Noah Dill

To Save a Life

By Noah Dill

Writing 111: Writing Seminar

I sprinted down the crumbling hospital balcony, my shoes catching grip with the dirty, concrete floor stained from a variety of bodily liquids. A single flickering light guided me down the dark, damp stairwell. My heart raised and dropped as the blood-chilling screams of a woman grew louder. I rushed past a pair of Maasai men sitting in plastic, lawn chairs on the shadowy dirt walkway. To them, the screams were a reoccurring affair. So they sat oblivious to the screams and instead focused diligently on their game of poker. The deck they held in their dusty hands portrayed the faces of American presidents. Ronald Reagan cast an inert glare as I scampered past. My feet stalled as I came to the maternity ward. From here I couldn’t see the woman, but my eardrums told me she was close. I took a breath. I stepped forward. A pair of twins would be born tonight, but only one would see the morning.


It seems impossible that only three weeks ago I volunteered to travel across the world to serve in a hospital in Tanzania. With college applications around the corner, I thought it would be a great opportunity to gain some medical experience and maybe do a little good in the world too. St. Joseph, the hospital I was assigned to, was built with foreign aid from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)and had once served as a shining symbol of America’s mission for global peace and prosperity. Now, nearly two decades later, the decaying, begrimed structure was forgotten in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, and had devolved into a last resort for the sickest and most impoverished. Here, hope was a faded memory, faded like the bronze plaque praising the donation from the CDC that originally raised its walls. Its yellow and blue painted sign, that had once been a welcoming sight to weary travelers, now hung in a crooked, dust-covered light, serving as an undertaker for many who would pass beneath its chipped letters. When I first set foot beneath the sign and onto the dirty, worn tiles, the first thing I noticed was the smell, the sort of smell that instantly fills your mouth with saliva, as if to brace for regurgitation. The second thing I noticed was the suffering.

The hours I logged in the hot rooms smelling of rotting flesh, took a physical and emotional toll. Every day, I rushed from operating rooms to patients’ beds, assisting partially trained, local doctors in a variety of activities. As a 17 year old, with my only scientific knowledge being AP Biology and AP Chemistry, I was completely unqualified for the work. The most grueling task I was assigned was gripping the corners of a bed sheet to carry a deceased patient to a loosely defined morgue. A daily morning briefing informed us of the hospital’s growing casualty rate. In these meetings, the staff discussed plans to apply for more aid. Recently, the hospital had applied for aid from the British government, but had been denied because of foreign aid cuts. Yet the staff of St. Joseph worked passionately with the little medical experience and equipment they had to get patients out of the hospital on their feet and not in a bag.                                         

It was on one of these exceptionally hot African days that a pregnant woman wearing faded pink flip-flops gingerly walked into the hospital. She waited hours in the crowded waiting room to see a doctor, until finally her water broke and she was rushed to the maternity ward. I briefly met the woman when a doctor was examining her for delivery. The unnamed woman’s callused hands grasped her massive, twin-bearing belly. A layer of dirt had gathered on her skin from the two- day journey she had traveled alone. Her face was painted with an expression of tenaciousness thinly masked by exhaustion and pain. I left her to attend a surgery on the next floor and would only return when St. Joseph was engulfed by the dark night and the woman’s howls were echoing through its worn halls.

That night, once I was inside the delivery room, I assisted the doctors for a purely terrifying and deafening hour. Finally the howls dissolved into the fragile cries of two baby boys. I held the children in my arms, their pure souls resting peacefully after a difficult journey. Their dark skin glowed with life, contrasting with the poorly lit room. The children’s short, fragile breaths began to coincide with my own. Their tiny fingers wrapped around my index finger as I handed them back over to their mother, who took them with wet eyes and a relieved face.

As the mother bonded with her children, a nurse explained to me that in 2005 St. Joseph had received five incubators from the British Government, yet as of today only one remained. Thus, the nurse would have to switch the children in and out of the warm chamber in order to keep them alive in the chilly night. Unbeknownst to the staff, one of the twins had a small amount of liquid in his lungs. Simply placing the boy into a monitored incubator would have treated the condition by allowing the liquid to drain out from his lungs. In a standard U.S. hospital this would have been noticed immediately and handled quickly with no concern or lasting issues for the baby.

