Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2005 - 1:32 a.m.
He slid into an aisle seat in the last row as the academic procession reached the end of the red carpeted walkway, and climbed the small wooden steps onto the stage. The Dean of Medicine gave a short speech, and then the Chancellor awarded a certificate to the old woman standing next to him. She looks so frail, the boy thought. After the applause and camera flashes, she crossed over to the speaker's dais and began talking about her work in Ethiopia.
After graduation she worked with her husband in a large Australian hospital, when they answered an advertisement in the Lancet, for doctors to work in Addis Ababa for six months. They went and stayed forty years. During that time, they built a hospital for fistula patients and operated on over twenty thousand women, repairing the wombs and bladders broken by pregnancy, with their careful, ungloved hands. The women came to them, exhausted from the failed childbirth, walking four days of hills and dusty roads, leaking urine all the way, and bearing the unbearable waves of vaginal pain. She saves them because there is no other way. No one else will. After the operations, she gives each one of them a new dress and returns them to their villages. Her husband died in Ethiopia a few years ago, and his memorial plaque at the Hospital of Hope quotes the gospel of Matthew: what you did for the least of these, you did for me.
The audience stands as the academic procession moves down the walkway to exit the Hall. She does not notice anyone in the audience as she crosses the fold of the stone arches, because all she can think about is her husband. The doctorate does not matter to her; only her work does. As the old lady passes him, the boy, a first year medical student, looks at her. She too, was once in the same Great Hall awaiting graduation, though she had sat in a different seat. History will look back on this moment, this passing of bodies when the boy and the old lady were almost shoulder to shoulder.