Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 6. A Glamorous Visitor

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
Much coldness is among people, because we do not dare to show how affectionate we really are.

(Albert Schweitzer, Kein Sonnenstrahl geht verkloren p. 35)

- Author's translation

Of all the visitors coming to Lambaréné during my stay there, Marie-Anne was probably the one Albert Schweitzer enjoyed the most. This extraordinary lady was of the type men only like when her charm and caprices are for them exclusively and whom women--especially hard-working ones--find difficult to tolerate. She brought along a whiff of European high society; a world I had nearly forgotten about; an air of freshness and wit only possible where the knowledge of sickness and suffering plays no part in one's life; where waking up in the morning is a joy and not burdened by yesterday's undone work, and where one's physical and mental strength is not strained to the limits, but is free to express mere joy of living.

I think I know why the old Schweitzer liked this visitor so much: since his own wife had died at Lambaréné a few years before I visited there, he had lacked that special care only a wife of many years can give. Nobody at the hospital knew much about his private feelings, but his stooped figure could often be seen in the twilight of the evening, standing motionless at her lonely grave. Marie Anne had known them both since early years. She gave him a break from his serious work and lonely philosophizing, gave him back the memory of happy times, of youth and naivete.

Just as regularly as the rainy season, Marie Anne would come on her yearly visit. Probably fearing what the gruesome climate might do to her youthful appearance, she never stayed longer than a couple of weeks. Dr. Schweitzer went around for days in a festive mood, its intensity increasing daily as the time of her visit drew closer until on the evening before her arrival, he was happy as a lark--to the secret annoyance of his old-time staff. He sent his tired secretary to supervise the work of the girls who cleaned and prepared the guest room. Finally he himself inspected the room, suggesting little improvements here and there, giving it his personal touch. Nothing could be good enough for his Marie-Anne.

When the day of her visit dawned, Dr. Schweitzer went around in restless excitement, blissfully ignoring the sullen mood of his staff. With youthful vigor, he jumped into the boat, his best crew waiting at the oars. While the eight men steered the boat downstream to Lambaréné village where Marie-Anne had spent the night, he settled happily in the back, smiling to himself in cheerful anticipation of the days ahead.

Nobody was privileged to accompany him on this special trip to Lambaréné village. I, for one, waited with curiosity for this person who was apparently capable of making Dr. Schweitzer feel so happy. It was sunset when the boat came in sight again. Dr. Schweitzer had permitted himself a day off with his guest. From the hospital we could see how he stepped out of the boat and gallantly offered his hand to help the lady ashore, but we did not really get to see her before we all gathered for supper.

She was, of course, seated right beside Dr. Schweitzer, a place which was hers as long as she stayed in Lambaréné. I still had my seat facing his across the table and finally had a good look at this special lady. MarieAnne must have been past middle age, but her curly hair shone in golden color, she had lively brown eyes, and a large, smiling mouth with red-painted lips and perfectly white teeth. Her makeup was done with artistic skill and her skin was rosy and youthful. Among the overworked, tired, and pale women of Albert Schweitzer's entourage, she indeed looked like a flower fresh from the garden.

Marie-Anne was a lady of the world, fluent in English, German, and French. With Dr. Schweitzer she spoke in German, addressing him “Professor,” while using the familiar “Du.” She constantly busied herself with him, surrounding him with her charm, serving him the choicest pieces, and entertaining him with humorous chatter. When their eyes met, their glance told of happy memories and they smiled at each other as if nobody else were present. The others sat in silence and threw jealous glances at the glamorous guest. I had to smile to myself when hearing with what warmth and extra vigor Dr. Schweitzer played the piano that evening and I could not help but like Marie-Anne for making him so happy.

As we all went out to the yard after dinner, Dr. Schweitzer put his hand on my shoulder and said jokingly to Marie-Anne: “Look what a fine catch we have made since you were here last.”

She gave me a fleeting glance. “Oh yes, the pretty kid,” she said indifferently; then she smiled and stretched out her hand while looking past me at a little monkey in a tree. “What a sweet little darling,” she exclaimed, “isn't he adorable!”

I stepped aside and Albert Schweitzer's old secretary tightened her lips into a thin smile. Marie-Anne broke into hysterical laughter when the little monkey dropped to the ground and began to untie her shoe. She enjoyed it with childish innocence. Who could not help but smile at Marie-Anne?

The next day Dr. Schweitzer accompanied Marie-Anne to the leper colony, which was about 20 minutes' walk from the hospital. It was part of her program in Lambaréné to visit the leprous patients and their families and to dole out gifts.

