One Year On…
The second half of the year 2017 and the beginning of the year 2018 were a difficult time for me. Just as I prepared to celebrate the golden jubilee of my priestly ordination, I fell sick and was diagnosed with cancer in my left eye (melanoma). I had to undergo an operation which was followed by chemotherapy. To my great relief both were successful and I was allowed to return to the Mission in Cameroon where I had been working for the last fifty years. But four months later the cancer returned. I had to report to the hospital in Innsbruck and the doctor ordered radiation therapy, sessions of fifteen minutes radiation a day for five days. It is true, the radiation did destroy the cancer cells but as a “collateral damage” it also burnt the surrounding tissues in the eye so that it was no longer possible to graft on any transplants in order to stimulate the growth of new cells. Instead it completely destroyed the use of my left eye! The doctor tried several tissue transplants (even a piece of human placenta which seems to be the most fertile tissue of the human body!) but all to no avail. While I was waiting for any sign of improvement, it looked like everything had come to a stand-still; there was no movement for better or worse. So, I asked the doctor to allow me to return to Cameroon for two months to close and hand over my work, and especially to celebrate my golden jubilee with the people of my parish. At the end of the two months I was able to handover the parish and the projects I had started to my successor, Fr Paulson Passala, a Mill Hill Missionary from India. Fr Paulson was the ideal person to take over because, firstly, already as a seminarian he had been working with me in Elak Parish for two years and, secondly, straight after his ordination his first appointment was again to Elak Parish. So, he had already quite some experience of missionary work in Elak Parish.
I celebrated my Golden Jubilee with the people of Elak Parish on Saturday, 28th October 2017. It was a great success. The next day, I left for our house in Nkwen. Then, after a rest day, I continued to Douala and from there home. Back in our house in Absam, I reported straightaway to the hospital in Innsbruck where I had to undergo again several checks and minor operations. In the end, I was told the devastating news that there was no hope of saving my left eye. As a new development, I began to experience sharp pain in my left eye. Sometimes the pain became so intense that I had to be rushed to the hospital with the ambulance to be treated with infusions against pain. Since the doctor could not stop the pain it was decided to completely remove the left eye. But that was not the end of the problem. Although my eye was no longer there the pain continued unabated. I was told that this was called “phantom pain”, the organ that pained was gone but nonetheless I felt excruciating pain where there was nothing! It took some time before the doctor was able to eliminate the pain.
When I was told that there was no chance to safe my left eye, I was devastated. I felt like a wounded animal which was hiding in a dark hole in order to lick its wounds. I avoided public places and the company of other people. Especially when, after one of the many operations I had, the left side of my face was bluish-black due to the blood haemorrhaging under the skin. People, and especially children would openly stare at me.
Several would remark that I looked like somebody having been through ten rounds of being beaten in a boxing ring. It took weeks till finally the blue and purple colouring of my face disappeared and returned to normal. But the most important thing for me was that I felt no more pain. The “phantom pain” had completely vanished. I had hoped, that I would be given a prosthesis, in other words, an artificial eye, but the doctor told me that the radiation had destroyed any place where an artificial eye could have been secured. To give me a prosthesis they would have to ‘create’ a new place. I was already getting tired of all these operations so I told the doctor to forget about it! This means that I have to make do without a glass eye. The place where the left eye was will remain sunk in and empty.
Time passed and soon I was again so far restored that I could come out of my “hole”. I had lost my left eye but I had in the meantime learnt to manage with my sound eye. It was not easy. For one thing, I had to give up driving a car. With one eye one can no longer see two-dimensional. Thus, it is almost impossible to gauge distances correctly. Especially when driving in the dark, i.e. in the evening or at night, with the headlights blinding you, you are confused and are unable to see the road and the traffic. But that was the least trouble. There was no trouble in getting around. Public transport was frequent and cheap and sometimes I got a lift with one of my confreres. Other things were less of a problem: with my right eye I could see quite well and quite sharp too. I could read and write, watch TV and use my personal computer. It is true that I had to be careful and not overdo it. I had to stop after a certain time and give the eye a rest before continuing again. So, slowly I was able to manage quite well. One thing which boosted my spirits was that I could also help the community in our house. At first, when saying holy Mass, I only concelebrated. But soon I could also be main celebrant (using the second Eucharistic Prayer which I knew by heart), I was able to lead community prayers like Lauds and the Rosary. Some of our resident priests here go out to say holy Mass on different days of the week or Sundays. I was approached, too, but I said since I don’t drive a car I would have to rely every time on somebody to take me to the place and back. I would not like that. Occasionally when there is a burial, marriage or baptism of a member of my extended family in my village or of one or other friend I try to help since I know and am used to the place. Any other strange place or environment would be difficult for me.
There are some things where I still have some difficulties, e.g. to find things in a store, or supermarket, in short, in places where many different things are stored together. Still it is not too bad. As long as you know what you want you can always ask a shop assistant who works there. This is one of the things which I have to learn too: I have to rely more on people than I used to. And I must say, people are really helpful if they see the condition you are in. in the past, I liked to be independent and tried to manage without out other people’s help. Now I realise how eager people are to help.
While I try to find my way at home and I try to manage in my new situation, news from Cameroon is getting worse by the day. The conflict between the francophone and anglophone people in Cameroon is turning more and more into a civil war. It is heart-breaking when one hears of the barbaric cruelties: so many houses, yes even whole villages burnt, schools and markets set on fire, thousands of people forced to flee their homes either to relatives who have settled in francophone Cameroon or in neighbouring Nigeria; people kidnapped and only released after paying huge ransoms.
It is sad! And there seems to be no end in sight! The terrible news that comes out from Cameroon gets worse by the day. After the shocking news of the shooting of Fr Cosmas Ondari Omboto in front of the church in Kembong in cold blood now we hear of the news of the kidnapping of three Claretian Missionaries in the Anglophone Region in South Cameroon. No further news has yet emerged as to the identity of the kidnappers, their present whereabouts and the conditions the Missionaries are in….Quo vadis Cameroon?
Fr Hermann Gufler mhm, Absam