I met 7-month-old Abdullah at the Sole Hope outreach house just over a week ago when someone handed him to me. As his family piled out of the van fresh from the village I didn’t know right away who he belonged to, and he surely had no idea who I was. As his foggy, tear-filled eyes locked onto mine he immediately started wailing. Throwing his head back, tears trickled down his cheeks and filled his ears.
As he cried, his little mouth gaping open, I noticed he had two teeth. The same two teeth my almost 7-month-old daughter Winden has. Like a punch in the gut, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This tiny, thin, and very sad baby was someone’s child, just like Winden is mine. All that fierce love and protectiveness I feel towards her is felt by someone else toward their son Abdullah. All of the laughter, pain and love that is in Winden’s future, well, that’s in Abdullah’s future too.
Winden, almost showing off her two teeth.
My family just moved to Uganda. We made the decision for a lot of good reasons, and we have been working hard alongside the staff and patients of Sole Hope for two months now. But as I held Abdullah it became personal in a way I haven’t experienced yet. He stopped crying, but try as I might I couldn’t get the little guy to smile. He looked at me with a tired, expressionless face and waited quietly.
After they arrived last Monday, I checked on Adbullah every day. I shook his little feet and made funny faces. I tried everything that would crack Winden up, and nothing made him smile. The doctor checked him out, noted some degree of malnutrition, and began treating him for diarrhea. Matthew, our lead educator, removed three jiggers from his tiny feet while the child’s 14-year-old mother and eight young aunts and uncles received treatment for more severe cases.
Abdullah’s Mom, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles as they first arrived at the Outreach House.
“This baby is not so very fine,” said Miriam, Sole Hope’s daytime caretaker. “He is feeling hot.” It was Friday afternoon and Mom and baby sat on the porch in the shade. Abdullah’s flat expression seemed more distant than I had noticed on previous days. I touched his forehead and it was burning hot. We took his temperature; nearly 103 degrees.
At Sole Hope we are experts at jigger removal and when our patients are sick our nurses and doctor take excellent care of them, but we also know when to ask for help. We loaded Abdullah into our landcruiser with Mom and Grandmom and set off across town to the hospital.
The doctor at the hospital didn’t seem very concerned after checking Abdullah’s weight and vital signs. She gave him some tylenol for the fever and told us we’d be taking him home shortly. She ordered some simple bloodwork just to be safe. The laboratory technician took blood and ran the tests, then came back looking more confused than concerned. “The count is too low,” he said. “I need another sample.”
After sitting and waiting for what felt like hours for the blood test results to come in, another doctor came into the room and shook all of our hands warmly. “This is an emergency,” he said, “but not too scary.” He explained that Abdullah had malaria with severe anemia. “This baby needs blood, and we don’t have his type,” he said. “We can get it by the morning, and I promise we will keep him alive overnight.”
Abdullah, Mom and Grandmom enjoy a moment of peace.
The next morning the doctor was doing rounds. “I can’t lie to you, the news is not good,” he said. “This baby will die without blood, we don’t have it and we can’t get it.” Silence hung in the air. “He will die today and it can’t be here.”
Teddy, Sole Hope’s head nurse, picked up Abdullah and pushed him into my arms. “We’re going to get that blood,” she said. I strapped Abdullah into Winden’s car seat, slammed the door and took off across town again. The first hospital didn’t have any blood. The second didn’t have Abdullah’s blood type. The third said it was impossible.
Our last resort was a hospital with an infamous reputation. I’ve been told that stepping through the front door is basically signing your own death warrant. I waited in the parking lot with the family as Teddy went in to check their supplies. She ran out of the door and called to us, “Come quickly, they have it, but there are many people needing blood.”
As we entered the hospital rats scurried across the floor. The hallway was dark and musty, lined with children, some unconscious, some screaming. Sounds of agony and smells of body fluid were oppressively strong. The emergency room was filled beyond capacity. Many of the beds had three or even four children in them. One lone nurse stood in the middle of the chaos, a light smattering of blood across her otherwise neat white coat. Teddy walked past a line of thirty waiting patients and in a tone of absolute confidence authority ordered blood work and a unit of blood. She disappeared into the recesses of the hospital and returned a moment later, blood in hand.
“We don’t have any supplies to administer this blood,” the hospital’s nurse said as she injected another crying infant. “If you want it, you have to go get a kit from the pharmacy.” She wrote an order on a discarded scrap of paper and I ran to the pharmacy. Three times. Each time returning with something else the hospital was out of. Medical tape. Antibiotics. Bandages.
I’ll spare you details, but the next six hours were a nightmare. I witnessed bedmates and neighbors giving up and going home to die because they needed more than this hospital could give. I put all my energy into providing the incredibly competent, overworked and underfunded staff with a constant stream or encouragement, questions, snacks, and supplies. The blood dripped. Then it clotted. A new IV. Tears, medicine and blood dripped again, until another clot. Tiny Abdullah was given a third IV; his weak, deflated veins couldn’t seem to handle everything that was required of them that day.
Then, Abdullah smiled. His two tiny teeth silhouetted in the grin that I’d never seen, no matter how hard I tried
And Abdullah lived.
It was the closest of calls. If Peter, our social worker, hadn’t picked up this family from their remote village… If Miriam hadn’t noticed the fever… If Teddy hadn’t burst through doors and given orders like she owned all four hospitals… If you hadn’t partnered with Sole Hope, sharing your love, your faith, and your resources… little Abdullah’s story would have ended at seven months. It takes a village to raise a child, and it took a global community to save his life. So thank you, to all the people who poured out their hearts.
Right now, Adbullah is playing with a small, stuffed, smiling sunshine toy, generously donated by my daughter Winden. He is wearing one of her Pampers, a clean onesie, and a happy smile. He will spend the next few weeks fattening-up in the government malnutrition ward, and what happens after that will be decided through detailed discussions between his family and our social workers. We are determined to give him the resources he needs to continue to thrive.