If you’re a facebooker and follow the Karibu Centre posts or see my status updates then you will know that on Monday we got the devastating news that one of our vulnerable pregnant moms had a nonviable baby.
She was 40 weeks when she got the diagnosis, a day away from her estimated due date. She had felt the baby moving just 2 days previous and had pains like her body was preparing for labor.
After 2 full days of being poked, prodded, and taking a variety of medications to induce labor, she delivered a baby boy this morning. Stillborn.
The doctor called our house and let us know.
I went first thing in the morning with Naomi, our housemother who watches after the girls. Our girl was sitting on a bed with another women and her baby, in the room where women go after delivering.
Can you imagine? You’ve just finally delivered a stilborn baby after 48 hours of finding out, and then you are expected to “recover” in a room of about 15 women and their newborns. Torture.
I asked the mom if she had a chance to see or hold the baby. She replied, “No, I was too scared” which isn’t surprising considering that in most hospitals in Kenya a woman labors alone and is told very little of what is going on.
I asked if she might like to see the baby, if we were with her. “Yes,” she replied.
The housemother and I went to the nursing staff (4 employees sitting at a desk in the hall chatting like it was happy hour at a bar) and inquired if we might see the baby. “It’s in the nursery” they asked. “Uh, no……it’s dead,” I replied. Seriously, I have to say these kinds of things???? Thank God the mom wasn’t standing there with us. They looked back at me with this look on their face that read CRAZY WOMAN and said, “You want to SEE it?”
Now I guess that it might seem strange to someone, but my reasoning was twofold. One, you never know what goes on in these kinds of places and I wanted to see with my own two eyes the condition of the baby and that it was actually deceased. Two, this mother had carried this baby for 40 weeks and it seemed pretty reasonable that she might hold it or at least look at it if she chose. That whole bit about acknowledging grief and what an incredible loss this had been for her.
We (myself, housemother and mother of the baby) went to locate the morgue where they said the baby had been taken. We were stopped by the man in charge who indicated that it was much too busy currently with people picking up bodies for funerals. I thought, “Really? She can’t take a minute to say goodbye to her baby?”
I really didn’t understand what was going on, although I should have read between the lines. The housemother walked the mother and I back towards the maternity ward and we left the mother to go check on another girl that we had brought to the clinic for her well-baby check up. The housemother and I walked towards the van, but then she veered off on the entrance road like she was leaving the hospital.
She looked back at me as I was going towards the van and the well-baby clinic and motioned for me to come with her. “What are you doing,” I asked. “The doctor is meeting us” she replied, and proceeded to walk outside of the hospital grounds to one of the main roads. We walked a short distance on the dirt shoulder of the road, passing the line of matatus that were waiting to pick passengers up. And then I realized we were going to the public entrance of the morgue. We came to an opening in the hedge, and the opening to the morgue, and there I saw a huge gathering of people. All waiting to view and possibly pick up their deceased for burial. It was quite a sight. I imagine for them too. When have they ever seen a white chick at the morgue with her tiny baby strapped onto her chest Kenyan style?
The housemother and I went inside and she said a few words to the man we had seen earlier who had said it was “too busy” for us. Ahhhh, I thought. I got it then. He didn’t want the mother with us. The man proceeded to speak to the housemother in Swahili, speaking fast enough and with difficult enough words that I couldn’t understand what he was saying….but his tone and body language sad enough. He was annoyed and mad that we were bothering him.
The housemother came out and told me that we couldn’t see the baby because it was piled together with other ones in a bag. I shrank back from her in horror. “In a bag?” “Who put them all in a bag?” The housemother didn’t know and so I said we were going back in there to ask.
We went back into the “office” of the morgue where there was barely room for 4 people to stand. The man must have heard me and understood me because he said, “Ask your question.” I didn’t hear him at first, or realize that he was speaking to me so he repeated himself, quite forcefully.
I asked who had put the babies all together in a bag? The doctors? Nurses? Him?
Now that I think about it, he didn’t really answer that question but just said, “You can dig through and find the baby.” I thought he meant right then, so I started to follow him into the next room where I assumed the bodies were, and he turned around, pointed at me and yelled, “Not with her!”
Ok, he had a point.
I went outside and waited with the 30 or so Kenyans and took Ameena off of me in preparation for going inside. I handed her to our housemom Naomi with the awareness that everyone was watching me as I did so.
And then the man opened the door to the office, and the double louvered blue doors to the morgue “room” and the people formed a line and walked through the office door, through the morgue room and back out. They didn’t pause or look at anything that I could tell, they just passed through and were done.
One wooden coffin was brought out by a funeral company and placed in a van. I’m not sure what happens with the other bodies…if they remain or if they are collected later.
