When was the last time you read a book set in Ethiopia? Never, right? Me, either. Well, dash yourself to the local bookstore, library or Amazon and grab a copy of this beautiful, compelling story, set in Ethopia beginning in the 1940s.
An Indian nurse, a nun, training in Madras, is sent to Africa by her Superior. The year is 1947. On the ship, half the passengers and crew fall ill to some sickness, and the rest are suffering from extreme seasickness. She meets a young British surgeon who is on his way to a small Catholic mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But he falls violently ill. Our nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, runs around the ship treating everyone. Her roommate does not survive, but the doctor does. They arrive at Aden, Yemen, where unable to find her destination, Sister Mary Joseph Praise has some unspeakable experiences which almost destroy her, and which we are not told about. In despair, she makes her arduous way to Ethiopia, to Addis Ababa, to find Dr. Thomas Stone, the doctor she nursed back to health on the ship, and to work there.
Dr. Stone is a fantastic surgeon doing miracles for the poor people who come to the mission for treatment. Sister Mary learns to be a wonderful surgical nurse, and together they move as one. Seven years later, Sister Mary is brought to the operating room, apparently dying. She is pregnant and trying to give birth to what turns out to be conjoined twins. The female doctor who specialized in gynecology and obstetrics, is yelling at Dr. Stone to perform a Cesarean, but for some reason he is paralyzed with fright, so she steps in. Trying to extract the babies, she finds them conjoined at the head by a tube, and in order to get them out, must cut the tube.
And so begins the story of the twins, Shiva and Marion. Marion is named after Marion Sims, a simple practitioner in Alabama, USA, who had revolutionized women’s surgery. He was considered the father of obstetrics and gynecology. And Shiva is named after , you know, Shiva, the destroyer, among other identities.
You know me, I am all about the story, and this is a page turner, told in the first person by Marion, who has grown up to be a noted surgeon in his own right. It is all about their lives in this time of upheaval in Ethiopia, when Emperor Haile Selassie was in power, and during the revolution.
…the notion of African royalty. The bloodlines of Emperor Haile Selassie extended back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, making the Windsors or the Romanovs look like carpetbaggers.
It is filled with wonderful characters, exciting action, and stuff you didn’t know about Ethiopia and it’s neighbor Eritrea, and their ongoing squabble. Well, maybe more than a squabble. The twins eventually have a falling out, Marion goes on to New York for his advanced medical training. More stuff happens. Not going to tell you. Go read the plot description in Goodreads if you want to know all that badly.
But I will tell you some of the fascinating things I have learned:
Christians in Ethiopia have been there for a long long time.
When the pagans back in Yorkshire and Saxony were using their enemies’ skulls as a plate to serve food, these Christians in Ethopia were singing the psalms. They believe they have the Ark of the Covenant locked up in a church in Axum. Not a saint’s finger, or a pope’s toe, but the Ark!
And you think coffee comes from South America?
A goatherd, centuries ago, has noticed how frisky his animals became after chewing a particular red berry. From that serendipitous discovery, the coffee habit and trade spread to Yemen, Amsterdam, the Caribbean, South America and the world, but it had all begun in Ethiopia, in a field with a goatherd and his goats.
Sister Mary Joseph Praise, in the book, was a Malayali from Cochin, in the state of Kerala.
Malayali Christians traced their faith back to St. Thomas’ arrival in India from Damascus in A.D. 52. “Doubting” Thomas built his first churches in Kerala well before St. Peter got to Rome. ….Spice traders have sailed to Cochin for centuries for cardamom and cloves, including a certain Vasco de Gama in 1498. The Portuguese clawed out a colonial seat in Goa, torturing the Hindu population into Catholic converts. Catholic priests and nuns eventually reached Kerala, as if they didn’t know that St. Thomas had brought Christ’s uncorrupted vision to Kerala a thousand years before them.
Some more cool stuff:
Ghosh (another doctor at the mission hospital) had learned the technique of vasectomy as an intern, and he’d learned directly from Jhaver in India, whom he spoke of as “the maestro of male nut clipping who is personally responsible for millions of people not being here.”
The book is filled with descriptions of medical conditions and explicit surgery scenes. You can jump over those if you have a queasy tummy. I enjoyed them immensely. The title comes from the Hippocratic Oath:
I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art….
I still don’t know what that means. I had to look it up. OK; here i t is. There is a surgical method for removal of calculi, stones formed inside certain organs, such as the kidneys (kidney stones), bladder (bladder stones), and gallbladder (gallstones), that cannot exit naturally through the urinary system or biliary tract. The procedure is usually performed by means of a surgical incision (therefore invasive). So the Oath contains a clear warning for physicians against the “cutting” of persons “laboring under the stone”; an act that was better left to surgeons, as distinct from physicians. Operations to remove bladder stones via the perineum, like other surgery before the invention of anesthesia, were intensely painful for the patient.
So I suppose in general, it is a warning to leave the specialties to the specialists.
Just a wonderful book. I leave you with one final thought — when it comes to an incurable patient who is dying, there is an Eleventh Commandment:
Thou shall not operate on the day of a patient’s death.