Sharon Walls, Mercy Ships NZ Communications Manager, is serving aboard Africa Mercy for a year with husband Graeme. Here she tells of her encounter with one of Mercy Ships’ patients in Madagascar:
Haingo became part of my heart as I watched and prayed through her journey to healing. She arrived to us tottering on the brink between life and death.
Haingo was born in a tropical downpour. Even in the hut’s dim light it was clear Hiango’s tiny mouth was slashed by a bi-lateral cleft lip. Her mother Viviaby’s joy turned to sadness, and her father immediately rejected the newborn saying, “In our family we don’t have babies like this!”
No one in their Madagascan village had ever heard of this disfigurement. “Is it because of something that I did?” Vivaby wondered. “But I am a Christian, we have nothing taboo (cursed). If God gave her to me like she is, He knows how to take care of her.”
But the visible deformity was the least of Haingo’s problems.
The situation became dire as days passed and Haingo was unable to breastfeed because of her cleft palate. The hole in the roof of her mouth prevented Haingo from sucking. She cried incessantly. Her father said, ‘It’s not going to survive so you’d better kill it!” Her mother declared, “Let her live!”
Viviaby told me she kept Haingo alive with diluted canned milk – each can costing a day’s wages. Then she began to cook rice, grind it with sugar and feed it to the hungry baby. Still Haingo failed to thrive. “I did not have money to buy something good for her, recalls Viviaby. “She was getting more and more skinny. I was afraid, I was always praying.” At almost seven months old Haingo weighed only 2.2kg (under 5 lbs).
On every side Viviaby encountered superstition and cruel comments – until one day women who recently received free surgeries on the Mercy Ship walked by their secluded village. They heard about Haingo. “There is free treatment. You should bring your baby there!” they shared.
So for two days petite, courageous Viviaby carried her baby through rugged countryside to find transport to the Mercy Ships patient screening in her region.
The urgency of Haingo’s situation was assessed by screening coordinator Mirjam Plomp .
Our dietitians saved her life, & got her on track for surgery. Justine Forrest
“Haingo was seven months old, looked like she was only two months. I was surprised she was still alive. I realised we couldn’t do surgery straight away. She would have to be in our Infant Feeding Program to gain weight.” Haingo and her valiant mother accompanied the team returning to the Africa Mercy on a Mission Aviation Fellowship flight.
Mother and daughter were rushed onboard the hospital ship, and paediatric nurses began around-the-clock emergency nutrition. Shelby Olufson was charge nurse when Haingo was admitted. “She was so small! If you didn’t know her age you would think she was newborn.”
Viviaby slept well for the first time since Haingo’s birth. “They were feeding her with an (oral feeding) syringe because she couldn’t suck a bottle,” she explains. “Later they used a nursing bottle; they used milk from my breast. A nurse was feeding in the morning, a different one at lunch, and in the evening a different one. That’s how they took care of her.”
Haingo began to gain weight and become responsive. Viviaby talked with other mothers of cleft lip babies in the ward. She was comforted, and she no longer felt alone. After 10 days Haingo was stabilised and discharged to the Mercy Ships HOPE (Hospital Out Patients Extension) Centre. Haingo’s weight was tracked, her development and care discussed in the Infant Feeding Program (IFP). “I love seeing the transformation as the infants gain weight, get stronger and reach developmental milestones,” shares Jillian, one of the ship’s dietitians. She adds how impacted she is when the parents of these fragile babies begin to gain hope.
“Before, Haingo was crying a lot because she did not eat enough. But now she is happy! She has enough food!” exclaimed Viviaby.
As Haingo grew, she began to do all the heart-warming things that babies her age are purposed to. She tracks movement with eyes that were previously glazed, and waves ‘Veloma’ (goodbye) with the chubby arms that had been so frail. After five months Haingo reached 3.5 kg (7.7lbs), and the vital ‘average weight for height’ benchmark. At last she was strong enough to undergo operations to repair her cleft lip and part of her palate.
As Haingo came out of the first surgeries, Viviaby gathered her baby in her arms. “She’s beautiful!” was all the overwhelmed mother could say.
Haingo looked like a different baby after her lip operations (with the author – Sharon Walls). Pic Katie Keegan
When Viviaby and Haingo briefly returned to their village, Haingo’s four-year-old brother was distraught. “You exchanged my sister!” he accused, “It’s not my sister!” The villagers too were amazed by the extraordinary change in Haingo’s appearance. Viviaby explained the remaining surgery would fix all of the baby’s problems.
Palate surgery was vital for Haingo’s future well-being. Pic Justine Forrest
At 13 months old Haingo received her final free operation. Only now her palate is closed can she eat and drink normally. Only now does she have the ability to speak clearly. Only now can she purse her lips to kiss her mother.
Viviaby reflects, “Nobody believed someone could help Haingo. Without Mercy Ships, Haingo would have died. But my baby is healed!”