Our volunteer camp on the outskirts of Itzapa had a small clinic and infirmary, and was visited daily by village neighbors needing medical care. One day a young mother came to camp carrying a baby completely wrapped up in blankets. I asked her how old the baby was and she said two months. As I unwrapped her layer by layer my heart went out; she was grey and shriveled and the outline of her bones showed. She looked like a little ancient corpse. I held her to me while her mother told me her story.
Baby Nora had been premature, born at seven months. Her mother, who was malnourished herself, said she didn’t have much milk, and thought her milk wasn’t good because she “got angry.” She had four other children to feed and no husband, and made what money she could selling mangos in the marketplace. She had bought one can of infant milk powder and diluted it to nothing more than white water, hoping it would last longer. Meanwhile, her baby starved. At two months, Nora weighed 4 lbs. 2 oz.
We drove them immediately to the Behrhorst Clinic in nearby Chimaltenango. The doctor there said there was nothing he could do, that we could try a malnourished children’s center an hour’s drive away. The nurse there told us that they didn’t accept babies so young, and to see a pediatrician. The pediatrician shrugged his shoulders and said go to the hospital in the capitol. We asked him how we should feed her, and he said diluted formula, since her system couldn’t tolerate much more. We left. Clearly none of them thought that it was worth trying to save this little one.
None of us wanted to send Nora to the big city hospital where there were only large rooms filled with patients; where no one had time to look after a severely malnourished baby. We decided to take her home and started feeding her diluted formula with a .1 cc dropper. She was too weak even to swallow. I held her and sang to her as much as I could. She didn’t seem to be in pain, she just didn’t have energy to do anything but breathe. Still, she had a strong peaceful awareness, like a person in meditation. Nora was like other children I had seen in Guatemala, kids who were quiet and immobile, like they had lived their lives through already at such a young age, struggling internally to stay alive. We took comparison pictures of Nora with Jerry and Michelle Miller’s healthy two month old, so people could understand.
The next night Nora’s temperature dropped to 94º, so we moved the infirmary’s incubator into our family’s tent and continued to feed her drop-by-drop. This kind of care was new to us. The camp’s clinic crew was young and idealistic and we loved doing medical work, but the basic skills we knew mostly came through life experiences birthing and raising children, or from mentors in the Farm clinic or the more skilled midwifery crew, or by taking Emergency Medical Technician courses. I was 22 at the time. We realized that if Nora lived, it would take months of intensive care before we could let her go home. A student doctor friend told us of a Canadian woman in the capitol who ran a malnourished children’s home. We called her and she said to bring Nora in, that she would be glad to have her, that they had lots of babies in her shape. Nora’s mother agreed to let her go, and accompanied us. So we took her, incubator and all, to the home. When we got there, an attendant checked Nora out while the director showed us around. The babies we saw looked in pretty good shape, relative to Nora. As we were coming downstairs the attendant started yelling, “She’s retracting, she’s having a hard time breathing. We need to take her to the hospital!” Everyone started rushing around. We were hustled into a vehicle with Nora and the director, who drove so fast our car was almost hit twice.
Upon arriving at the hospital we brought Nora in, and within a few seconds five people rushed in and threw Nora onto the examining table, ripped open her tiny shirt, slapped on a stethoscope and announced cardiac arrest. They ushered us out of the room and we waited, astonished, with Nora’s mother. She had been breathing seconds before. At the time, we felt that if her heart truly had stopped, it was likely due to the ride and high adrenaline reaction.
Later on, we found out the children’s home director had rung the signal for cardiac arrest when she walked into the hospital, to get a fast response. The doctors and attendants just assumed that’s what was happening with Nora. The hospital kept her, and a few days later we found out that Nora had died. It was a tragic situation all around. At the time we felt that in an intensive care situation like this, we could do a better job of caring for a vulnerable baby that was on the verge of life and death than a major hospital, just by maintaining a spiritual attitude, paying close attention to them, and loving them.