Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 4. Visitors to Lambaréné


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
By placing myself in the service of that which lives, I reach an activity, exerted upon the world, which has meaning and purpose.

(Albert Schweitzer, My Life and Thought p. 267)


Who were they, those hundreds of people passing through Lambaréné and visiting Albert Schweitzer? I never stopped wondering as I observed them coming and going while I worked at the hospital. Dr. Schweitzer did not seem to wonder. He remained the ever-tolerant philosopher who welcomed everybody without discrimination. He found time to listen and to talk to them all, but I kept asking myself who are they, and what do they expect from their visit?

They were restless wanderers of this world, perpetual students who often did not even know what they were looking for. They were middle class Americans trying to put some excitement into what they felt was a boring life; victims of the war and the holocaust in search of meaning in life, longing to be part of the humanitarian fellowship of Lambaréné; lonely souls hoping to find happiness in helping those who suffer; scholars looking forward to inspiring dialogues with Albert Schweitzer; physicians and nurses eager to learn more about tropical medicine; grateful students and colleagues returning to pay respect to their teacher; friends and relatives wishing to see the old man again. Finally, there were the skeptics, the narrow-minded and the envious who could not stand the fame of the man nor the saga of his Lambaréné. They came to downgrade and detract, not satisfied until they had unearthed some story to prove that the famous Nobel prize winner was “just an ordinary person like you and me.”

The visitors came alone and in groups, according to circumstances or personal inclination. Some visited only for a day, others came for a couple of weeks or months, and a few stayed for years on end.

Sometimes a whole planeload of tourists inundated the place for a few hours. They had been offered a “blitz visit” to le grand docteur as a special attraction alongside other safaris of their busy African tour.

Such hordes of unannounced tourists were especially troublesome for us who worked at the hospital. Big-eyed and noisy, they swarmed all over the place, squeezing past the waiting patients, blocking the narrow passages, and filling the already crowded consultation room. We loathed the questions of these tired-looking travelers who seemed to always be in a hurry and never took the time to listen to our answers. Equipped with cameras, they hunted for something to shoot, tactlessly photographing people in pain, and even dying patients.

Trapped in the contrived atmosphere of modern tourism with its excursions and stereotyped accommodations, they looked with bewilderment into the strange little world of Lambaréné, a world where sickness and healing, suffering and joy, tears and smiles--the whole range of contrasting human emotions--gave life an intensity they had never experienced before. Perhaps they hoped to catch some of this reality in their photos so that they could see later what they had missed while being there. But we were often left with the maddening feeling that they took pictures of human suffering just to have something sensational to brag about to their friends at home.

Once, however, such a planeload of visitors was remembered with fondness for a long time afterwards, when a Scandinavian charter flight brought a group of Finnish ladies to Lambaréné. They were nurses, secretaries, or just housewives who belonged to an Albert Schweitzer club in Finland and had saved money for years to make this trip. Now the dream had come true and they wandered happily around, half dazed by the heat and the many new impressions. Coming from northern Europe, many of these women had never before experienced such richness of smells and colors, and they looked in wonder at the lush tropical vegetation around them.

In their midst they had a paralyzed lady in a wheelchair and competed in pushing her along, to let her see and touch and smell all the beautiful flowers and trees on the way. In lively speech they commented upon everything they saw. The lady in the wheelchair was a nurse who had contracted poliomyelitis while nursing patients with that disease. Her friends made sure Dr. Schweitzer heard about it, too, and the peak experience of their day came when the old doctor gallantly kissed her hand, sincerely expressing his respect for her. It was disarmingly charming how these ladies spontaneously showed their admiration for Dr. Schweitzer and his work.

The invalid nurse and some of the more courageous ladies accepted an invitation to stay for supper while the others returned to their hotel in Lambaréné village. Dr. Schweitzer was visibly animated by these friendly ladies from the North.

At the dinner table they became quite timid, however, as they nervously tried to keep an interesting conversation going with the hero of their dreams. When they finally ran out of topics, Dr. Schweitzer said invitingly: “Are there any questions you would like to ask me?”

One of the ladies, moving restlessly on her chair, asked: “What is going to happen to Lambaréné when you are ... I mean when you are no more?”

This was a question which undoubtedly was on many peoples' minds. But to put it bluntly to his face! A short silence followed: everybody looked embarrassed. The poor lady, realizing the impact her question had made, slowly turned red.

Dr. Schweitzer smiled. “I intend to live until I am about a hundred years old,” he retorted jokingly, “so there is still lots of time before we have to worry about that.”

Everybody laughed and the lady, who by now had tears in her eyes, found time to recover. It was the typical Albert Schweitzer way of handling an embarrassing situation.

