Just last night we were caught up in the contagious joy of the nation, celebrating as Zambia won the African cup for the first time. People were on their knees praying, tears of pride streaming down their faces; families were dressed in the colors of the Zambian flag, singing and dancing; cab drivers drove up and down the streets honking, and cheering from out their windows. Just last night, we too shared that excitement. Earlier today we delivered a healthy baby girl, and felt elated when we heard that loud, robust cry of a new life. These moments of joy were short lived though, quickly replaced by a hardship that neither of us have experienced before: the loss of a child, an innocent life. That seems to be how it works here, each wave of fulfillment and happiness is quickly followed by a tragic sight or sound that leaves us slumped over, fighting for air and to regain our own thoughts.
17:03-the time we called the code, and stopped resuscitating his tiny, limp body. We stood there stunned, eyes blurry and hearts racing, as we peeled off the tape holding his I.V and NG tube in place. We closed his eyes and placed his hands over his chest before covering him with a sheet, like we do with our adult patients who die at home. It didn’t seem right. His body looked too tiny, and his eyes still looked so full of life, it felt wrong to close them.
Fallon: I ran into the room after I heard Sam yelling my name, not sure how or what to prepare myself for. There he was, our little 2 ½ year old boy, lying limp and lifeless on the bed, his mother sobbing against the wall. I have never seen a dead child before, and the sight is something I don’t see myself ever forgetting. It took me a moment to get myself together, and to force my eyes off of his hauntingly white lips. Here we go I remembered thinking, Just Sam and myself, running our own code with no doctor or crash cart. We took turns between chest compressions and giving him air, with breaks of frantically feeling for pulses. Nothing. I remember how his chest felt beneath my gloveless hands; I could feel his ribs cracking beneath the strength of my fingers with every push. His skin was still warm, and the heat of his body felt like hope. “Come on, come on, come on” I remember Sam saying, through the muffled haze of the other sounds in the room. The doctor finally came fifteen minutes later, and gave us the orders to stop. I remember feeling torn between my own exhaustion and the obligation I felt to keep trying. This is somebody’s child, I can’t give up. I gave one final breath of air, his last, before removing the mask from his face and stepping back. Time of Death: 17:03. I immediately wished I left the mask on his face, because it let me forget the whiteness of his lips beneath it. I could feel my adrenaline wearing off, and my “game face” disappearing beneath my own sweat and tears. I went into the hallway and leaned against the wall, trying to make sense of what just happened. I felt my knees give out beneath me, as I slid down the wall taking comfort on the dirty floor of the hospital next to the wailing mother. Again, I found myself in a situation with no words to offer, and we sit together, the 3 of us, without words for nearly an hour. Pain and brokenness is a universal language, so words weren’t needed anyway. I felt numbness, and caught myself just staring at the floor, with blurred vision and no thoughts. These periods of detachment were frequently broken up by a burst of tears brought on by the mother`s piercing cry and rocking next to me. I wiped my tears from my cheeks, and realized that my hands were stained with the odour of the child’s skin. This smell of milk formula and sweat made me feel nauseated, and I felt an overwhelming need to wash my hands of it. I remembered there was no running water at the hospital today, so I tried to scrub them with the hand sanitizer in my pocket. The strong scent of the alcohol was not even enough to rid my hands of the smell. I remember thinking that all I wanted was to do was wash my hands…to splash some cold water on my face, and to not smell and feel the burden of a dead child lingering on my fingers. The grandmother walked by us with a great look of sadness, interrupting this thought. She said “thank you” in Lozi to Sam and I. Thank you? For what? We couldn’t save your grandson, why are you thanking us? I suddenly felt a need to get up and go back to the child, and found myself walking back to the room before rationalizing my own need for closure. There he was on the bed, his tiny body wrapped tightly in a blanket, his face covered: a sight more haunting than his lips.
Sam: Last night we celebrated. We were lifted up onto tables, we danced, we hugged, we cheered and we sang. Zambia had won the Afcon cup for soccer for the first time in history. Faces painted, donning the Zambian colors, we were there in the heart of Mongu celebrating with locals. It felt like the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, words cannot describe the atmosphere. And now less than 24 hours after, it’s hard to remember those feelings, in fact it’s hard to feel anything at all. We had just witnessed a birth that morning, a moment of excitement for a new life. Nearly 40min later we were mourning. We were sitting at the nursing station when I heard the cry of a mother. I ran to the bedside, the frail 2.5 year old was motionless, no palpable pulse, respirations or response. I yelled for Fallon for help. We grabbed an ambubag and Fallon started bagging as I initiated compressions, switching back and forth when we got exhausted. Seconds felt like hours as we waited for oxygen supplies to come and for the doctor to arrive. Thumping deep into the chest of this tiny boy was gut wrenching. But 15 min later we heard the words, “1703 time of death”. Even though we knew it was doomed from the start we still held on for that small glimpse of hope, but then it vanishes and no words can describe how you feel. Nothing can come out of your mouth to sooth this grieving family, and you hear the noise of the wails that haunt you in your dreams, reminding you of death. The mother leaves the room hysterically, and I don’t want to close my eyes because his face is all I can see now. His tiny, pale, innocent face. Only 2.5 years old, his life ahead of him, was now over. I know people don’t cry here but in Canada we cry. So we sat on the dirty floor of the hospital hallway with the parents. We sat as they cried and as we cried. We sat and held their hands, we sat in silence; we sat until we could no longer feel anything at all. I remember looking over at the mom and Fallon, both of their eyes fixated on the same blank wall ahead of them. A feeling of numbness, shock and sadness had overcome us all. No one said anything. People walked by us, their children in their hands and I felt so angry that this family had just lost theirs. Thunder, lightning and rain seem to have their cue here as we could hear the rain pounding on the roof. What had been the happiest day of many Zambians lives, was this family’s worst. It is hard sometimes to think positively when everything you see is overshadowed by tragedy, disease and death. But all in all it makes you stronger, even when you feel like you’re broken and can never be fixed.
Still looking forward to writing a happy blog. Stay tuned…coming soon?
Sam and Fallon