And then the man closed the double louvered doors to the morgue room. A few seconds later he appeared at the open door to the office and yelled in my direction. I assumed that meant I should go in. It did.
He led me into that morgue room which must have been about 10×10 feet in size with a medium table in the middle, a cabinet against the wall, a dirty bucket of water on a much dirtier floor. There was an adult body under the sheet behind me on a stretcher and another in the corner uncovered that I didn’t linger on.
Then the man went to a bright yellow plastic bag (about a 30 gallon one) and told me to look for the baby.
“That’s full of babies?”
“How many babies?”
He shrugged. He was so nonchalant I almost couldn’t handle it. But then again, this was his job, and this was everyday for him. “Maybe twenty,” he responded after a moment.
Suddenly another man appeared, and he opened the bag and started bringing babies out. My eyes welled up with tears and I covered my nose to avoid the smell that was permeating the entire room.
The babies were each wrapped in the lassos or kangas that the mothers had brought with them to the hospital. The kangas are used before delivery as a cover-up for the mother, at delivery to wrap the baby, and afterwards as a cover for the mother when they are going to shower or nurse. In this case, they remained with the baby after delivery. Each baby was swaddled completely in the kanga, and was labeled on their torso and on the wrap with a piece of tape indicating the name of the mother, the date of delivery, and where the delivery had occurred.
I asked if all of these babies were from the hospital today. The men replied no, that they were kept together for disposal. I cringe even typing that word, but that is the word I heard over, and over, and over today.
The 2nd man continued to pull babies from the bag. Tiny, tiny babies and also what appeared to be full term babies. One label read “home delivery”. I began to cry over the sight of each of those babies all stacked on each other in a bag as they were. Would we really find the baby? We were nearing the bottom of the bag and I was getting pretty nervous when the man finally pulled a little bundle out labeled with the name of our mother.
“That’s it” I told him.
He read the name to confirm. “Yes, that’s it.” I asked if he could open up the wrap so I could see the baby. He looked at me as if to say, “Really?” I nodded.
He opened the wrap and there inside was a little boy. Perfectly formed. Tiny, tiny, his face a miniature version of his mother. Still covered in lanugo and blood from birth. I asked the man to wash the baby off as I wanted to take a picture in the event that the mother wanted to see what the baby looked like. There was no way we could possibly bring her into this place to experience this. I wouldn’t and won’t tell her what it was like.
The man washed the baby with water from the bucket I had seen against the wall. I wanted to tell him to be gentle, but I didn’t. I wanted to take that dirty cloth from his hand and bathe the baby myself. But I didn’t. I couldn’t do anything.
I took 2 pictures.
He asked if they should preserve the baby. I said, “Yes.”
And that was it. We walked out of the morgue, and then I realized that Naomi had been with me, inside that room, without Ameena. I had a frantic moment where I was searching for who she might have given Ameena to, and then I saw an old woman sitting on the cement edge of a large flower bed, holding Ameena covered in the kanga I had used earlier as a sling to hold her in. I went to the woman, collected Ameena, and then Naomi and I left the dirt lot of the morgue and walked back to the hospital.
I then proceeded to collect the birth notice which indicated that the baby was born dead. Fortunately I knew exactly the form to get as I spent 2 full weeks fussing for Ameena’s birth notice in order to get her Kenyan birth certificate that was needed for US documents. The birth notice would be required of us in order to obtain a burial plot from the municipal council.
We returned to the young mother and told her that we had seen the baby and all discussed arrangements. Almost everyone here seems to prefer she forget about it, leave the baby at the hospital for disposal, and pretty much sweep the whole experience under the rug. She would have been pushed to do just that by everyone involved and likely discouraged from anything we consider normal grieving. I have demanded that we allow her to make the choice about what to do. I have made certain that she understands we will arrange for whatever she wants so that she can be allowed a healthy grieving process. She wishes to bury the baby. The young mother indicated that she couldn’t bear to think of her baby being “thrown away in the trash.” I don’t disagree with her choice one bit. I’m proud of this young mother’s strength and thankful that we can help her voice be heard and wishes respected.
I’m thankful that I was the one who went to the morgue, and saw that sight of the babies in the bag, and not this mother. I’m thankful that when and if she sees her little boy, he will be clean and wrapped neatly in a beautiful soft blanket inside a beautiful coffin. That her first and last visual memory of him will be him resting peacefully…just as I know his soul is.
I am thankful that we have been here at Karibu Centre and that we have helped so many women have safe and successful pregnancies. I am thankful that this young mother will have a funeral for her baby surrounded by loving staff and fellow young mothers. I am thankful for the prayers of comfort and peace that have been prayed for us all this week.