In 2006 a baby named Malena was born in Ecuador. The third daughter born to a single mother in an impoverished area, Malena didn’t have access to traditional medical care as a newborn. Complications during her birth meant that she didn’t get enough oxygen to her brain. She developed Cerebral Palsy, a neurological disorder that hindered her muscle development and left her without the ability to speak, walk, or move on her own. On what should have been the happiest day of her life, Malena’s mother struggled to come to terms with the reality of what life with this disorder would mean for her daughter. If she couldn’t get medical care for her baby at birth, how would she continue to support a child with special needs? Her local clinic could scarcely provide basic medicine and she couldn’t afford the high costs of private hospitals. In a country where low-income citizens regularly die from common infections, getting sufficient care for a child with this kind of disability was next to impossible. But, like many single parents in difficult circumstances, Malena’s mother made sacrifices, pulled together with her community, and did her best to raise Malena with the few resources she had.
Stories like this are common in the areas we serve. Malena survived her dangerous birth, but that’s not the case for millions of mothers and children in developing countries. 80% of neonatal deaths around the world are caused by infection and birth asphyxia, the same condition that caused Malena’s CP. A lack of medical care at birth can cause lasting illnesses for mothers and their children. The WHO estimates that nearly half of all women and newborns in developing countries don’t receive skilled medical care during and immediately after birth. We see 3 million newborn deaths each year, and 2 million of those die within 24 hours of being born. That’s 2 million mothers who have to watch their babies die on the day their lives should be beginning.
More moms and newborns die in developing nations than in the rest of the world, but lifelong illnesses and disabilities caused by birth complications pose their own problems in low-income countries. Social stigma associated with disabilities paired with an unimaginable lack of medical resources mean that families struggle to support their loved ones, both medically and socially.
Despite these unique difficulties, Malena grew up happy with an easy smile and a lot of affection for her sisters who helped care for her. Listening to music and finger painting were her favorite activities. She had learned to play by herself when the other kids would go to school or play outside. She spent most of her life bedridden because she could not move by herself. When she did leave the house, she sat slumped over in a wheelchair that couldn’t support her head and spine. Her disability was what prevented her from playing with her sisters, but it was her inability to afford proper medical equipment that kept her from even being able to watch. At 10 years old, Malena’s greatest wish was for a wheelchair that could hold her head up. All she wanted was a way to comfortably join in on the fun with her sisters and their friends, even if it was from a chair. And her mother desperately wanted to make that wish come true, but it seemed impossible given the kind of medical care available to them.
Then, last year, everything changed. In November, MedShare sent a donation of medical supplies and equipment to Junta de Beneficencia de Guayaquil in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Among the cases of gloves, boxes of stethoscopes, and bundles of crutches sat a very special item: a pediatric orthopedic wheelchair.
When Malena and her mother arrived at Junta de Beneficencia and saw the purple chair they could not believe their eyes, or their ears – this wheelchair had been donated, free of charge. Nurses helped Malena get into her chair, showed her mother how to adjust the head and shoulder supports, and demonstrated the special wheels that could roll just as easily down the street at the market as they could in the grass at the park. When Malena’s usual smile got even bigger, her mother interpreted, “Because she cannot speak, I will pass on her words for her: “Thank you very much and God bless you!”
Malena’s mother had survived a life-threatening pregnancy. Her baby had survived the near fatal conditions of her birth. They both had survived for ten years managing a disability without medical support. But now, thanks to a little purple wheelchair and the care of doctors and nurses at Junta de Beneficencia, they could stop worrying about surviving with her disorder and finally feel free to live undeterred by it.
As an organization, we segment out our efforts into programs – Maternal & Child Health, Primary Care, Infectious Disease Control & Prevention, and Disaster Relief— but those are simply different ways to treat the same problem. It’s stronger healthcare and improved lives that we’re striving for. It’s giving mothers the freedom to celebrate their pregnancies rather than fear the terrible consequences that may come of them. It’s making sure that babies breathe their first breaths more easily. It’s letting children with diseases and disabilities enjoy happy childhoods. And, ultimately, it’s helping families – like Malena’s– who have struggled to survive finally learn to live.
Visit the MedShare 2 million mothers site here: http://www.medshare.org/2-million-mothers/
This was originally published for the Saporta Report here: http://leadership.saportareport.com/globalhealth/2017/05/22/2-million-mothers/