I traveled to Malawi with two wonderful colleagues last week and while visiting a small hospital outside Lilongwe, a tiny newborn captivated my heart and mind. She was lying on a warming table, bundled up in two swaths of colorful cotton fabric. We spoke to a nurse who estimated that this baby had entered the world at 28 weeks, much earlier than the full 40-week term. She is the tiniest baby I have ever seen.
Like a number of hospitals and clinics in low-resource settings, the hospital we visited had a Kangaroo Mother Care unit. When a baby is born prematurely or is very small for other reasons, the newborn is laid on the mother’s chest, skin against skin, and a cloth or blanket is then wrapped around mother and baby. The mother’s warmth replaces a nonexistent or nonfunctioning incubator and literally helps keep her newborn alive. Naturally, we wondered why this fragile baby was lying on the warming table instead of being nestled against her mother in the Kangaroo Mother Care Unit.
The answer came in a brief and very sad story. The newborn had had a violent entry into the world because her mother had tried to abort her. Surprisingly, the baby survived. Not surprisingly, the mother had injured herself and was receiving care in another ward of the hospital.
Can we imagine how desperate this girl or woman must have been to attempt to end her pregnancy this way, an action that could have claimed her life as well as her child’s? I cannot imagine, but I know that I cannot judge this mother whose desperation drove her decision to act. Her situation could have happened (and does happen) anywhere in the world where girls and women do not have access to basic health information and services, including contraception and family planning resources.
Standing close to the warming table I studied the newborn girl. She was breathing without an oxygen tube, but covered with so many layers of folded cloth that it was impossible to see if she truly was inhaling and exhaling. Only an occasional movement of her minute arm or hand signaled that she was alive. The nurse was surprised that this baby had survived the trauma. “She is a fragile fighter,” I thought, and I could not take my eyes from her. I wondered if she would live, if her mother would survive, and if in the end, her mother would want to take her home. At the very moment I stood observing this tiny newborn, she could have been wrapped against her mother’s chest, close to her heart, hearing and feeling her mother’s breathing and heartbeat, absorbing her warmth and love. But she was not. Instead, this newborn was already learning to fend for herself.
I pray that the fragile fighter and her mother survive, and if her mother remains steadfast in the decision that she does not want this daughter, I pray that someone in the village will. Please join me in the hope that this newborn girl will not have to wait long to be wanted and loved.