Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Other Side of Christmas Week

This is a long story--it will be in two parts.
The week leading up to Christmas is supposed to be full of fun. There should be gift wrapping, and hiding or piling presents under the tree.
There should be cookie baking and decorating. The scent of cinnamon and cloves should be wafting through the air.

There should be "tales of the Christmases long long ago".

Sadly, for our family here in Africa, this wasn't the case. Tuesday morning, December 20th, I realized that two of our children who seemed to have been battling some type of stomach bug were not doing well at all. Gladys had been unwell for some time--she was wasting away--but we couldn't find the cause. We gave her extra food, changed her diet, coaxed her to eat just a bit more, treated her with antibiotics, took her to the clinic, gave her vitamins, but she was really listless. We cuddled her close, and gave her rehydration drinks, but she just got worse. After failing to get an IV started with the local clinic on Monday, I sat up all night feeding her rehydration fluid. She took in the amount of fluid she should have, and didn't lose much, but she still didn't improve.

Joseph had also been troubled with a funny tummy. But, rather than bouncing back after electrolyte laden drinks and extra care, he got worse.

Tuesday I realized we would have to take a trip to the hospital. This is not the no-brainer it would be in the U.S or Europe. Many times there aren't even doctors in the hospitals. Since this was right before Christmas, this was an even greater possibility.

I also had to pack carefully. The hospital only has the very basic of equipment and very few staff members. I have to prepare for days ahead and think of all eventualities. I needed clothes and diapers and food and bottles for at least a couple days. I needed to pack dish soap and a bottle brush to be able to clean the bottles since the hospital is an hour away and I wouldn't be able to dash home to do dishes. Plus, there would be no nurse to look after the sick children to give me a break. I would need to be there the entire time.

Picture a Civil War hospital from Gone with the Wind (only with IV antibiotics and plastic bags) and you can imagine what I was taking the children to.

Thankfully, we found the hospital fully staffed (by Zambian standards) and even the District Head of Health was there. As soon as I got the two babies into the children's ward, nurses and doctors tried to start an IV. They succeeded with Joseph fairly quickly, but Gladys' veins were just too small.

Since she was still able to drink, the docs suggested we just keep up with the bottle feeding every 15-20 minutes. This I did. Meanwhile, Joseph began to look a bit better with the IV drip going.

Jasmine accompanied me to the hospital since it could be challenging for me to handle two sick babies at once. We were put into the general children's ward. I had asked for a private room, but there were none available. We shared the eight bed room with three other patients and their families. There was a 6 month old baby one bed over that was coughing and gasping for air--obviously a bad case of pneumonia. "That baby is going to die," was Jasmine's comment. My heart broke that my sixteen year old daughter who should be out enjoying her first car, perhaps her first boyfriend, trying out makeup and new dance moves, has seen death up close and personal enough times to recognize its face.

Later that night, as we continued to watch over the babies, Gladys' breathing changed and she got very cold. Immediately we asked for hot water bottles and when there were none to be found, we poured hot water into any container we could find and I held them close to her body as we cuddled on a chair. She was still able to swallow, but had lost the desire to suck or drink from a bottle. I continued to pour tiny amounts of fluid into her mouth ever 15 minutes.

As all of this was going on, I noticed that the baby two beds over had grown very quiet. Her mom noticed around the same time, and a nurse came over to check. That sweet baby was gone. Immediately the mom began to weep and wail with loud cries. All of us in the room felt her pain. For two hours she cried aloud and spoke to the baby and moved restlessly around the room. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen or been a part of. The father had quietly left the room and returned two hours later with a taxi driver so they could take the baby home. As sad as I was, I was also glad not to have to listen to her cry anymore--it was exhausting--and yes, I feel badly for feeling that way.

A couple more hours passed. I continued to push the fluids and adjust the hot water 'bottles' to keep Gladys warm. She had warmed up and was resting quietly. Jasmine had gone to sleep in one of the hospital beds getting some well deserved rest since it was now the early hours of the morning.  
About this time my friend Debbie popped up on my Blackberry Messenger. I was so glad to have a friend to talk to at that very moment. We chatted about my U.S kids, a recent mission trip they'd taken together, and various other light topics. It was a great distraction as I dealt with the fact that someone's precious baby had just died and I was holding the fragile life of another in my arms.

Gladys had fallen asleep, so clutching my phone in my hand, I climbed up onto the hospital bed and cuddled with Gladys. It was just after four in the morning and I'd been awake for nearly 48 hours. Without realizing it, I fell asleep still holding Gladys. I awoke to the doctor entering the room. Immediately alert, I began briefing him on Gladys and the changes I'd seen, and what treatments had been given. It was then I realized that Gladys was not breathing. 

Glancing at my phone, I saw that I had been asleep for only 15 minutes. In that short time, Gladys had passed from my arms to His. I was really sad. and disappointed. and confused. Whatever bacteria or virus had attacked her was just too strong. The nurse wrapped her carefully in a sheet and carried her away. I would have loved to have just lain down and given into my exhaustion and grief, but there was another baby--little Joseph, who was still very sick and needed my attention.

Come back tomorrow to read part two.

Meg wrote a beautiful post with her memories of Gladys. Please go check it out and take a moment to get to know this precious child who lived with us too briefly.


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