After dinner, the Finnish ladies, who had found out that I, too, was Scandinavian, gathered around me and asked if there was anything they could do to please Dr. Schweitzer before they left.

“What if we sing a song for him?” suggested the nurse in the wheelchair.

I recalled that Albert Schweitzer once mentioned how he cherished the memory of an old Norwegian hymn which he heard in Oslo when there receiving the Nobel prize. Fortunately, the Finnish ladies knew this hymn, which is sung all over Scandinavia, and with the invalid nurse in our midst we silently assembled in the dark at Dr. Schweitzer's house. We sang that hymn to him there under his window with the same enthusiasm the students in Oslo had shown. Albert Schweitzer came out on the porch to listen.

“Thank you, you have made me very happy,” he said when we had finished, and we could hear that he was moved.

Contentedly, the Finnish ladies bid him good-bye and rolled the nurse in the wheelchair down the path to the river. There they folded up the chair, lifted their frail friend into the boat, and seated her comfortably. While their boat sailed down the river, they again intoned the hymn, “Wonderful is the Earth.” It sounded beautiful in the tropical night.

Dr. Schweitzer reached for my hand. “I am glad you are still here,” he said simply.

We stood for a long time, listening to the sweet voices coming to us over the water. As the boat disappeared around a bend of the river, the melody faded away. With a sigh, Albert Schweitzer turned and walked back to his house, and to the work that waited on his desk.

A long-term visitor to Lambaréné was Mary-Lou. She lived a few doors down from mine at the nurses' quarters. A young American woman, Mary-Lou often took sick children to her room overnight, although Dr. Schweitzer discouraged such practices.

Mary-Lou had arrived as a visitor about a year before I came and had stayed on in Lambaréné. With her gentle manners and friendly disposition, she was well liked by all. Nobody knew much about her or why she stayed with us for such a long time. She was the wife of a well-known businessman in the southern United States but she never talked about her life in America. The only dining we did know was that she was deeply unhappy about not having children of her own. She loved babies and little children passionately and had found her place of activity at the children's clinic, where she was of great help to us.

The only problem with Mary-Lou was her unpredictably shifting moods and frequent emotional outbursts. She had a habit of favoring some children, upon whom she lavished love and affection, while she brushed aside other children less appealing to her. When one of her favorites died, her grief was unrestrained. The desperate and painful look in her beautiful eyes put an added strain on us when we ourselves struggled with sorrow over a dying child. Mary-Lou was devoted in her work, however, and since she never complained about the discomfort and physical hardship of the job, we readily forgave her for her tears.

Her most favorite child was a little boy of about three years, whom she had literally nursed back to health. When the boy was over the crisis and began to recover, she felt very proud of her achievement and began to look upon the child as belonging to her. The parents, who had already given up hope for this child, seemed to think that Mary-Lou had a certain right to claim it and when she announced that she wished to adopt the boy, they did not feel free to refuse.

When they also heard Mary-Lou was a wealthy lady, the parents hid their feelings and allowed her to start adoption procedures. Dr. Schweitzer, seemingly quite fond of Mary-Lou, remained uninvolved in this matter, except for advising her about the required formalities.

In the meantime, the boy was thriving. He had become the most bouncing and healthy child anybody could wish for. Mary-Lou would take him in arms, feel his firm little body and kiss him joyfully. The boy smiled at Mary-Lou with sparkling eyes, but still preferred his mother's company. His mother turned away, hiding her tears. As the day of finalizing the adoption drew closer, both parents became increasingly anxious. But in true parental love, they were willing to sacrifice their own feelings for what they thought would be best for their son's future.

It was a few days before the final signing of the papers. Mary-Lou had everything ready so that she could leave Lambaréné as soon as the child was legally hers. Dr. Schweitzer happened to be at the children's clinic with nurse Anne-Lise and myself. Distracted by Mary-Lou, who was laughing aloud over the little boy in her arms, Dr. Schweitzer turned to her.

“Did you write to your husband to have the room ready for your son when you arrive home with him?” he asked amiably.

Mary-Lou suddenly frowned. “Oh no,” she exclaimed, “he can't stay with us! In the South we could not have a black child in our family. I'll have to find a children's home for him where I can visit him any time.”

There was icy silence. Albert Schweitzer gave Mary-Lou a long and disappointed glance. Without a word, he went towards the blushing young American woman and gently took the hand of the little boy, pulling him away from her. Then he led the child across the floor to where the unhappy parents held an agitated conversation with friends. Dr. Schweitzer put the hand of the little boy into his mother's and closed his own hand firmly over the two.

“Go home to your village, take your son along, and do not come back for a long time. Good-bye!”

