So often you will find me in the ward cuddling a baby. No surprise right? These babies most often have a cleft lip and often a cleft palate too. The prevalence of clefts in these countries is the same as Western countries, it is just that they haven’t had the same access to medical care that we have, so we get to see them on board the Africa Mercy. Our surgeon, Dr Gary, has done thousands of cleft repairs over the years and is very good at them. Often if we have a child return later for a cleft palate repair months after a cleft lip repair has healed, the untrained eye would never notice the scar left behind.
A couple of months ago I met baby Siara who’s now 15 months old. Siara had a cleft lip and palate and weighed in at just 5.0kg (11lbs). She and her papa, pregnant mama and three siblings had travelled from Central African Republic to a refugee camp in Congo to seek refuge from the war. Somehow Siara’s papa had heard about a Mercy Ships interior screening day and left his family behind, bringing Siara with him to meet our screening team. Siara and her papa received a patient card as a promise for surgery, but before Siara would be able to have surgery she had to gain some weight.
I met her when I walked into the ward early one Saturday morning. She was sitting up in bed with her papa, crying. I walked over to her, the lights in the ward still off, as the day had barely begun, and I picked her up out of the bed to calm her feeble cries. She was light in my arms, barely weight at all. The effect of malnutrition on her body, not only made her small but her hair was slightly orange and patchy, instead of black with tight curls. Her skin was also blotchy and pale in places. She had wide, dark eyes, alert and moving with such purposeful movements, surprising for a baby of her small size. She could sit up on her own, but there was no movement to crawl, let alone walk. There were no smiles coming from her serious little round face. Even so, she was gorgeous and captured my heart.
Each nurse loved on her and her papa during her little stay for a chest infection and after she was discharged I heard about her progress from my friends Mirjam and Jasmin on the Screening Team, who were following her and making sure she was putting weight on.
This past week little Siara, who’d gained a whopping 2kgs, was able to have surgery to repair both her cleft lip and cleft palate. Post op, her little body struggled to get enough breath, until our team decided to put her back on the ventilator for a couple of days. I worked one of these days, in charge of the ward and ICU, so popping in and out helping the nurse who was looking after her. Her papa asked for some photos to be taken and I was quite willing to document this gorgeous little one, clefts all repaired, sleeping peacefully, recovering on the ventilator until she was strong enough to do it on her own.
During the following night, Siara decided she’d had enough of the ventilator and managed to remove her tube herself, but without any medical emergencies she breathed well on her own, not needing extra support. That afternoon she was moved back into a bed with her papa in the ward and sat up in her bed happily putting handfuls of soft food in her mouth.
Today, five days after her surgery, she had her nasal bolster (helps the nose heal in the right shape) and whiteheads pack (helps the palate heal) removed. That made her one step closer to discharge!
I blew bubbles for her today. She sat there, enchanted as she watched the bubbles float down to the bed and pop. Because of the malnutrition her growth and development has been severely delayed, so I marvelled like a new mum, as I watched her follow the bubbles floating through the air and reach out her hands to catch them, most often moving way too slowly (but then I cheered every time she caught them and she’d always look up at me in surprise). After a while I put the bubbles back in my pocket. She watched me and knew where the bubbles sat, she stared at my pocket. So I pulled them back out and held them up in front of her. She waved her hand, at me, signalling, come on blow them! Who could resist that? Not me who’s in love with every baby that sets foot in this place! So I put the bubble blower to her face, she didn’t know how to blow, like every other toddler who’s wanted a go, but she moved her head forward like she was trying. It was so gorgeous! We did it over and over and her papa lay on the same bed, smiling from ear to ear when she tried blowing bubbles and when she caught the bubbles that I blew for her.
Sweet baby girl! I can’t wait to see you smile! I wish I could see you grow up and develop into a beautiful little girl, teenager and then woman. I wish I could see who you will become! I wish I could see the look on your mama’s face when she sees you fat and your lip all stitched together and healed. You are beautiful baby girl! God has beautiful plans for you and even though you won’t remember the time you spent on this ship, I will remember you forever and pray for you as you grow up!