It was unclear when the child passed away. I only remember casually walking into the nursery around midnight to see the lifeless corpse of an infant positioned outside the incubator. Death had once again struck St. Joseph. The room was silent except for the humming of the florescent bulbs above. I felt a heaviness come over my chest and stepped outside into the darkness. I leaned against the concrete wall; out there the smell of burning grass covered the repugnant smells of St. Joseph. Thoughts bounced through my head. Why him? What should I have done? What could I have done? I decompressed and from a distance watched the card-player place George W. Bush facedown on the table. Had this child been born within the borders of U.S. he would have been given a fighting chance. His condition would have been immediately diagnosed, treated, and he would now be resting comfortably in a functioning incubator. Yet, because of factors completely out of his control, he only enjoyed a few hours of life. I gathered my strength and took one last look in the room. I glanced at the boy. Motionless. Cold. Dead. A room that had been filled with so much precious hope had warped into a vile, brokenhearted cell.


Nearly two years later, I am sitting in a well-lit, air-conditioned study room reading news headlines. Suddenly, I am struck by a CNN post titled “Alarm bells ring for charities as Trump pledges to slash foreign aid budget” (Clarke). Instantly I am back at St. Joseph, paralyzed, staring at the motionless corpse of a newborn boy. The smell of the library gives way to the smell of burning grass masked with the odor of decaying flesh.

President Trump’s plan has outraged the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the global community because it involves a 31% cut for U.S. bilateral foreign-aid accounts (Clarke). These accounts provide funds for various international institutions including the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the World Bank and the World Health Organization (Natsios). Instead, these funds are being spent on building a bigger military, a military that is already the largest and most powerful in the world (Sparshott). Yet, Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. aid is not unique. Over the past decade, the U.S. has gradually reduced its contribution in the international mission to defeat poverty and disease. During the Obama presidency, the State Department’s budget for foreign aid was cut by six billion dollars, from 55 billion to 49 billion (S. Myers). As of 2015, the budget was 43 billion, a mere .17% of the country’s GNI (Gross National Income) (Clarke). Internationally, this puts the United States far behind its Western allies such as the United Kingdom (.71% GNI), Turkey (.54% GNI), and Germany (.52% GNI) (J. Myers). The impact of America reducing its foreign aid contribution has been felt in hospitals across the world, hospitals like St. Joseph.

It was a budget cut like this that prevented the U.S. from maintaining its support for St. Joseph hospital. It was budget cut like this that prevented the United Nations from donating functional incubators for children. It was a budget cut like this that prevented the World Health Organization from providing technology that would have properly examined the baby’s chest. It was a budget cut like this that killed the boy.

When I think back on that summer, I don’t think of the medical experience I gained; I think about the people I met. I think of their faces, their suffering and their loved ones standing by their sides. I learned the hard truth of the old saying that the three most important “decisions” in your life are where you are born, when you are born, and to whom you are born. Had this child been born in 21st century America to a middle-class family, he would have been given a chance at survival. But, since these decisions are in the hands of God and not humans, it becomes our responsibility and duty to assist those born into less privilege. Even now, I occasionally forget the importance of this message as I sleep on a comfortable bed, with the smell of Tide detergent lingering above my freshly washed sheets. But, sometimes when the wind catches just right, I catch a distinct waft of smoke and find myself back at St. Joseph, hopelessly fighting to save a life.

Works Cited

Clarke, Hilary. “Alarm bells ring for charities as Trump pledges to slash foreign aid budget.” CNN, Turner Broadcasting System, 1 Mar. 2017,

Myers, Joe. “Foreign aid: These countries are the most generous.” World Economic Forum, 19 Aug. 2016, generous/.

Myers, Steven Lee. “Foreign Aid Set to Take a Hit in U.S. Budget Crisis.” The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2011, states-budget-crisis.html.

Natsios, Andrew. “What Trump’s Foreign-Aid Budget Means to the Rest of the World.” The Atlantic, 4 Apr. 2017, means-to-the-rest-of-the-world/521553/.

Sparshott, Jeffrey, and Ted Mann. “Trump Budget Seeks Big Cuts to Environment, Arts, Foreign Aid; EPA, State Department are among those to see sharp spending reductions to offset military outlay in White House plan.” The Wall Street Journal, 16 Mar. 2017. ProQuest. docview/1877672086/20DA7714AB4146B5PQ/6?accountid=14868.

