Sierra Leone’s maternal and newborn mortality rates remain among the highest in the world. In May 2016, Project HOPE assembled a team of health professional volunteers who conducted a rapid assessment of maternal and newborn health care in several health facilities in Sierra Leone, while also providing training and clinical mentoring on newborn care. But the trip became much more than an assessment when HOPE’s expert volunteers, along with Program Coordinator Mariam Sow, intervened, working tirelessly to save lives.
Among the many deaths, there are also stories of hope. Here’s how one family mourned a loss, celebrated a life saved, and expressed their gratitude in the highest way possible.
“Year after year, our infant mortality rate remains constant, and constantly terrible,” says Dr. Turay, Medical Officer for Sierra Leone’s Bo District. “We must change it. We have no facilities for premature babies. Even before Ebola, this was a huge problem; now it is a bigger problem, as the care givers are fewer.”
This lack of facilities was clearly illustrated on May 20, during an assessment visit to the Pediatric Ward at Bo District Hospital. Mariam Sow, Project HOPE’s Program Coordinator for Sierra Leone, overheard a nursing student telling a pediatric nurse that a distressed grandmother had been sent from the delivery room “to bring Borbo I to the pediatric ward to be placed in a warmer.” “Borbo” is the name given to a newborn boy before the family officially chooses his name. The nursing student and grandmother of this premature, three-pound newborn walked the 10 minutes it took to get to the pediatric ward, only to find that there was no electricity, therefore no warmer. A charge nurse in the pediatric ward told them to return the baby to the maternity ward.
Alarmed, Sow rushed to HOPE’s volunteer nurse J. Beryl Brooks, enlisting her help and expertise. Sow and Brooks then proceeded to search for the nursing student, baby Borbo I and his grandmother – a pursuit that took 20 time-critical minutes.
Upon locating them, Brooks and Dr. Jacqueline Asibey, a Project HOPE volunteer pediatrician, jumped into action. While they knew that too much time had probably passed, they refused to give up. Borbo I’s temperature had dropped drastically. But HOPE’s volunteers resuscitated the baby and Sow showed the grandmother how to warm him by using a skin-to-skin “Kangaroo care method” since putting the premature baby in an incubator was not an option due to constant electrical outages.
Borbo I’s temperature eventually began to fluctuate from low to normal, but HOPE’s expert volunteers knew that his chance of survival was slim since too much time had been lost before their involvement. Still, this grim reality didn’t stop them. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., nurse Beryl Brooks and Project HOPE volunteer Dr. Jacqueline Asibey worked to save Borbo I until they exhausted all possible options in this resource-poor hospital. Sadly, at 11 p.m., baby Borbo I died of hypothermia.
While these Project HOPE volunteers were fighting to save Borbo I’s life, other Project HOPE volunteers were attending to the emergency needs of Borbo I’s mother and twin brother.
Musu, a teenage first-time mother, had delivered her twin boys through C-Section during a prolonged and difficult labor. While Musu was unconscious for hours in the maternity ward, the grandmother stepped in to serve as the surrogate mother for Borbo I. A sister-in-law stayed with the other twin brother, Borbo II, while his mother was nursed back to health so that she could breastfeed her surviving twin son.
When Musu regained consciousness the next day, she learned that Borbo I had died. She was not able to see or hold him as she had been too sick and unconscious to know what was going on.
For the next week, HOPE volunteers nursed Musu back to health, providing her with medication and meals, and helping her to learn the skills of motherhood including breastfeeding techniques.
The twins’ father and grandmother were extremely grateful. “As a family, we are at peace, and we have accepted God’s will of taking back Borbo I,” said the babies’ grandmother. “Borbo I died because God wanted him back and not because of lack of medical care. He received more care than anyone in this hospital had ever seen.”
Moreover, the family was so moved by the efforts and compassion of HOPE’s volunteers, they named the surviving twin “Thomas Kenyon Smith” after Thomas Kenyon, M.D., M.P.H., President and Chief Executive Officer of Project HOPE.
HOPE’s Mariam Sow explains that naming a child after someone is the highest honor that can be bestowed in most West African cultures, and this is especially true in Sierra Leone.
“Naming their baby ‘Thomas Kenyon Smith’ was a way of expressing gratitude to the head of the organization that not only saved one son, but also showed that the life of a poor baby and his teenage mother, from a vulnerable background, were worth saving,” says Sow.
And according to the father of baby Thomas Kenyon Smith, “It is the best way that we know how to express our appreciation and gratitude.”
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