What I Learned from My Trip to Bulgaria
words by: Stacey Gagon
I have been asked everyday about my trip. Well-intended, “How was your trip?” questions. And honestly, I find I lie. I lie and say, “it was hard, but we did a lot of good.” And the lie tastes bitter on my tongue. It was more than hard, and there was not a lot of good.
When I disembarked from the plane in Bulgaria, I stepped into this ocean of a problem and got knocked on my back by a tidal wave of crisis and emotions. And I’m sitting here choking on the water, trying to figure out where that wave came from. I was prepared for this trip; I was ready. I had packed, unpacked, and repacked several times. I had gathered supplies, letters, and created PowerPoint teaching slides and videos.
But the truth is I never will be prepared, nor do I want to be prepared to see, hear, and touch what I saw in the orphanages because I should never be ready to look at an innocent child who is starving and flinches at my touch. I never want to sit holding the skin and bones of a seven-year-old-child-who-looks-like-an- infant and feel prepared. So, I have been crushed by the wave, and I’m trying to process it all.
I think back to a training I attended on disaster preparedness. A portion of the training was how to triage and tag victims of a mass casualty incident. Triage tagging is a way to effectively and efficiently distribute limited resources and immediate care until more help arrives. Each victim is assigned a color before the first responder moves to the next victim.
As we moved across Eastern Europe through several orphanages and facilities, I found myself “tagging” the victims and thinking how very little I was doing and how very many victims there were.
Immediate (red tag) – life-threatening
There were many children I saw, and I prayed for death. At the end of each day, I wondered—who was this person I had become? I have never prayed for a child to die, yet I found my soul weeping and begging for God’s reprieve. And the part I struggle with is that the reprieve would have been mine. I would have been able to unload the burden of a fourteen-year-old twisted like a pretzel with a hole cut in his mattress to hold his contorted frame. I would have been able to forget about the pressure wounds glistening with bone and ligaments and how they contrasted with his soft, brown eyes framed by thick, black eyelashes. If death had offered a reprieve, I would never have seen the five-year-old infant who lay contracted like a strung bow with nostrils flaring and air gasps.
I would not have noticed her ragged breaths were the only sound in the room, nor the fact that the rest of the infant-sized children lay “sleeping” in a drug- fogged haze as drool slipped down their cheeks and pooled on their stained sheets. Had death visited, I would never have to carry home an image of a shrunken, yellowing body of a five-year-old. Eyes too large for his tiny frame, lips frothing as he labored to exist. I would not be sitting here now weeping as I type, weeping over the children I left dying in an orphanage. I could have rested in their reprieve from this life, instead of wondering if they were still in pain. Yes, I begged for their death because the weight of it all buckled me to my knees.
Delayed (yellow tag) – serious, non-life-threatening
There were so many children who were physically healthier. I looked at them and searched for hope. They were the quiet witnesses; seeming like shadows. A shadow who was four-year-old; a boy dressed in a purple sleeper taking a nap at 10 a.m. and still napping five hours later. And this same boy has not met the outside world, but lives suspended in time. He marks the days with the
passing of metal cups and mealtimes and has never seen the beautiful garden right outside his window. He cannot smell the roses blooming on the vines, or feel the sun on his face. He has never learned about numbers and letters. His mind sits stagnant with the lack of stimulus.
She is the seven-year-old who does not know what it feels like to have a mother’s kiss or a daddy’s tickles. She sits rocking day after day on the sagging crib mattress, waiting to fill an empty space inside her heart. Her knuckles are raw and scabbed from where she bites them out of numb boredom. She regurgitates her food to have the sensation of swallowing. Her teeth are corroded, her hair is patchy, and her skin is sallow. She is a job to a caregiver and a burden to a system. Yet she has feelings and hurts; love and fear. Inside her is contained potential locked away by a disease called “Indifference.”
I looked at these children and saw my own son, Israel. I realized he, too, had sat suspended in time, waiting for a future. His only hope was adoption. Their only hope is adoption. If they are not adopted, most will die within institutions. Every child has a basic human right to be loved by a family, regardless of country. Children are not supposed to be raised and die in institutions.
Minor (green tag) – walking wounded
When I first went to the orphanages, I wanted to place blame on families who gave their children up for adoption. I wanted to point a finger at a mother who would just leave her baby at the hospital and walk away. As I opened my eyes and my ears, I learned about the extreme pressure placed on parents who give birth to a special-needs child. Stories of families who were told that their child would die soon or die if they took them home. Moms who were told that they could not raise their child, and that it would be a burden to their family. And I began to see how the orphanages filled with children.
We met some amazing families who chose to take their child home. These families are the ones who said, “no, I will raise my child at home” when physicians told them it was impossible. They stood up to the pressure and criticism of family and friends when they brought home a less-than- perfect infant. They have weathered years without services, therapies, equipment, and social support. They have been creative in raising their children, from constructing their own medical equipment to driving great distances for help. Many were lonely and struggling while navigating the life of a special- needs child with no support. When I shared my son Israel’s video, they wept. And when I looked at the tears in their eyes, I saw a bridge known only to parents with special needs children, and I couldn’t have been prouder of their brave love.
Morgue (black tag) – pulseless
Orphans die. Mostly we never know. They are buried without tears or fanfare. They do not leave out the front, but are bundled up and carried out the back.
Before I left for Bulgaria, I watched as God moved mountains to help one orphan named Valentina. She was in liver failure, and her conditions were dire. I tentatively began to reach out for support. It soon became obvious I might be able to help her while I was on my trip. I began to make more phone calls and the responses were amazing. One of the best pediatric liver transplant teams coordinated her ongoing care with me, and I watched in awe as people across the world donated everything necessary for her survival.
The weeks before I left, I received her specialty formula, feeding pump and tubing, money for ongoing nurse care, and prayer. The only thing we were missing was the most important part: the adoptive family. We needed a family to adopt her, and they needed to be at a specific point in the adoption process because it needed to happen quickly. And so, we prayed. The world prayed. And one morning, I woke up to a message from a friend. God had answered our prayers, and I was soon put in contact with her new family. In a flurry of excitement, I was able to secure final letters, dietitian instructions, physician orders, and every piece of equipment was ready in record time. I was going to be able to help save her!
The day before I reached her orphanage, we received a phone call from the orphanage director. Valentina had died…the girl whose eyes captured my heart had died that very night, and I sat in my room and sobbed great big ugly tears. I felt as if I had completely failed, and I couldn’t help but think she died alone. Little Valentina “was motionless for an instant; she did not cry out. She fell as gently as a young tree falls.” These words from The Little Prince were on my heart as I thought of her tragic death. I felt so defeated and tired and numb. I questioned why I had come, why I had chosen to see all these hard things, and what a fool I was to think I could make a difference.
I was sitting in the ashes of my pride and planning, and then a truly beautiful thing began to happen. I began to see how I cannot walk among these children on my own strength and ability. And so, I prayed that God would give me the strength to get up out of that dark place and do what I was meant to do.
I walked up the steps of Valentina’s orphanage that day, and I loved on the living. I touched the hurting, the marginalized, the silent, and broken. I called them by name and promised them I would tell the world about them. I told them that I would be their voice. And now that I’m home, I realize the triage tagging system only works when help follows. Triage is only labeling. It’s when reinforcements come in that change happens and healing begins.
And now you know, too. You cannot say that you never knew there were places where infant- sized children were hidden away to die. You cannot say that you didn’t know six-year-olds could be transferred to adult asylums. Now you know orphans die, and you also know I will never remain silent because we are the only voice they have.
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