Monday, April 18, 2011

Eyes as Empty as their tummy...

Our new nurse Tori wrote this blog post yesterday, and I think it fit so well that I am reposting it here.  It's hard to describe the transformation that takes place in the children that we see.  Often they come in so close to death that it's scary.  And it doesn't take long, but a few days later they are a completely different child.  It's such a miracle to see!

Skin and bones. Lethargy. An inability to play, smile, or feel confident in their surroundings. Clinging to the little life they barely have left…. Too weak to learn, or even cry. Too feeble to stand or crawl. Starvation is an evil that plagues many countries- it quietly kills, it can wipe out families, it sneaks its way into innocent bellies.

In the recent days, we have admitted quite a few babies who were suffering from exactly this. I never really understood just how much it affects lives until I saw it first-hand lately. Starvation lowers a person’s ability to fight off disease, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea that are quick to spiral to a deathly state. But even if it doesn’t get that far, it still destroys energy and spirit. In the short time that I’ve lived in Haiti, this is the pattern I’ve seen with malnutrition….

A child comes in at a weight far below their peers their same age: 10 lbs at almost 2 years old, 6 lbs at 5 months, etc. Keep in mind that a newborn baby can weigh 10 lbs! So essentially these babies are either seriously behind in terms of growth or have gone backwards since birth. The five month old baby who came in cannot even hold her head up without support, so she is about at the developmental level of a newborn. Malnourished children come in and you can see every single rib. When you hold them, you feel nothing but bone. They often have an empty look in their eyes. Generally, they don’t smile like a normal child would. What is actually worse is that they often don’t even have the strength to cry in response to normal triggers. Today I changed a 20 month old girl who could fit into diapers that would be even too small for some newborns. One boy who we admitted recently was so sick from malnutrition that his sodium level was off and he trembled all the time and his eyes would roll back in his head. If you put toys in front a child who is severely malnourished, they just sit there completely disconnected from a childhood sense of wonder. They have no desire to invest energy they just don’t have in activities beyond surviving. They can’t learn to develop normally because they don’t have the strength- the strength to hold their head up; the strength to stand, crawl or walk.

Thankfully there’s a second part to these stories… because, you see, God created this amazing thing called food. Calories, fat, protein, carbs… you need those to survive. Simple truth, but honestly it is interesting to watch lives transformed by even just one day of food. Once admitted, they get to wear adorable clothes and have consistent bottles of milk and meals. They get to be cuddled in loving arms and sleep on soft mattresses. They slowly find the liveliness to lift their cheeks into a smile. Their fragile legs shake as they stand for the first time. As days go by, children come alive! We admitted one boy who was 2 years old and only 14 lbs- he could only sit at that time. Just a short time later, we found him smiling as he would start to explore the world around him- crawling!!! Weeks later, he actually pulled himself up to stand by a bench! His skinny legs barely host the muscle to do this, but he’s getting there with each day of nutrition. After they start getting treatment, the diarrhea ceases as their immune system comes alive again.

Just today I felt a moment of what it felt like to be in state of “hunger”- I was dizzy and couldn’t concentrate. I struggled to respond to things quickly and I felt awful. I didn’t want to walk, smile, or do anything really. I realized how much worse it must be for people suffering from actual starvation. No wonder they cannot learn or find work- without food, you literally can’t function. There is something called Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs- and without food, water, and safety, you can’t function higher than just surviving. It is interesting to think in a country where we know that work and education could change their lives, but without first having the food to provide the energy to learn or work, it is impossible for them to do this. But it is a tough cycle because without work or education, what means do they have to obtain food?

An interesting thing I have also seen again and again here is when there are twins, one is generally very malnourished and the other is relatively healthy. It makes me wonder why this is so. Is it perhaps because the parents understand that they only have so much, so one might as well get most of the food instead of them both being equally sick and malnourished. But can you imagine being the twin neglected? Can you imagine the horrifying reality that your life was not valued as highly as another’s? It gives whole new meaning to the phrase “life isn’t fair”.

I don’t think I could ever sufficiently describe the dark extent that starvation exists in Haiti. More importantly, I can’t fully describe the transformation of a life so far gone into a life so full of hope. It never ceases to amaze me when I see skinny, weak babies become strong, healthy chunksters!  Take Udashka for example--- she first came to us as a 6 pound baby at 4 months old. She was covered in scabies and sores and only skin and bone! Just a short 2 months later, she has gained over 4 lbs and looks like a normal, healthy baby!

She smiles all the time and full of life. Her skin is clearing up beautifully and she has a momma who loves her dearly. If you haven’t learned this by now, Udashka is one of my favorite babies in the world! This past time I saw her, I gave her a little teddy bear. She grasped it in her tiny hands and smile, which made my heart about explode. I told her mom that she needs to tell Udashka when she’s older that the teddy bear is from a girl who once gave her milk and loved her very, very much when she was just a tiny baby! Once Udashka “graduates” from our formula program, I probably won’t see her ever again. I only hope that her momma never lets her forget how precious she was when she was just a little thing.

Udashka is an example of hope for Haiti. So many people love and seek to help those in need, and she is a success story of untold generosity. It makes me so happy to see that resources do exist when there is no where left to turn. Starvation can be triumphed, just like every other evil in this world will be someday! It reminds me an incredible song that goes like this….
There will be a day with no more tears
No more pain, and no more fears
There will be a day when the burdens of this place
Will be no more, we'll see Jesus face to face
But until that day, we'll hold on to you always

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