful country guided on a platform of democratic rule. The northern region where we’ll be in Pakwach has had its troubles but it is in the world’s eyes lately with some limited relief work and medical studies going on there. Your refugee camp will be the first for the displaced Congolese. You should be proud.”
The senior Carter’s strict business demeanor was briefly interrupted as he sneaked a smile at his son. “Oh, I am proud.”
“Well,” Sean broke the mood, “I have a flight to catch later tonight. Anybody for dinner and a drink?”
“You like barbecue?” Luka had a hankering for ribs. “We can hit Carsons.”
“They have beer?” Sean had his priorities set!
“Tell you what,” Carter interjected, “there is a load of paperwork we have to get done here with the Foundation as well as with the Alliance before we can even begin to get started in Pakwach. But…” Carter waited until his father and a few of the other board members were out of earshot, “… I think it can wait a couple hours. Lets try to catch a ride downtown before the rush hour crowd takes all the good seats.”