Field Update: In the Wake of Hurricane Dorian, A Newborn Lives in Limbo
When Dr. Marvin Wang visited the Bahamas with Project HOPE as a volunteer pediatrician, he met an unexpected patient: a 2-week-old baby living in a gymnasium.
On September 1, Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas as a category 5 storm with winds over 200 miles per hour. Project HOPE was one of the first organizations on the ground, and today our emergency response team is still there, helping meet people’s medical needs and prepare for the long recovery ahead.
Dr. Marvin Wang is a pediatrician at Mount Auburn Hospital in Boston. Shortly after the storm, he traveled to the Bahamas with Project HOPE as one of our volunteer physicians. He wrote this dispatch from the field while helping evacuee children in Nassau.
Four weeks after Hurricane Dorian devastated the northern Bahama islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, as many as 10,000 evacuees were still sequestered in various shelters around Nassau, which had been untouched by the hurricane. As the school year neared, all the evacuated children were to be integrated into Nassau’s schools, meaning the Bahamian Ministry of Health needed verification of the health and vaccination status of every kid who was coming into their school system.
“As I was the only pediatrician in the shelter, word quickly got out that some very young patients needed to be seen.”
As part of the Project HOPE medical team, I was assigned to perform school physical exams at a sports stadium adjacent to a gymnasium serving as a shelter. But, as I was the only pediatrician in the shelter, word quickly got out that some very young patients needed to be seen. In-between appointments with teenagers, parents soon started bringing in their 3-year-olds, 2-year-olds and 1-year-olds. I quickly saw my role as a doctor doing routine physical exams changing — now I was evaluating potentially sick infants and toddlers.
One day, the shelter administration brought over Childa and her boy of 2 weeks. Childa was safely evacuated from Abaco to Nassau and went into labor two weeks later in the shelter. She told us that she delivered at the Nassau hospital, which then discharged them on the following day back to the shelter. Adding to this whirlwind turnaround was the fact that the hospital had lost all of Childa’s prenatal documentation, along with any records of the baby’s hospital course.
I then realized that no clinician had even seen this child since being sent home from the hospital two weeks before. We could only assume that Childa’s pregnancy was well, as she was never told by the hospital that there were any problems. The baby looked amazingly healthy, robust, and already weighed 11 pounds. But there were so many questions. Did this child receive the basic screening tests at the birth hospital? How was the baby feeding? Where was the baby sleeping?
I would never know the answer to whether screening tests had been performed, as there were no records to recover. We had to hope that the clinic I referred them to would have some digital connection with the hospital to retrieve any sort of data for this baby. However, upon examination, my basic sense of this child was that he was thriving. Good weight, moist lips, normal non-jaundiced color, great muscle tone, and seemingly no congenital anomalies to be found — he appeared to be in great health.
However, we still had to keep our vigilance, as there were constant reminders that this newly born infant was living in a large open rescue shelter, along with thousands of other people. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this situation was the blanket wrapped around the child, which emitted a strong smell of stale sweat each time we unwrapped him.
Our attention switched to the child’s current living conditions. Childa was feeding him with formula frequently, avoiding breastfeeding because she felt like she had no privacy in the shelter. And, indeed, when we escorted her back to the shelter, we saw that she only had an air mattress, placed directly next to the medical station, which was constantly staffed. When we tried to get baby latched on, Childa demonstrated the experience level of a new mother learning how to breastfeed on the first day of life.
“We also realized that she had no place for her baby to sleep by himself.”
We also realized that she had no place for her baby to sleep by himself. We are somewhat complacent in our belief that everyone must have a bassinet for their newborn. But no such thing could be found in the gymnasium where Childa lived, where the only things present were the basic necessities for survival. So, thanks to the help and ingenuity of the nursing staff from Medical Professionals on a Mission, we realized that we had the supplies to build a rudimentary crib — even one that could be considered “safe” by our modern standards.
And with that, I had to have faith that between the little interventions we made, the suggestions to the shelter staff about improving the conditions, the brief amount of breastfeeding training, and the referral to the local clinic for regular infant follow up visits, that, somehow, we gave this one newborn — amongst thousands of others in limbo — a better foundation for growing up and thriving.
I will never know what happens to Childa and her newborn boy. As I left the island to return to my own stability, however, I took solace knowing that selfless people — including those inside organizations like our own Project HOPE — would continue the work of caring, of being human.
To learn more about how you can become a volunteer with Project HOPE and help people after disaster, click here. For more on how Project HOPE is helping the people of the Bahamas recover from Hurricane Dorian, click here.
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