Sunday, January 18, 2009

My week

So, not a lot of time to write. I'm on borrowed time in the office on a Sunday, while Milo naps.

Just a newsy post today. It was a full week. From Tuesday to Friday I was out in Mchinji, commuting as I mentioned I might do. It was a lot of time spent in a car, but I read two books in 4 days!

The district was starting a new malnutrition treatment program. Basically, they were setting up a special clinic day where they would screen children for malnutrition by weighing them, measuring their height, measuring their mid-upper arm circumference (a reliable measure of thinness) and checking for oedema, which is a common sign of malnutrition here. Then we identify the children who are very sick and need to be admitted as inpatients right away. The rest are given a therapeutic food that they take with them, to eat at home. The children come back once a week for a check-up and more therapeutic food.

Sounds simple. When you've got 100-200 children to weigh, a lot of tired mothers trying to jump the line, babies's a bit intense.

It's been a long time since I spent a significant amount of time out at the health centers. When I worked in Darfur I was in the field about 3-4 days a week, and really got to know the mothers and babies. I miss that sometimes. Now I do a lot more policy-level work.

I enjoy working with the the health staff the most, and it's very gratifying to identify a serious case and get them treated right away. You feel like, just maybe, you helped a kid that was going to die otherwise.

But the hard part is that you always lose some. I always look for the serious cases first, and follow them up to make sure they are getting good care. On Tuesday, there was a 1-month-old baby at the hospital. His head looked like a tiny skeleton with skin stretched over it. He went straight to see the doctor on the ward, but didn't live to the end of the day.

Wednesday there was another - this one 5 months old and stick thin. I worked with the health staff to make sure that they gave the right treatment, and helped the mother to continue breastfeeding.

On Thursday we found a child who had just been sent home from the pediatric ward, but was still so wasted and sick, that we decided to take him back to the hospital. He and his mother rode in the car with me, and I couldn't stop checking to make sure he was still alive. He was so weak that his cries were just plaintive mews. He was so tiny in comparison to Milo, even though they were about the same age.

On Friday, around the time I was making sure that another serious case would get ambulance transport back to the hospital, I learned that Thursday's baby had died in the night, of pneumonia complicated by malnutrition.

It's hard knowing that I do all this work, helping the government to train health staff and raise community awareness, and still babies die of such preventable causes. I came home on Friday just feeling sad and defeated, unable to shake the image of that terrified, exhausted little boy, his tiny little lips and two miniature teeth poking out...I can only hope that the other two babies are still alive, and that through some miracle that make it to their 5th birthday. It was just such a reminder of how different the lives of Malawian children are from my own little boy's.

Ah, this post took a turn I didn't really see at the beginning, and I don't think I will write about all the other things that happened this week. That's enough for now, I think.


Cristina said...

I can only imagine how difficult that must be for you to see that so often. I know I have a hard time watching movies where a baby dies or even the commercials about the sick kids in Third World countries. You see it first hand. Not everyone can do the work you do and I applaud you for it. It motivates me to want to do something to help. I thought about sponsoring a child. Do you have any suggestions?

Jesse said...

Cristina is right - not everyone is strong enough to deal with what you see. Behind your sunny smile is a VERY strong woman. Definitely an inspiration to us all in our cozy little homes with well stocked kitchens.

Joan said...

Reminds me of "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." We know that you have the inner strength to get you through days like this.I totally understand the emotional cost of work like yours. Our church will continue to pray for you in your work. Love to everyone.And "well done" to the people above who want to help.

Tina said...

OMG Gwyneth...that is horrible...I probably shouldn't bitch that my residents bring me envelopes of bugs and dog shit! Alas, I still do...It just shows that 1 person (that's you orangy?) can make such a huge difference in just 1 person's can't always know the outcome but at least on that day you did what you could...on a much more menial note, I did not send a birthday email so I guess I'm not the bigger person (I say read your email from me in case you didn't because you are saving lives and I scoop dog shit with nothing else to do!)