Surgery saves newborn

Erica is a 28-year-old mother, residing in the Canaan neighborhood on the outskirts of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. She survives on an informal income, selling fruit and vegetables in the city, earning between US$1.25 to US$2-a-day, depending on whether there are political protests blocking the streets or gangs patrolling the area.  

Erica’s newborn baby before the surgery

She doesn’t speak of a partner or a family. She is alone lying in a hospital bed at Rita Merli’s Maternity Unit at St. Damien Pediatric Hospital. Nurses come by to monitor her condition and try to boost her morale. In February she gave birth via emergency caesarean to a 35-week premature baby. The baby is currently in critical condition, while Erica awaits further surgery after a painful labor which has left her emotionally and physically exhausted. 

At her last sonography, a doctor informed her about the baby’s anomaly and advised her to give birth at St. Damien where she would receive good care from experienced doctors. It turned out that the child suffered from atresia, a birth defect caused by a stroke in an undeveloped part of the intestine. The condition needed immediate surgery. Without it, the child would die.

“She is in recovery,” says Doctor Osnel Louisma, head of the surgery ward. “Nurses are monitoring her and the baby, but things are touch and go. It is like this on a daily basis. We have dedicated staff to cope, but sometimes not enough beds.”

Dr Osnel Louima, Head of our Surgery Ward.

St Damien’s Rita Merli Maternity unit delivers approximately 3,000 children per year: roughly 250 monthly, with some mothers arriving as young as 14-years-of-age. However, when complications arise such as the case with Erica, mothers have to be taken to the surgical ward to receive specialist treatment.

St. Damien is the only hospital in Haiti with the technical platform to sufficiently treat, manage and monitor newborns and potential illnesses common in Haiti.

“With correct and timely treatment, more than 80% of our cases are successful,” says Doctor Osnel Louima. However for those diagnosed late, born prematurely or carrying other malformations, the prognosis is not always good. After operating, these children can be fed and grow properly, but economic problems may be the cause of their malnutrition. According to the World Bank, approximately 6 million of the 11.26 million population live in poverty and malnutrition is a common problem in Haiti.

The cost of maternity operations like those performed by St. Damien Hospital is out of reach for the vast majority of Haitians, as these cases are not covered by local insurance companies. Doctor Osnel estimates an operation might cost between 350,000 and 600,000 Gourdes – approximately NZD$6200 to NZD$10,700. He says, “The costs continue to increase as the devaluation of the Gourde spirals out of control, making it even more impossible for the majority of families, especially single mothers without employment, to afford such an operation.”

“We have an influx of patients which often exceeds the number of beds that we have. This means that we have a very long waiting list for surgery. As we only have limited resources and staff we are unable to operate 24 hours a day. For example, urgent cases who come to our surgery ward after 5pm must wait until the next day, which unfortunately affects the outcome for the children.”

A nurse checks Erica’s baby after the surgery.

Like all parents Erica was hoping to give birth to a healthy child. She didn’t think the baby’s illness would be so complicated. Erica hasn’t had time to name her son yet. For now the surgical team have named the boy Armani, which means “warrior” in Italian.

Erica is sad that her son is suffering so much, but thanks the staff of St. Damien. She holds hope that Armani will survive, despite the abnormality. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to return home, but I am willing to endure everything, even the toughest ordeals, if it means that my son will recover.”

Erica had never been to St. Damien before her arrival. She is amazed at how well the pediatricians take care of the children. Doctor Osnel reiterates that he believes Erica and Armani will pull through, but it doesn’t take away the everyday problems that the unit faces, especially during COVID-19.

Baby Armani a few days after surgery. His life was saved thanks to St. Damien Hospital.

“We receive a lot of requests; the needs are enormous. St. Damien is the only pediatric hospital in Haiti and we receive cases from all over the country. Most Haitians don’t have the economic resources to take appropriate care of their children to ensure a clean bill of health. This is why St. Damien is so vital. We are the main port of call for many Haitians. If specialist care is needed, we need the right equipment. Unfortunately, we don’t receive much help from the Government, which often does not have the capacity to do so anyway,” explains Doctor Osnel.

“We appreciate all the support from donors around the world. We thank you for your help. {lease keep helping the parents and children at St. Damien Hospital,” concludes Doctor Osnel. “You are making a difference.”

*Names of patients have been changed to protect their privacy.

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