(copied from a journal entry)
It’s all part of Heavenly Father’s plan. Where there is life there is also death. Some days are filled with life and some days are not. Today was a day filled with sickness and death and it has taken a toll on my little heart. Today I took my friends to the hospital. The hospital is something that every person visiting Zambia should experience and that’s exactly what it is, an experience that leaves an imprint in your mind forever. Today’s visit was no different and perhaps the most difficult of all five times I’ve visited this hospital. Charity was sweet and adorable as always when we arrived. She is the head nurse for the NICU and she is amazing. The sign before entering the unit advised us to remove our shoes so we obediently did just that. It always makes me somewhat uncomfortable to remove my shoes because the floors are usually not super clean. Charity greeted us and gave us our gowns. We started our tour with the most serious babies. The first room had 3 or 4 babies who were in serious condition. A few of them had incubators but there weren’t enough for all the babies so some of them were just wrapped up real good in blankets. The incubators that were being occupied are from the 1980’s and have lost most of the coverings, so of the four holes in the incubators usually two of them were open.
In the second room we found only one baby which is unusual for this unit. However, the baby we found was on a ventilator and the machine was beeping like crazy. There were two other ventilators in the room that were not functioning. They had been broken for a long time and because the ventilators were a donation from Spain they had no way of getting spare parts to fix the machines so there they sat in the room not being used. We stood in front of the ventilator for a few minutes while Charity explained the condition of the baby. She said the baby would probably not survive on its own so by law they just have to run the machine until the babies heart just stops. The baby was brought in that morning. The mother was a 16 yr old girl who was still recovering from the c-section so hadn’t even seen the baby yet. I asked Charity about the numbers on the machine. The bottom was the heart beat and the top was the oxygen intake. The machine was beeping away and while we were looking at the numbers the beeping suddenly became constant and the numbers turned to zero. I had only ever seen this happen in movies. This was the first time I had even experienced anything like this in person and was not prepared for the emotion it would cause inside of me. One of my friends immediately left the room to express her emotion in private while the rest of us just stood there not knowing what to do. Charity noted the time of death and we watched this gray tiny dead body for a few more minutes and then left the room leaving the baby there all by himself.
The next room brought more of the same from the first room. Tiny babies, not enough incubators, not enough IV’s, babies being fed by tubes, no diapers, no clothes, a few cockroaches climbing around the walls and cribs, open incubators, all in an extremely hot room. The fourth room we found four little babies. Two of the babies were teeny tiny twins and one of the babies had a cleft pallet. I have never seen a baby with a cleft pallet and it made me sad to see. Fortunately, there is a doctor that performs cleft pallet surgery so as soon as the baby weighs enough he will have the surgery.
The other side of the unit is where the not so sick babies stay. The mothers come in to feed their babies every two hours. These mothers stay in a shelter which is about a 5-10 min walk from the unit. The only times during the day that they do not come is at 2 and 4 in the morning because it is too dangerous for the mom’s to be walking back and forth from the shelters. The mom’s provide their own bedding and food and unfortunately many of them do not have the money to buy food so they suffer from hunger and so does their baby. We were there for feeding time and watched as the mother’s who had children in incubators and were still not strong enough to suck from the mother’s breast were either fed through a cup or they would pour their breast milk in a feeding tube that went through the babies nose. These mothers had to squeeze their milk out and then feed their babies. While we were there one of the mothers collapsed on the floor. The room is so hot and these women have just given birth and are still in pain that some women are unable to stand and feed their babies and therefore, as witnessed today, collapse from fatigue. There is only one nurse on this side to care for over 30 very sick babies so the mother’s do most of the nursing and were also there to assist this woman who had fainted.
