Last week there was an ultrasound workshop for the medical officers and I thought it would be interesting to join, so I did. The ultrasound room is adjacent to the emergency room so while we were waiting for everyone to arrive the internist and I were reviewing a few patients. There were many really sick children. One infant had been brought in due to rat bites, although I think the child must have been sick prior to the bites because the child was really unwell. Another child was very pale and in urgent need of blood. Another child had a very high fever and was convulsing. It was hectic.
After thirty minutes, the internist decided to begin the workshop, so off we went to talk about the ultrasound machine, the use of ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, etc. Meanwhile, the emergency department was bustling. After the workshop, we left the ultrasound room by way of the emergency room and I noticed two doctors resuscitating a child. However, minutes later they stopped, realizing it was ineffective. As I stood there and watched I could not help but realize that everyone else in the room carried on with whatever it was they were doing. The other caregivers were not paying much attention, nursing staff was preoccupied with other patients and even the child’s mother could not be found in the emergency room. In silence, the child passed.
After the doctors covered the child with a cloth, they slowly moved away, disheartened by what had just taken place. Meanwhile the now lifeless child remained on the bed and to her left and her right, two other children were struggling to stay alive.
Chills ran through my body as I realized again how much death, has become a part of daily life in Sierra Leone. The death of a child, that would bring masses of people to action in both the hospital setting and the home setting in the developed world, goes by almost unnoticed here. Why is that? It is because unfortunately 1 in 5 children do not reach the age of 5 years. It is not that the death of a child has no affect on people, but they react differently than someone from the West might expect. I’m starting to believe their response has to be different, or they will not cope.
The mothers wail to the point of throwing themselves to the ground in uncontrollable sobbing but seem to move on with life more quickly. They are told to “bear,” which means, “to put up with” or “endure.” They are told not to cry. To me this seems inhumane, but there must be reasons for this. Maybe it’s simply because a wailing mother will cause other caregivers to worry more about their own children. Or maybe it is easier for everyone else involved to cope better. Or maybe it is because in a place with so many child deaths, a mother somehow needs to accept that this time it was her child. I am sure that any time a child dies in the Emergency Room, the other mothers present are worried that their child might be next. What an unsettling thought that likely one or two more children will die in the emergency room today.
Of course the doctors and nurses are affected too, but rather than appearing shocked, they sometimes don’t seem phased by it. I am not saying this to be judgmental and obviously do not know what goes on in their minds but I have noticed how demoralizing child deaths are for the staff. Of course it hits them hard, but they tend not to show their emotions. They are frustrated with the lack of diagnostic facilities or treatment options to save a child’s life. They are irritated that caregivers tend to delay so much before bringing their child to the hospital. They are saddened that the health care situation is changing ever so slowly. When a child dies, the doctors and nurses tend to step back in silence. How long can they continue to give their all when the outcome does not seem to change?
Where the average doctors and nurses in the developed world rarely experience pediatric deaths, these doctors and nurses are faced with children dying every single day. How does one deal with children dying on a daily basis? I think that the only way one can continue to work under such circumstances is to distance oneself from the patients and guard one’s emotions. Clearly in a profession devoted to caring for people it is difficult to find a good balance between building a relationship with the patient and maybe even becoming attached to distancing oneself from a patient and becoming indifferent. When faced with death everyday one has to find ways to cope.
I do hope that the staff continues to cope with the dire situation and of course, hopefully one step at a time, the situation at Ola During Children’s Hospital will improve and child mortality will start to decrease. Maybe someday deaths will not be a part of daily life in Sierra Leone. One day. I just hope that until that day comes the doctors, nurses and other staff will continue to endure under such trying circumstances.
Posted by Sandra Lako, Welbodi Medical Coordinator in Sierra Leone