Each time I have come, I have learned something more.

image courtesy of The Peterborough Examiner

image courtesy of The Peterborough Examiner

Brian Nichols is a dear friend and teacher of mine. His life truly is his art, and it is some of the most inspiring I have seen. He is just finishing up a month long visit to Zimbabwe. This article is one of a series that was published about his time there in our local newspaper this week.

……

It’s mid-afternoon on the men’s ward. The sun has reached its peak in the sky, throwing sunlight through hospital windows onto beds and patients.

A man with cloudy, cataract-filled eyes is on one bed; an infection has resulted in the recent amputation of his left leg above the kneecap. He’s extremely skinny but has lean muscular arms. He appears to be in his 30s.

He speaks broken English and says his name is Americo. He was born Zimbabwean but came to the hospital from neighbouring Mozambique. He is alone. No family members have visited.

Peterborough psychotherapist Brian Nichols, a 58-year-old who runs his practice from his 160-year-old East City home, has been visiting Americo for several days.

Nichols arrived in Zimbabwe in early January with Millbrook lawyer Julie Kirkpatrick and Peterborough carpenter Jeff Mathers, owner of Hickory Lane Kitchens on Perry St. The three will spend a month here before heading home. They will donate all their possessions and leave solely with the clothes on their back.

It’s Nichols’ sixth trip to Howard Hospital, a Salvation Army facility 80 kilometres north of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare in the Mazowe district of the country’s Mashonaland Central Province.

Nichols fell in love with Zimbabwe, and the work at the hospital, during his first visit six years ago.

“It gets in your blood,” he explains.

He now calls the grounds his second home, flying in every year with thousands of dollars in Peterborough donations and suitcases full of clothes and supplies.

If the hospital had the time or resources to erect plaques, Nichols’ name and those of a loose affiliation of Peterborough volunteers including Larry Gillman and Jenn Reid would be here.

Peterborough donations, collected through Donwood United Church, have contributed to everything from bricks and mortar to bed sheets to school sponsorships for the Salvation Army schools on the hospital grounds.

Reid, a midwife who teaches health sciences at Fleming College, first came to Howard Hospital in 2001. Gilman and Nichols soon followed, making annual pilgrimages.

Nichols figures Peterborough raises about $30,000 in cash and supplies for the hospital each year.

But it’s the intangibles, the hands-on care provided by Nichols and the volunteers such as Kirkpatrick and Mathers, who make the two-day voyage to Zimbabwe, that leave a more lasting impression.

Here lays Americo, wearing a beaded bracelet on his skinny wrist. His eyes light up as the white-haired, bearded Nichols enters the ward, taking out a MP3 player and placing speakers above Americo’s bed. Shona music echoes through the ward, which has 20 male patients.

The dull mood in the room leaves. Patients sit up and start talking.

Nichols pulls out a container of beads and cuts a line of fishing wire for Americo to start a necklace. He then prepares him for a massage.

“There is a lot of pain from lying in the bed. The muscles waste and the patients get bed sores, so this prevents some of that,” Nichols said, performing a Thai massage on Americo. “I believe the energy in my hands can be transferred to the person.”

Americo moans in gratitude as Nichols moves on to the next patient.

It’s estimated more than 60% of the hospital patients are HIV-positive.

As stigma surrounding AIDS remains prevalent in Zimbabwe, family members are often wary of touching loved ones with the disease.

It’s likely Nichols will be the first person to touch some of these patients in many months, said Dr. Paul Thistle, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Nichols has worked hard over the years to teach family members, and even hospital staff, that touching is not only OK, but beneficial, Thistle said.

“He provides this physical, spiritual support -hands on -to patients who traditionally would not be touched. Because of the stigma of HIV/AIDS, they have been the untouchables,” Thistle said.

“Brian comes in and tears down those barriers and shows the nurses and the staff and the patient’s family that there is no concern.”

Nichols, who along with his wife Paulette, has raised two children in Peterborough, said a sense of calling draws him back to Howard every year.

“When I arrive, people say welcome home,” he said. “Each time I have come, I have learned something more.”

Learning to overcome suffering is a work in progress, he said. Howard Hospital has fewer than 150 beds, but it’s not unusual to be dozens of patients over capacity, lining the halls and cramming into the four wards.

Zimbabwe has one of the world’s worst infant mortality rates and is prone to epidemics such as the 2008 cholera outbreak that claimed thousands of lives.

Death is a daily part of the hospital’s reality.

Part of the hospital’s role is to provide palliative care for dying patients. Nichols often finds himself accompanying people in the last days, hours and minutes of their lives.

“I have held people as they struggled to die,” he said. “We don’t keep track of numbers, but one week I did, and there were 14 deaths in the children’s ward.”

Every death leaves a scar, he said. To wake up and bring joy to the ward the next day, he has had to hone his coping tools.

Those tools became oil pastels, paintbrushes and paper, tools he uses to create an ongoing series of paintings, his attempt to share with the world what he sees in Zimbabwe.

“I’m able to take the suffering here and make meaningful work that can connect to people in the Canadian context,” he said. “I want people in Peterborough to care.”

The paintings adorn the walls of his home and were featured in September at The Spill on George St.

An introspective person at heart, Nichols spends sundown with his fellow Peterborough travellers reflecting on the day’s events.

Sitting on the porch of a small shop in a neighbouring village, Nichols sips a quart of cheap Zimbabwean beer and talks about Americo.

Thistle has given the man a 50/50 chance of surviving his amputation.

The conversation is interrupted by a local man the Peterborough group has nicknamed -Wire Boy -an untreated schizophrenic named Tonganai Chakenetsa who wears a wire crown on his head.

Many of the local villagers tease Wire Boy, who is intelligent but struggles to make sense of his words, often rambling on for minutes at a time.

Nichols stops his conversation and begins a dialogue with the young man.

Within minutes, the two are on the ground, using a stick to scrawl images into the red, dirt road. The art project turns into a dancing match. The two perform flips and break-dance to the entertainment of about 50 onlookers who have circled them.

“I just wanted people here to know he’s likeable,” Nichols explains as he walks back to the hospital grounds in the dark.

For Nichols, coming to Zimbabwe is about making connections, if only briefly.

Faced with the daily reality of death, Nichols has developed a positive outlook in the past six years that he attempts to teach each new visitor.

“I know many of the people I see on the ward won’t make it through the night, but wasn’t I fortunate to make that connection with them before they died.”

(Written by Galen Eagle, The Peterborough Examiner )

Words + Photos + Credit

Unless otherwise noted, all original photography and text are property of Raechelle Kennedy. If you see or read something here and feel inspired to share it somehow, please be considerate and give the artist (me!) credit, or even better, drop me a note and make sure I don’t mind.
Thank you!

Here + There

Secondhand Sainthood and the gift of losing it all – Topology Magazine, December 2015

Ten Things Made – Topology Magazine, December 2015

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