During feeding time the nurses watch to see what babies are not being fed. Once they identify these babies they move them to the middle part of the room and put a sign on the crib. The sign is made from a random piece of scratch paper and on pen they write, “Please feed” or “Please feed, mum sick” or “Please feed, mum died” or like we saw today “Please feed” with the mum sick crossed out and mum died scrawled right below it. In this group of babies there can usually be found a couple of “dump babies” that were literally dumped in the compounds somewhere. Someone finds them and brings the babies to the hospital to receive better care than they would by lying in a ditch in some compound.
After looking at all the babies we sat for a moment to take it all in. We hadn’t even been in the hospital for 30 minutes and seen more sadness, sorrow, and death then my heart could handle. As we were sitting there Charity came over to chat with us. While she was talking to us a woman with a tiny baby came up to us and explained to Charity, in Nyanja, that she had no money for transport. This woman was being discharged with a baby that was too small and had no way to get home. This is the second child this woman has had. The first child is with social welfare. The woman was living in the streets when she had her first child and again when she got pregnant with her second. While she was pregnant she got off the streets, found a home, and was selling at a shop to support her. The father had disappeared back into the streets again but this woman promised that she would not do this. Because the baby is so small she’s supposed to come in every Friday. I gave Charity some transport money to give to the woman but once she leaves here who knows if she’ll end up back in the streets again and what will become of her tiny little newborn?
We walked back over to the other side and found a nurse wrapping up the baby that had died. They put a white blanket around the baby and then wrapped a piece of string around the blanket with two little pieces of cardboard that had been torn from a box. We were watching all this happening from outside the room but I wanted to know what was written on the little piece of cardboard so I walked in while the nurse was still wrapping the body and read the information on the cardboard. It had the mother’s name, date and time of birth, date and time of death, and a few other pieces of information. I asked the nurse what would happen to the baby now and she said that she would just set the baby on a cot outside until someone from the morgue came to pick the baby up. The mother was still sick from her surgery and did not know that her baby had died. The family would only discover that the baby had died when they came to visit and see how the baby was doing.
At this point my head is just swimming and then we went downstairs with Charity to see the rest of the babies. Oh boy, oh boy. I so desperately want to describe the circumstances of this unit but will never be able to put words to the feelings I felt as I walked from bed to bed offering my love and touch to these sick sick children. This unit is filled with the babies/children who are waiting or are recovering from surgery. There were thirty children from the ages of 1 to 16 and only one nurse to assist them. At the side of each bed was someone there to take care of the children, make sure they were fed and provide clean sheets and clothing for the child. Some women were sitting, resting their heads against the beds, no doubt exhausted and wishing for a little peace in their life.
We walked from bed to bed and I greeted each of the mothers and held the hands of each of the children. I looked in their eyes and told them they were beautiful. I inquired about their condition and the responses ran the spectrum. As I sit here writing this I see all the faces of these thirty children. I see their skinny frail bodies. I see their abnormally large heads. I see their deformed bodies. But what I see most is the pain in their eyes and kind of hopelessness but at the same time a will to survive. I hear their cries as they react from the pain. As I lean in close to them to offer my love I smell the urine from the sheets that have not been washed. I rub their arms and their hands and touch their heads. Some smile, some cry, and others just stare. The mothers and caretakers of these sick and dying children express their gratitude for our visit. Some ask for money and others are just content with the visit. We share with them our knowledge that God is watching out for them and He will bless them and their children. We wave goodbye, return to the NICU, and find that in the few minutes we were downstairs another “mum sick” had been crossed out and scrawled underneath was written “mum died”.
And that my friends is what this is all about. God is watching over us and He will bless us and our children. But He will not always take away the pain. Sometimes He chooses death over life and that is all part of the plan. Today was difficult for me and I was just visiting and was only there for less than two hours but in that two hours I saw why I so desperately need the plan of salvation to be true. I need to know that with death comes another life. I need to know that the hopelessness and despair I saw in these children’s eyes will be taken from them and replaced with glory and exhalation. I need to believe, as stated in Alma 7, that Jesus truly suffered the pains of all mankind and that all mankind will be saved through his Atonement. Today I need it all to be true.