He spoke in a low, persuasive voice. The parents jumped to their feet, grabbed the child, picked up their belongings, and hurriedly made their way to the river. Silence persisted while we watched the family climb into the canoe and paddle away over the murky waters of the Ogowe River. A feeling of deep shame made it impossible for us to say a word of consolation to Mary-Lou, who was silently crying into her empty hands.

After a long, private talk with Albert Schweitzer, Mary-Lou left Lambaréné, discreetly, a few days later.

While we went about our daily work at the hospital, we physicians hardly found time to speak together except in professional matters, thus we did not have a chance to really get to know each other. When we met socially in the evenings we were often so bone tired that we only sat there silent and half asleep, merely enjoying the friendly and relaxing atmosphere. Dr. Friedman, our middle-aged Jewish colleague, hardly ever came to our social gatherings; he lived a very withdrawn and private life. His solemn face and gruff manners made the others feel uncomfortable and he was often left alone.

With Dr. Schweitzer he seemed, however, to have a much more intimate relationship than any of us, and nobody objected when he spent long hours with Dr. Schweitzer in his private quarters. We did not know how long he had been in Lambaréné, but he had taken over the treatment of the mentally ill after Dr. Schweitzer withdrew from medical work in the hospital. Dr. Friedman had his table close to mine in the consultation room. In the beginning I felt intimidated by his presence, until I realized, a bit astonished, that he seemed to know when I needed help the most. Unobtrusively and with a peculiar, gentle look in his sad eyes, he would discuss a difficult case and stay by me until he was sure I felt confident again.

Sometimes after I had finished my work and he was still at his desk, I would entice him to speak with me, for I could feel a deep loneliness in him that made me wish to give him sympathy. I soon discovered that he was an extraordinary, learned person. Since he was from Germany and I had studied medicine in some of the places he knew, we quickly found common things to talk about. In the tone of his voice and by the eagerness with which he spoke about his youth in Germany, I could sense his homesickness for those bygone days.

At the dinner table when Albert Schweitzer gave his learned talk, Dr. Friedman would take copious notes. He was the only one who dared challenge Dr. Schweitzer's views and argue a point with his own thoughts. I noticed that Dr. Schweitzer cared very much about what Dr. Friedman said and that he handled his impulsive friend unusually gently. Dr. Friedman could become so emotional that sweat pearls stood on his forehead. At times there was almost a fanatic intensity in his expression.

One hot and busy day, Dr. Friedman appeared in a bad mood after a shouting incident at his table. His ill temper carried on even after the patients had left. I could feel his exasperation when we took our little rest and I commented on it a bit ironically. “You are not very happy, are you?” Dr. Friedman turned around as if bitten. With a swift movement, he brushed the sleeve of his shirt up over his forearm.

“Do you see this?” he shouted with such an explosion of emotions that all the blood drained from my face. With pounding heart I looked at the bluish tattoo marks on his arm. Too frightened to answer, I stared at the numbers printed on the skin. Its meaning flashed through my mind. A prisoner's number from a Nazi death camp! A long, tense silence followed. I was at a loss as how to react and while waiting in suspense, I fervently regretted my words. I did not dare to look at him.

“All my family--everyone of them were killed in the gas chambers, all except me.” His voice was a whisper. “When I was set free I had lost everything, my people--my God, and my joy in life. Bitter and restless, I wandered from one place to the other not knowing what to do with my life, whether to live or to die. As a last straw I decided to visit Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné. Maybe I had a tiny hope that he could help me. And here I have found some kind of peace, the only place on earth where I feel at home--so I have lived here ever since.”

Dr. Friedman had calmed down by now and his voice was warm as he continued. “He and Mrs. Schweitzer took me in as if I was their son; they made me feel that they cared; they listened patiently to my bitter outbursts and showed me that there can also be human dignity and goodness of heart, not only brutality and merciless violence. Dr. Schweitzer gave me back a sense of worth by entrusting me with the care of the most miserably suffering patients of all in his hospital--the mentally insane. To help them has been my daily task since I made my life here. When one of them improves, I feel my work is worthwhile; when I fail, I fall back into dark brooding. But I know that Dr. Schweitzer is always here to help me out again.”

The evening bell rang. I jumped to my feet, relieved that this painful confession had found a natural ending.

Shamefully, I now found myself withdrawing from his company, just like the others had done. I did not know how to face nor to handle the bottomless well of sorrow my older colleague had revealed. I felt too young and inexperienced to have any significant help to offer. When I saw the blissful expression that lightened his face when he was in Dr. Schweitzer's presence, I felt humbled and thankful towards Dr. Schweitzer who was able, over and over again, to heal the wounds of this soul which had so cruelly been torn apart.


Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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