For some reason of her own, she had a special heart for the people suffering from leprosy. Year after year she collected money, gave bazaars, persuaded clubs to make donations, pestered her friends, and gave of her own, so that she could find something to gladden the hearts of these outcasts.

To the two hundred or so people of the leper colony, Marie-Anne came as a kind of Santa Claus. She brought with her books and magazines, clothes and scarfs, toys and tools the like of which these illiterate jungle people had never seen nor could ever have imagined. Maybe that was why they loved it so much. Marie-Anne with her rosy cheeks and blonde hair, with her smart dress and fine perfume, sitting there amidst all these mysterious gifts, appeared to them like a marvelous fairytale princess.

A few days later, Dr. Schweitzer asked me to accompany Marie-Anne to Lambaréné village where she wanted to visit a lady friend. He arranged for his elite oarsmen to take us there and escorted us down the steep bank to the boat early in the morning to see us off. These men, who were ready to row for Dr. Schweitzer at any time, were patients from the leprosy village. They were old-timers who, in their younger days, had been treated for leprosy by Dr. Schweitzer and who had recovered enough to be able to do some work. They were proud of their strength and of their ability to row in spite of their mutilated hands. With what was left of their fingers and hands, they gripped the oars and rowed the boat as deftly as any healthy person, often singing along as they rowed--especially if the old doctor himself came on board. Seeing Dr. Schweitzer accompanying his favorite lady to their boat, they saluted him cheerfully.

“Take good care of these ladies,” he greeted back, and waited until they had seated Marie-Anne comfortably in the middle of the broad boat and steered it into the middle of the river. Marie-Anne was in excellent spirits.

She was cracking jokes and bubbled out the most impossibly funny remarks in English, French, and German until she had everybody laughing, long before we reached the village. How could one find Marie-Anne anything but charming?

Lambaréné village had a small government hospital with a dozen nurses and a French physician, whose wife it was that Marie-Anne was visiting. While the two ladies rivaled in telling each other how happy they were to meet again, the French doctor invited me to come along to the hospital where he had a few complicated cases he wanted to discuss. He and Dr. Schweitzer had been friends for years. One or other of the many physicians at the Schweitzer hospital would visit this doctor about once a week to consult with him or to assist him at operations.

On this particular day, a pregnant woman caused him great concern. The people who had taken her to the hospital a few days earlier had left in a hurry, a sure indication of some foul play, he felt. The woman was in continuous pain. She had apparently been given some indigenous medicine which caused irregular and extremely painful contractions. We examined her together and came to the conclusion that the labor pains were too unorganized to allow birth to proceed and that only a Caesarian section could save the lives of mother and child.

I offered to take the patient to the Schweitzer hospital where we had better facilities and often performed this operation. The suffering woman was more than willing to come along. A nurse helped me carry her down to the river. We arranged as comfortable a seat for her as we could in the flat-bottomed boat. The woman was in pain; she was sweating profusely and to cool herself she took off her wrappings and sat on them naked in all her misery. But, knowing that she would soon be helped at Dr. Schweitzer's hospital, she felt greatly encouraged and at times even smiled and talked jokingly to the men waiting at the oars.

It was already late afternoon when Marie-Anne came hurrying down to the boat. Seeing the new passenger, she slowed down; her eyes widened in astonishment. She hesitated before stepping into the boat. Thinking that the sight of the naked woman bothered her, I put a blanket loosely over the woman's shoulders. As the men pulled away from shore and began to row upstream, I explained to Marie-Anne why we had to take the pregnant women to our hospital. Marie-Anne said nothing but she seemed to have lost her happy mood. Silently she sat in the back of the boat. With a troubled expression, she threw quick glances at the woman from time to time. Suddenly, a series of labor pains made the woman break out in pitiful moaning. Closing her eyes and rocking her body, she twisted her hands, sweat pouring down her distorted face. Marie-Anne turned pale and slowly rose to her feet.

“C'est bien, c'est bien,” she stuttered as she stared in horror at the woman. “You'll go to sleep and tomorrow everything is over, the child will be born, a big, big boy--it's all right, it's all right.”

Marie-Anne gently stroked the woman's hair. Tears now streaming down her face, she fumbled in her purse and got hold of a beautiful silk handkerchief with trembling hands.

“Here, take this, use it--I give it to you,” she urged.

The woman opened her eyes and stared at the outstretched hand with the fine cloth. The sight astonished her so much she nearly forgot her pain. A bit frightened, she looked up to the fair lady who was crying, wondering what was the matter with her and what it was this stranger wanted of her. But pain gripped her again and she crouched down, moaning and trembling.

