A Poignant Morning at the Maternite

Hilary Brown - Senegal


March 10, 2010

Vaccinating infants, examining pregnant women, giving birth control, checking up on prostitutes and other activities related to reproductive health make up a usual day at the Sebikotane Maternite, where I have been an apprentice for the past four months. As I am not a medical student, my jobs are relatively simple: taking blood pressure, weighing pregnant women, and fetching things for the midwives. While I don’t feel like I physically do much there is usually something interesting going on and I am always learning. Working there after volunteering at a hospital in the U.S. I also see the great difference in the quality of health care between the two countries. However, after living here for four months and getting used to what I see every day I some times forget what is lacking here. At the same time there are still things that surprise me and remind me there is much potential for improvement.

Probably the most impactful event since beginning work here happened about a month ago. One morning, soon after I arrived, a woman came in with an extremely tiny baby all wrapped up. I thought the baby had just been born until I noticed its pierced ears and the large black eye brows painted on its weirdly shrunken face. The woman was explaining something  I could not understand as one of the midwives unwrapped the little bundle. I immediatly knew something was wrong but did not realize how wrong until its fral ribs and caved in stomach were revieled. With horror I thought the baby must be dead. The mid wife gasped and began chastisizing the woman. The child was starving. We rushed to put her under heat lights and spooned water little by little into her mouth, waiting for the woman to return from the pharmacy with formula. The midwife explained to me that the mother was very young and had not begun to produce milk yet. I asked if another woman who had just had a baby could feed her but she said they would not do that in Senegal. As more mid wives began coming in for work, they were all upset by the state of the baby.

About an half hour later the mother arrived. The midwife pulled out her breasts and was surprised when a little jet of milk squirted out. A few spoonfuls were feed to the baby. The mother just sat there milk dripping from her full breasts not saying or doing anything. I have no idea what was going through her mind as her twenty-three-day-old daughter was about to die, she just seemed blank and confused. A few minutes later she left and the baby died. I had never  seen a dead person before and even if I had I still think looking at this tiny, grey, shrunken face with drawn on eyebrows would have given me the chills.

While the  midwife scolded the mother, I truly think no one can be blamed. Even though the mother produced milk, the baby would not drink, and the mother was not educated enough to bring her to the maternite until it was too late. Just standing there, watching the baby die made me feel more useless then ever before. Although  it was extremely frusturating watching this knowing there was nothing I could do, I think right now observing and just being aware is what is important and the ultimate goal of the GCY experience. It also made me more aware of the hardships and challenges that exist in our village that I no longer think about every day.

Hilary Brown