When a child is born

“A ray of hope flickers in the sky….”

(lyrics, When A Child is Born, Christmas carol)

We went into this with eyes wide open; we’re in a developing country where it is not the norm for babies to survive*. Nevertheless, there was a flickering ray of hope. This could be the statistic that didn’t bring despair, tragedy and unspeakable loss.  In the Timor way, we held back from buying baby paraphernalia and we spent no time contemplating baby names, but we did care for and nurture the young Mum, someone who’s become a part of our family.  She happily developed habits previously foreign to her; drinking countless cups of water, enjoying a balanced diet, getting rest and seeing the Doctor.  The odds were good, or so we thought.

A few days ago, this baby came into the world earlier than expected, at 30 weeks. He was adorable, with perfect features and a room full of family waiting desperately to love and care for him. Tragically he passed away before the day was over.  With no neonatal services able to meet his needs, he didn’t stand a chance.

As I sit here consumed by a dark, deep grief, I am wondering how, on this small island just over an hour’s flight from Australia, this is happening.  As a teary young Mother in that hospital said to me that afternoon, “how can they let girls just lie here, and not help us?”.  She felt neglected and acutely aware that she was in a truly hopeless situation.  The expecting woman next to her in the curtained cubical could have been the woman I saw on the World Vision donation boxes in the 80’s: so thin that it’s hard to believe she walks, yet sporting a bump that would pass for 12 weeks, back home. She was full-term. I glanced at her arms as I stood next to her. Two of my thumbs were as wide as her upper arm. She knew hungry. She knew heartache and she knew pain. She also had a smile that lit up the dismal, almost dormant, delivery room.

It’s difficult to explain how it feels to stand with your loved one, in a maternity ward of that standard, with nothing but a prayer and a stroke of good luck to help you. I glanced around the room: all but two staff wore dear little white nurse’s hats (only student nurses wear these). The remaining two were service staff. Not a Dr in sight. Maybe a midwife would appear soon? No, none did.  We were on our own.

I have just spent a year working in a medical training organisation that is making inroads into changing the health system in Timor. I know the statistics. I appreciate that the capacity is low, but at that moment, standing in that room, looking through watery eyes at baby Gabriel, I saw it differently.  It was a defining moment which altered how I see the world.

I know that his soul rests in peace, and that gives me comfort.  He just deserved a chance. His Mother deserved to expect a chance at welcoming a healthy baby.  After nearly two decades* it seems that that chance is a long way off and we must work so very much smarter and harder.

For decades Australia has been accused of benefiting from foreign aid that it has an enviable reputation for dispersing. “Boomerang Aid”, they call it, and Timor-Leste bears the brunt of it.  I wouldn’t wish our past few days’ pain on anyone yet I wonder what would be the new strategic direction of major foreign aid players if they too stood in that room and felt what was happening.  I truly believe that aid would start to reach the real need; the people with hearts and souls who desperately need it, not the bureaucratic pile of paper that demands it.

* UNICEF figures released for 2015: 45 in every 100 newborns here die. More alarmingly, 53 in every 100 die before they reach the age of 5. The word on the street here is that these are conservative figures and that reality is higher. These are more than numbers, it’s abysmal.

** Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest and poorest nations, becoming an independent country less than 20 years ago.

I have no photos that would do this post justice.

Only words, and they only stab at justice.