About the Author: Kathy Gunderman serves as an U.S. Embassy Kabul Agricultural Field Officer stationed in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan.
As I made my way to the front gate of FOB (Forward Operating Base) Morales Frazier to meet a visitor, I noticed an elderly Afghan woman, dressed in black, sitting on the gravel and waiting with other villagers to see the French doctors at the clinic. As I again passed by the waiting area, I noticed the woman was lying face down in the gravel in the hot sun, her face in her hands. Several younger men were sitting on a bench in the shade. I asked my interpreter if the woman needed help. He asked some of the villagers, and they said she had a head injury and a headache. She did not have anyone to help her. We requested that the young men get up and help her, so she could sit on the bench. She was very feeble and weak. I asked the guards if we could get some water for the people waiting. I also asked if she would be seen by the medics soon. They informed me that there were a lot of serious injuries today, and they did know whether she could be seen. I went to our American medic to see if there was anything he could do. He asked the clinic if he could help to free up the French medical personnel.
They told us the woman had a terminal brain tumor that had spread to her lungs. She was dying. I told them she was in bad shape and needed to see someone. They said they would send someone. I went back and sat down with her. Her startling blue eyes filled with tears. She said that she had been coming every day, but no one cared. She unwrapped her bandages and showed me where the tumor had grown so large that it had burst through her scalp and was an open wound. She was leaning against my arm, and I asked her if she wanted to lay her head down in my lap. She did and as I held her in my arms, I could feel the thinness of her body and her shallow breathing. She said something to my interpreter that so overcame him, he was unable to speak for several minutes. He finally told me what she said: "Now, if I just had someone who could feed me." A man in the crowd gave me a box of cookies and I opened them for her. She was so hungry. My interpreter brought her a plate of hot food. When the medics came, my interpreter gently lifted her into the vehicle. We walked on toward the clinic to make sure she was okay. I will never forget how she touched her hand to her mouth and waved goodbye at me.
There are thousands like this woman in Afghanistan. No one should have to die alone, in pain, and hungry. If any of us in Afghanistan wonder whether the work we're doing matters, I hope my colleagues remember this dying woman, who taught me a lot about living in the one hour I knew her.