St Paul Hospital Millennium Medical College is on a sun baked west facing hill footed by rusted corrugated iron and canvas shops, and a relentless roar of foot traffic, buses, cars, and small van transports. It’s a large, rectangular, multi-storied building that’s a beehive of patients and medical staff swarming in and out of the front entrance. The building is like a worn spinster sitting sedately in a seething mass of humanity. Today a bank of white clouds pause above the hospital, as if on the threshold of this world, deciding to come in invited, or not.
Lou Pollack is a new born intensive care physician who has volunteered here for the past three years and three years before at Black Lion hospital teaching the fundamentals and recent research in how to save a premature baby’s life. Before the Aikido seminar begins I ask him to show me his work at the hospital and he asked me if I would speak to the provost about the issues the teaching hospital are facing. On the third floor we walk through a maze of people sitting in chairs, asleep on the floor, lying on gurneys, running, or simply standing as in a daze. I glance into open rooms where up to six women are giving birth, recuperating from birth, or dying. Lou outfits me with a green staff gown and escorts me into a room with nine incubators, four overhead radiant warmers often with two babies to an incubator attached to tubes, wires, and monitors to keep them alive. Most of them weigh no more than 900 grams and their legs are no thicker than my finger. An iron grip has suddenly tightened my throat, my breath rises and is caught around my heart, a protective layer encasing me, there’s an upwelling in my eyes. These small wonder plants seeking fertile ground and proper cultivation to grow past these machines that sustain their life. Some seem to be asleep others look deeply into my soul, unblinking even in the violence, blood, and tissue of birth, into some unknown beyond. This is a place of hope and sorrow.
“Sit here” Lou says, pointing to a large padded chair, “and see what you can. It could be useful to me to see what you see.” My first impression is that it’s a non-stop rondori(rondori is a Japanese term used in the Aikido that roughly translates “chaotic movement”. At the completion of every black belt test there is a multiple person attack that the candidate must handle in order to pass). The room is hot and crowded with physicians, residents, nurses, staff and the occasional mother performing their assigned tasks. Their scrubs and uniforms are sweat stained. Everyone is shoulder to shoulder crowding around the incubators. The next image that emerges are field hospitals in combat zones. That is, humans using their skills to save lives and minimize pain and suffering; a magnitude of the heroic in these circumstances as well with so few resources but with an abundance of will and commitment. And in both cases, it is pure transaction; feelings and emotions closeted away somewhere safe from the sorrow and hope residing here. Tears run down my cheeks. I hold my body still; is it from all that is not expressed in this room living through me; or is it years of my grief that has not been allowed to come to life; my 900 grams striving for legs to stand on and arms to reach towards love, and to be loved.
Lou takes me to the office of Dr. Wendmagegn Gezahegn, the Provost of the Medical College. From his desk piled with stacks of papers, folders and journals he pulls out a copy of The Leadership Dojo and he tells me of the dilemmas of the hospital and how these are leadership issues. He calls in a woman who heads their innovative and educational programs. We have a lively conversation about bringing a leadership program to the hospital. It is a surprise ending to the hospital visit and holds the promise of something that Tes and I have long spoken about: bringing SI embodied leadership programs to Ethiopia. Lou and I are jaw dropping surprised and happy and we high five each other. As I tell this to Tes when he picks me up I know that a condition of success for a program will be to double, or triple, that 900 grams for those wonder plants reaching for life.