The first sight of 3-month-old Paul revealed a feather-light bundle cradled in his desperate mother’s arms. His skin was paper-thin and his body remarkably tiny. He weighed just over 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) – less than he had when he was first born.
The tiny baby was born with a cleft lip and palate that made it impossible for him to nurse properly. It was a mother’s worst nightmare – watching helplessly as her baby grew thinner and weaker.
“I didn’t understand why it was happening or what I could do to help him. I couldn’t breastfeed him properly. No matter what we did, he kept losing weight,” said his mother, Francoise, her eyes reflecting her weariness and fear. “We were so scared … we thought he would die.”
Despite the precariousness of his situation, this mother’s love knew no bounds. The hungry baby cried all night, so Francoise stayed up, rocking her tiny baby through the long nights with only the company of a kerosene lamp.
Baby Paul, like his mama, was a fighter. The Africa Mercy’s medical staff immediately recognized that his condition was critical. They brought him onboard before the hospital was even officially opened, so that they could monitor his temperature and feed him through a nose-to-stomach tube.
“The problem when they’re that small and weak is that they find it really difficult to suck. We fed him with a syringe and eventually got him to a special bottle made for babies with cleft lip and palate,” said Lee-Anne Borrow James, Infant Feeding Program dietician.
It was touch-and-go for a few days, but then the courageous little boy began to turn the corner toward healing. Once he was considered safe to leave the hospital, the dieticians checked Paul regularly to track his growth, measure the size of his head, arms and legs, assess his feeding, and continue suggesting methods for healthy weight gain.
Gradually, as the weeks passed, baby Paul began to visibly change. His formerly gaunt face was replaced by round cheeks. His hair grew thick and healthy. His formerly listless eyes were now glowing and content.
Paul wasn’t the only one being transformed. Hope bloomed in Francoise’s heart as she watched her baby slowly growing stronger. She dared to hope that this baby that people had once called “monster” would survive … this baby that was now adored by crew members and other patients. She said, “When I look at my baby, I can only cry – but it is tears of joy. Even I am gaining weight, now that I can eat and sleep!”
“The dynamic between dietician, mother and infant is a special one to be a part of,” says Lee-Anne. Many mothers struggle with believing that their baby’s condition is not their fault, but is instead something that occurred naturally and can be fixed. It took time for Francoise to trust the affirming words of the Mercy Ships dietician team. “It’s been amazing to watch over time how she’s worked very hard for her baby. She’s quite determined. She fiercely knows what she wants and what she needs to do,” said Lee-Anne.
Three months later, weighing a whopping 6.4 kilograms (14.1 pounds), Paul was three times the baby he was when he first arrived. He was once again carried up the gangway – this time, for a cleft lip repair that would restore his future and reward his mother’s courageous hope.
Story by Rose Talbot
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Saul Loubassa Bighonda and Shawn Thompson