Written By: Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D. Reviewed Edition: Internet Mental Health, 1990 Online Edition ( http://www.mentalhealth.com/books/lja/lja-toc.html ), about 113 pages when printed No ISBN Shown Quotes Table of Contents
Dr. Louise Jilek-Aall was a young Norwegian medical doctor when she went to East Africa in 1959. She worked as a lone bush doctor in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and then at the request of the International Red Cross she worked with the United Nations forces in war-torn Congo (now Zaire). In February, 1961, when her duties as medical officer in the Congo were completed, she decided to visit Lambarene to meet Albert Schweitzer prior to returning to Tanganyika. Intending to stay five days, she instead stayed for some months (perhaps five or six) until a replacement medical doctor arrived. She then returned to Tanganyika for another year.
Dr. Jilek-Aall has written a fascinating account of life at Lambarene in 1961. She provides us with a look at how Schweitzer's compassion and charisma kept the hospital functioning. The staff--both African and Western--looked to Schweitzer's example and relied on his personal support when dealing with a medical crisis, personal problem, or inconsiderate visitor. Her accounts of conversations with Schweitzer provide insight into his philosophy and his life.
The online version of this book is free and available to anyone. While not a introduction to Schweitzer's thought, I highly recommend it for those interested in life at Lambarene during Schweitzer's later years.
[Upon Dr. Jilek-Aall's arrival at Lambarene, Dr. Schweitzer asked her,] "'Who are you, young lady?' It sounded not unfriendly, but rather indifferent--an endless stream of women, young and old, had passed through Lambarene! He look a little closer as Mlle Mathilde introduced me to him. 'And what do you want to learn from me?' he asked, slightly more interested.
... What could one answer at such a moment? Walking along the river this morning, crossing it with the old man in the canoe, and sensing the harmony of the place had made a great impression on me. I desperately sought for an answer. I did not want to be womanly sentimental, but my lips started to tremble. I suddenly remembered the helpless, lost feeling I had while struggling alone with difficult patients in the African bush....
'I would very much like to learn how to extract teeth,' I heard myself say.
It was an impulse, a thought bursting from my lips in reaction to the difficult question. The famous man looked at me in amazement, then a light sparkled in his old eyes and he started to laugh. The doctors and nurses, Mlle Mathilde and guests, all looked quite startled, the pelican flew away, the chickens and ducks scattered about, and the dogs began to bark. Dr. Schweitzer had apparently not been laughing like that for a long time.
'That's a girl,' he exclaimed, 'a true bush doctor! I know the agony of pulling teeth alone in the bush. You have come to the right place. I have an excellent dentist at the hospital. With him you can pull teeth all day long. Ha-ha-ha!'"
"Special visitors were sometimes taken along by Dr. Schweitzer and invited to sit at his table or to follow him around in the consultation room. The visitor would have to be a very understanding person to gain our sympathy. Our dislike was especially aroused if we sensed that the visitor was only out for sensation, or if he disturbed us by insensitive questioning that betrayed untimely curiosity rather than genuine interest or empathy.
In that regard, we were much more critical than Dr. Schweitzer himself. I do not think he ever bothered to read the criticism that flowed so freely from the pens of some visitors who peeped only briefly into Lambarene. He felt obliged to give his best in every situation; what the individual visitor did with it was not his concern. This was what endeared him so much to those of us who stayed long enough to look behind his personal shyness. We came to love him for this and for his noble mind and intellectual generosity."
"For weeks after I had come to Lambarene I would still stiffen in fear when passing a group of African men on the road. I would feel compelled to look back over my shoulder lest one of them was sneaking up on me from behind. But Lambarene was far away from war and racial hatred. Now I, who had become accustomed to watching African faces for the slightest twitch of a muscle which could indicate hostility, saw nothing but relaxed and friendly expressions among the people I encountered at the hospital here.
In the congenial atmosphere between white and black staff and patients at Lambarene, I regained my self-confidence and peace of mind. It almost appeared to me that patients who saw Dr. Schweitzer sad and worried when one of them got worse, mustered all their willpower to get well just for the sake of making their beloved old doctor happy again. It was as if they vaguely understood that their recovery gave Dr. Schweitzer the contentment and the feeling of purpose he needed if he was to remain with them in Africa."
[Gustave, a longtime African orderly at Lambarene, recounting a conversation he had with Dr. Schweitzer.] "'The importance of Jesus Christ to mankind,' Dr. Schweitzer explained, 'does not lie in the rituals people have made out of his teaching, but in the example of his life. His love and compassion and his willingness to die for the conviction that his death would redeem all men from suffering and sin, these are the deeds that have been remembered throughout time. If you are able to understand this message and conduct your life accordingly, you do not need to worry about the missionaries,' Dr. Schweitzer told me. His eyes had a twinkle when he said that.
'I felt greatly relieved. From that day, Christianity was not a thing to fear. I could enjoy life in my village, but I could also discuss freely with the boys around the fire about Dr. Schweitzer and what he stood for in our lives.'"
"This feeling of security and harmony which develops through well-organized cooperation was quite unique in Lambarene. True, each of us had to accept restrictions on our personal freedom. Some of the staff felt resentment toward Dr. Schweitzer for his indisputable authority. But then, they were free to leave at any time. The doctor never took it badly when somebody decided to quit. He paid generously for the work done, for the journey home, and for recreation time.
If Dr. Schweitzer was like a strict father, we often behaved like naughty children. The rule that off-duty staff members had to stay in at night often provoked us to sneak out in the dark, just for the fun of it. Few ventured far, though; the sinister, primeval forest around Lambarene with its reptiles and weird noises seemed to close in on us when it was dark and made us quickly retreat to the security of our living quarters."
Table of Contents of Working With Dr. Schweitzer
Epilogue Further Reading
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