Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why did Mrs X Die? A medical mystery of Cabestore, Haiti

This is the story of Oliver; a baby living in Cabestore, Haiti.

His name is not actually Oliver but it is the name the translator gave him, when she wanted to adopt him and now it is the only name I can recall.

Why did your mama die little baby?   

It is the name he was given when his father, still in the deepest stages of grief, brought him to the newly opened birth center for us to care for him.   The translator, had offered to take him home and with the help of other volunteers, feed and love him and make sure he had an education.   When he handed him to her, she found soap and new clothes and washed his hair and put coconut oil over his soft, brown skin.

She took a moto to town, over many streams and rivers to buy formula and bottles.  It seemed a race against time for a baby, in Cabestore, who no longer had his mother's milk.   I have developed a way of looking at baby's skin and hair and development to assess if a baby is exclusively breastfed.  Exclusively breastfed babies in Haiti, are dark skinned with shiny black, soft curls. Despite all our teachings, an exclusively breast fed baby till six months is rare.  It takes constant encouragement.  I doubt Oliver had been given much breast milk during his mother's illness, on top of the cultural norm of broth and food at an early age.  He was already malnourished. He was chubby enough but the chubby of white rice, smashed with a few beans and coaxed into his small mouth.  His skin was too pale and  his hair stiff and dry. He already had signs of skin infections, coughs and wheezing lungs.

He melted into any set of arms that held him.

I first met Oliver at his mother's funeral.   The community health agent invited us and in this way I took my first walk up the trail to his house.    It was hot and sunny when we started out but soon we were standing in a crowded yard amidst a later afternoon downpour  We were invited into the house which was overflowing with children and young men playing dominoes.   It took many funerals for me to understand that young men are suppose to play dominoes at funerals.  How this tradition took root, I do not know but I do know that despite the pouring rain and numerous children, the domino players did not budge.

It grew darker but I could still see the mother's older children, staring at me.    Their mother was gone; buried in the family grave just an hour ago.   I watch the oldest girl, about ten, take her father's hand as the translator is busy offering to adopt the baby.   It does not seem the time to discuss the baby's possible adoption but then again, the baby would need care and food immediately.   There was no sign of food for any one of the many children.

The translator had adopted other children who all lived with her mother in a house in Port-Au-Prince.   It is near to impossible for a white or foreign person to adopt but a Hatien can simply say they are the mother and no one is the wiser.  She had two other children whose mother's had died in childbirth.

I ask the health agent, why the mother died.    He shrugs.  "It was bad spirits."   Later they say, "the grandmother died of bad spirits too."

One daughter and four little boys and a now a baby boy who is just four months old.

I am in Cabestore to help Midwives for Haiti, set up a new birth center.   We are here to help prevent mother's from dying but here she is newly dead and there is nothing anyone thinks could have been done to prevent it.

In the weeks, that lay ahead, I would walk that path many times.    I would ask myself over and over why Oliver had no mother. I mean really, I want to say.  Why did she die and how could it  have been prevented or treated?

I am haunted/inspired by two things.   The television show "House" and the film by the World Health Organization called,  "Why Did Mrs X Die?"

This is the story of Oliver and his young mother but it is also the story of Cabestore and of Haiti; a story of life and death  A slow story;  not a fast paced action story but a slow one in a hot climate with thunderstorms at dusk and market day every Wednesday and Saturday, despite the dyings and birthings that are sung and captured in the mountains.

I write because I too believe in magic.  I hope that if I write this down and send it out into the universe, I will be able to sleep at night.

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