“Do something, for God's sake!” Marie-Anne shouted at me. “Can't you help her?” she yelled, “it hurts me too; I can't stand it!” She clenched her hands and stamped her feet. “How can you stay cool?” Marie-Anne's voice vibrated with indignation. “Don't you feel anything? Don't you see how the woman is suffering? Oh God, she is dying. Help, help!”

Suddenly she jumped to her feet and looked around, wild-eyed. “I can't stand it any longer,” she sobbed unrestrainedly, as she wrung her hands.

The men left the oars and rushed to her, trying to hold her down. It was like a madhouse. Marie-Anne cried and fought with the men; the woman in labor held on to me, trembling with fear. The boat reeled and turned into the current. I was sure we were all going to fall into the river, where the crocodiles were waiting. Who could know what to do with Marie-Anne? The imminent danger made me desperate. Without thinking, I lashed out and slapped Marie-Anne behind the ear.

“Keep quiet, or we will all perish!” I shouted with all my might. She looked at me stunned, her eyes darkened, but she came to her senses.

“I am suffering,” she whimpered; “I am hurt, please don't hurt me anymore,” and she sank down beside the pregnant woman. I took hold of them both. The men scrambled to the oars and got the boat on course again. I clenched my teeth and wished only that the journey would soon be over. The men drove the boat as hurriedly as they could and while both women were crying, I tried to soothe them, not knowing whether to laugh or cry myself.

When we finally landed at the hospital, I did not dare to look at Marie-Anne. I felt sorry for having hit her and a cold shiver ran down my spine when I thought of what she was going to tell Dr. Schweitzer. But I had to busy myself with the patient and did not get a chance to apologize to Marie-Anne. While we carried the pregnant woman to the hospital, I looked back and saw Marie-Anne pressing the rejected handkerchief over her eyes. Still sobbing, she stumbled up the hill to Albert Schweitzer's house, obviously in dire need of consolation.

Everything was made ready for surgery, the pregnant woman was prepared and taken to the operating room. A few hours later, after successful completion of the Caesarian section, I stood at her side. When she opened her eyes, and with a big smile stretched out her hands to receive a healthy baby, I had forgotten everything about Marie-Anne.

But, at the dinner table when Dr. Schweitzer, accompanied by a rested and fully restored Marie-Anne, took his seat opposite me, the dramatic boat journey stood clearly before my eyes. I did not dare look up from my plate. How could I have had the audacity to lay a hand on Dr. Schweitzer's favorite lady? My stomach twisted and my throat went dry. I could not eat.

“Well, how was the trip?”

Dr. Schweitzer was talking to me. Blood rushed to my face and while I frantically searched for something to say, I threw a timid glance at his face. He was twinkling at me with the one eye Marie-Anne could not see and there was a flicker of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Before I could answer, Marie-Anne looked at me radiantly.

“Oh Louise darling was a heroine!” she exclaimed, with a generous smile, “she was so calm, she saved us all.”

A sigh of relief escaped from my chest and my heart melted. Who could not help but fall for Marie-Anne?

The hospital staff, however, remained reserved toward Marie-Anne during her entire stay in Lambaréné. I could not help feeling sorry for her. Whenever she ventured away from Dr. Schweitzer's side and tried to establish contact, the person she approached would suddenly get very busy and turn away. Unfortunately, she avoided any further contact with me, although she never failed to say something flattering about me when Albert Schweitzer was around. Probably fearing some contagious disease, she never involved herself with work at the hospital and therefore appeared lost and out of place there. No wonder she withdrew to her room when she was not with Dr. Schweitzer. But she never complained and I do not think he noticed how Marie-Anne was treated by his staff, as she was always cheerful in his presence.

Finally, the last day of Marie-Anne's visit had arrived. She gave each of us a small present. She went around with tears in her eyes telling everybody how sad she was to leave and how she loved us all. Her only comfort, she said, was that she would come again next year, and that she knew Dr. Schweitzer was in good hands.

“Please look after him well for me,” she said with trembling voice as she shook our hands.

Dr. Schweitzer was already in the boat when she quickly turned to me and took out a little bag from her purse.

“Here is something for you, my dear!” she said with a funny smile, and hurried off to the waiting boat. Like a queen, she posed in the boat, waving gracefully to us until it had passed out of sight.

That evening when alone in my room, I remembered Marie-Anne's farewell present. With curiosity, I opened the bag and found ... and saw ... No! I don't ever want to reveal what rather indelicate souvenir she had selected for me in a vengeful mood. Who but Albert Schweitzer could really appreciate Marie-Anne?

Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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