Two years ago, I was lying in a hospital in West Africa with malaria. I had passed out in my room at the hospital compound. My housemates summoned a doctor and the groundskeeper, who came with a golf cart and raced me to the hospital, which was less than 100 yards away.
A large American male nurse saw them coming, saw the doctor holding my unconscious body as the golf cart bounced through the tall grass, and he tried to unlatch the door so he could help carry me inside, but he couldn’t figure out how to undo the latch, so he simply broke down the door.
The next day, as he was changing my I.V., he told me that the maintenance guys were going to be mad at him.
“Why?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, lying flat on my back while life-saving fluids ran into my vein. “Why would they be mad at you?”
“Because I broke the door,” he said.
“Why would you break a door?” I asked.
“To get to you,” he said.
“I broke down the door to get to you, kid.”
When I got out of the hospital, I wrote about the story on my blog — mostly because I didn’t want to lose the memory in my malaria-fogged mind.
The internet went down for a few days (as it often did). When I was able to go online a few days later, I discovered that the story had been shared tens of thousands of times.
During my time at the Hospital of Hope in Togo, I witnessed more deaths each week than I’d seen in 10 years of practicing medicine in the U.S.
Three weeks after I got out of the hospital, I completed my assignment at the hospital and flew back to the U.S.
“Welcome Home,” the border patrol officer said as he stamped my passport. And I silently nodded, because I was crying to hard to speak.
I came back from Togo with a broken body (I lost 20 pounds in 3 weeks because of the malaria). I came back from Togo with a broken heart.
I came back from Togo with more questions than answers, with more heartache than my fragile soul could hold.
When I left for Togo, I had no intention of writing while I was there. I offered to work there for 3 months because, after The Invisible Girls, I had no idea what I was supposed to write next. “So why not take a break from writing and use my medical skills instead?” I reasoned.
But once I was there, witnessing patients’ stories, holding their hands as they died, whispering blessings over still-born babies, listening to the screams of people in indescribable pain, I had to write. I had to tell the stories. I had to shine a light on the millions of people suffering in the darkness — people whose lives went unwitnessed, whose stories went untold.
I also had to show how much joy and beauty and resilience existed in Togo, which the United Nations had ranked the Least Happy Country in the World.
So I began to blog. To this day, the blogs I wrote from Togo are far and away the most liked and shared posts I’ve ever written. They resonated with people so incredibly deeply.
For the next three months, I kept writing.
I kept telling the stories under the statistics.
I kept asking those in the developing world to volunteer. To give. To pray.
(In fact, you can give to the Hospital of Hope’s patient care fund here.)
Two days after I got back from Togo, I took a train from Bloomington, Illinois (where my parents live) two hours north to downtown Chicago to have lunch with my editor. She had flown from NYC for the day, just to meet with me.
We met at a restaurant a block from Union Station and sat at a table outside in the courtyard, soaking in the sun on a warm fall afternoon.
After we ordered iced teas and salads (she insisted I get steak on mine for the added protein because I was so pale), she sat across from me, her hands gracefully folded on the table in front of her.
“Togo’s your next book,” she said. Just like that.
Togo’s your next book.
She pulled a stack of papers from her satchel and slid them across the table to me. They were printouts of all the blog posts I’d written while I was in Africa.
She tapped the stack with a graceful index finger. “This is the start of your next book,” she said with a knowing smile.
Her words sent me on a two-year journey, wondering how to do justice to the experience, how to honor the people and the place that had taught me so much, how to dive into the depths of the experience and come back up with a pearl.
I arrived home in October. I finished the first draft in December. I read and re-read it, and I knew it wasn’t quite right.
So I wrote it again.
I wrote the book seven times, seven different ways, from start to finish.
At the end of the second rewrite, I was at my friend Reba’s house, sitting in bed in her guest room with my laptop, reading the latest draft of the manuscript. I realized I could write it better, but it was daunting to think about starting all over. She literally sat on the bed holding my right hand while, with my left hand, I hit the “DELETE” button, threw it all away, and started from scratch.
There’s nothing more intimidating to a writer than a suddenly-blank white screen with a cursor blinking at the top left corner, daring you to try again.
I spent the next year continuing to write the manuscript over and over and over again, determined not to give it to the publisher until I knew I had done the very best job I could do, until I had told the story to the absolute best of my ability.
I owed the Togolese that much.
I named the book WELL.
I dedicated it to the people of Togo, for trusting me with their pain.
WELL launches November 7th.
You can pre-order it here.
I’m going to spend the next few weeks telling the story of WELL and how it came to be….and how together, we can find the love and courage and strength we need to heal our beautiful, broken world.