Selene Ramnarain: Waiting her turn
By Roxana Kawall
June 17, 2003
“One day last year I was going back home from church in Plaisance, and people on the street were pointing and laughing and talking about me. I started to cry on the road, and I went home and looked at my face in the mirror, and I cried. I thought maybe it was getting even bigger...”
From that day, Selene Ramnarain, nearly fifty years old, was afraid to go out even to church, the only place she ever went, because of the cruel laughter she would have to face on the way to that particular sanctuary. So, like the duckling in the fairy tale, she hid herself at home, ‘afraid to show her face, afraid of what others might say.’ Nonethe-less, she still tries to earn herself a mere existence by selling sweets and biscuits from home.
One side of the face Selene looked at in the mirror is swollen to a huge size; at one point in time swollen so badly that it twisted her nose and her mouth over to the side, and shehad to struggle with what mostof us never think twice about - breathing.
She suffers from a fairly rare ailment called Hodgkin’s Disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
It has been over eight years since a day in January 1995 when she first noticed that awful little swelling in her left shoulder-blade;an innocuous- looking lump that would slowly metamorphose into what now looks like facial elephantiasis. When she decided to take notice of it, she went to a local villager, who told her it was a twisted vein. She suffers from fever, headaches, itching of the skin, pain in the eyes and ears because of the swelling, and sometimes she has to tug at her neck in order to breathe.
For one year she never understood the true nature of what she had; when she asked, the doctors had been reassuring, until one day she was in a doctor’s office with a relative, and right in front of her, he turned to the relative and said: “She has cancer.” She ran, she says, right out of there. But you cannot leave it behind; your disease can run as fast as you.
It was the second time she was running; once before she had tried to run - to Suriname - from a drunken husband, a fisherman who used to curse both her and her parents, and who never brought home money, but he found the passport she’d hidden and told her she could not go without him. She agreed: “I thought he would change over there, but he never did...” In 1983 they separated, although her father, a canecutter at LBI and a Catholic, begged her not to. She returned alone to Guyana, to her village, the name of which must have struck her as ironic: Better Hope. Once there she tried to help herself by sewing, selling and doing hairdressing.
From the age of fourteen, when she left school, she had worked at the Kent Shirt Factory, and was married when she was only sixteen. She miscarried her first child. It had been a girl, she offers. She has three grown sons, who, she says, “take after their father,” but who cry when they are drunk. Wistfully she remembers her Catholic canecutter father, “a very good man; what I can say for him, I can’t say for my children and my husband. My father never made noise; the only noise he made was when he was singing hymns. My mother was a weeder at LBI; she was very serious.” Her father was never to know of his daughter’s fate; he died of a stroke in 1994, six months before she decided to take notice of that first little lump. She had been too busy caring for him before.
Selene lives in a crowded household, with her widowed sister, with whom she gets on well, her two older sons, their wives and their four children. “Do you ever feel no man will ever look at you again?” “I am... finished with men,” she says. “All I want to do is be able to get back to church.”
There have been friends along the way. The Cancer Society has been extremely supportive financially and morally, she says. Recently, two members of the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church went to Better Hope to visit her. “We dragged her out to church,” they report, “and she was very happy!”
Since 1995 Selene has been through a regimen of treatment, including tablets and chemotherapy. Sometimes the swelling would go down, but recur. For instance in 2000 the swelling came back on the other side of her face - the right. She has also had to try to get medication from abroad on one occasion, which she says helped. She confesses that on another occasion her tongue was bursting and had turned white; when antibiotics did not help, she turned to a ‘bush’ doctor, who cleared up this condition.
It was recommended that she get treatment in Trinidad; she even managed to make it to No. 30 on the Ministry of Health’s list of such patients, but unfortunately just around that time Trinidad stopped taking patients from Guyana.
At the moment the Ministry of Health along with the Cancer Society are pushing to access help through various quarters, such as the Trinidadian Ministry of Health, and a private co-ordinating firm in Trinidad - Trinidad Consolidated Medical Management Ltd.
Selene sells biscuits for a living; all that stands now between her and medical help is US$13,600.
Nonetheless, after eight-and-a-half years, Selene is still at the stage of believing she will leave very soon; and, just sometimes, the universe will turn its great, slow eyes and look at you.
Perhaps her turn has come now; she recently went to the passport office, but applied for a passport renewal erroneously. She was told that she needed a new passport, which would take some time, but that a travel permit could be issued in the meantime. By the time she had completed the new forms, the office was closed for lunch. But a kind-hearted official who saw her just sitting there forlornly with her large face and her sheaf of medical documents, took these from her and said they would try to see if they could get it done more quickly; that she should go home and come back. But of course she could not go home; she just sat there all the time and at 3.20 a door opened and she had her passport. Not everyone points and laughs...
Selene has been on two television programmes, one of which was repeated, and she was also featured in the Kaieteur News earlier this year, but Guyana is a tired society; not much was raised.
As for plans for the future, she says she is only focusing on getting well. If there is an afterwards, she says she would not like anyone else to go through what she went through; she would be willing to help anyone else, maybe by doing voluntary work for the Cancer Society.
She is to be believed; four years ago, ignoring the pain of her face, both mental and physical, she went on a telethon to raise money, not for herself, but for two others, one of whom is now well, and one of whom died.
Her own clock was ticking then; it still is.
(Donations intended for Selene Ramnarain can be sent to the Cancer Society, 257 Thomas St. Tel: 225-2398 or 2237199)