A Word from Noah

MHeadshot of Noah Dilly writing skills have dramatically improved just in my first year at Wake Forest. Before coming to Wake, I did not consider myself a writer, let alone a good one. However through Writing 111, I learned to go a step further from writing traditional essays to generating a personal voice that helped to form the central theme of my paper. This was an incredibly helpful skill to develop for this essay because it allowed me to develop a more personal tone and more interesting descriptions, which I found to be crucial in order to get across the main points of the piece. I really enjoyed using this new skill in this essay because it gave me the ability to really bring the reader into a situation I experience and one that is very close to my heart. My hope was that I was able to make the readers feel as if they are in the hospital with me. Through my next three years at Wake Forest, I look forward to continue writing and growing my skills.

From Professor Elisabeth Whitehead


Narrative Advocacy

Writing the truth is a political act…If you write the truth you will change the world. If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world. If you write publically, you give voice to what is, and that assists what is becoming.

-Pat Schneider

For your third paper, develop an argument built on the foundation of personal narrative on an issue of concern to you.

Narrative arguments make it possible for writers to illustrate a point by appealing to their audience, invoking experience, and creating a sense of identification with the controversy at hand. Key to creating an effective narrative argument is establishing credibility (your audience must believe you and trust your presentation) and establishing representativeness (the audience needs to understand that your narrative reflects a larger problem beyond the scope of its events).

Choose a subject that is tightly focused. You will want to keep your work balanced rhetorically by accompanying the emotional appeal of your story with strong credibility and with logical evidence (both anecdotal and researched) to support your claims.

Think in terms of an experience that made you realize that something was wrong or that something needed to be changed, and from which you gained essential knowledge about yourself and about the workings of the world around you. Tell a story that allows you to establish your position on the controversy and provide support for your claims. A well-told story often engages in vivid description. Create presence in your details. Your readers should really feel that they too, by reading your account, are there beside you, and can hear, see, smell, and touch those surroundings. Clean and vivid details can help set scene and tone. Therefore, be specific, descriptive, and engaging.

Successful papers will provide a rhetorically balanced narrative argument and will be clearly and engagingly written. You should conduct enough research to provide relevant, external support for your position. Your paper should include at least three sources (books, magazines, journals, newspapers, interviews, films, and/or texts from the academic databases), but use as many sources as you need. One of your sources can be from a credible website. At least one of your sources must be from the databases. If you choose to use more than three sources, you can use additional website sources.

Using MLA style, incorporate in-text parenthetical citations and include a works cited page. Papers should be 5-7 pages long. In your folders include: final paper, two drafts with your changes marked, and a copy of your sources with your annotations. (Or you can include a copy/paste document with the source material you used, rather than printing out all of your sources. But I want to see all of your source information in its original form.) Your final grade for the paper will be reduced one step for each element that is missing.

Professor Commentary

The story begins in the middle, with a young man running. His heart rising and falling as his shoes feel the grip of the floor. He moves toward the sound of a woman screaming. By the end of the first paragraph we know that twins will be born, but only one will survive. The author has dropped us in the center of this vivid scene with little preparation. And just as we begin to adjust to it, he, fast-paced, will not allow us to settle. He rips us out, moving us back three weeks to the beginning of this story. At this point in the narrative, the author decides to slow the pace, taking his time to establish context. Later, he builds us back to the speed of the opening, with a picture of that same young man running.

Throughout this piece, I am struck by Noah’s ability to utilize decisions of pacing, rhythm, and organization to never allow us to feel settled, soothed, comfortable, or complacent. So much of this essay is experienced viscerally, especially in his use of sensory descriptions, which very quickly bring us into the realm of his experience, even though it might feel unfamiliar to us.   He shares what he sees, smells, hears, and thinks. Sometimes these precise and very specific sensory details have the power to move us immediately and abruptly from one scene to the next, from reading a news headline in the university library, for instance, back to the hospital again, and the overwhelming smell of burning grass.

Pacing shifts and changes in rhythm keep us connected and participating in the narrative. We might be running from room to room, the picture a blur. Then we stand in a room so still that the author notices his breath matching the breath of the two babies. Later, after finding the child’s body, he remarks again on the stillness of the room, where all he can hear is the hum of the florescent light. This awareness of rhythm and pacing is often mirrored on the sentence level as well. Sometimes the sentences extend. Other times they feel staccato: “I took a breath. I stepped forward.” The participatory nature of the narrative, and our connection to the author and his experience, allows us to truly hear his stance, research, and advocacy at the end of the essay, which is his larger goal here as a writer.

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