Today I spent a few hours on-site, and no surprise here, I left inspired and eager to share with you the things I saw, heard, and felt while I was there. I was only there for four hours, and I left convinced of the following:
#1:This program must go on. We must expand to new locations. We must continue this, exactly this, and better than this.
#2: Moms are the bravest and most selfless breed of human. There is no-one like them. The things I saw mothers do for their children today were beyond comprehension, beyond love, something even more visceral than even that. I witnessed emotions I couldn't name. Love, yes, but love all wrapped up in contradiction. Elation and focus. Fear and peace. Humility and super human strength. Hope and contentment. Clearly, what moms have going on is something I won’t fully understand until I am one.
Which brings me to #3. These moms, with poop in their laps and slimy kisses on their faces, made being a parent look absolutely irresistible.
What's #4? I'll get there.
Second Mile is something special. I've always been of the belief that, if moms were able to stay with their children as they recovered from severe acute malnutrition and that if they were the ones driving the recovery, that something powerful would happen between the pair. The "being there" and the "doing it" mixed with a positive outcome, pride for self, and a newfound appreciation for the fighting powers of her child would produce a spark!, a sort of magical, protective force that would guard the child against future episodes of severe acute malnutrition.
Simply put, the moms wouldn't let it happen again.
Of course, key ingredients (knowledge and income) would also help.
I remember the story written by one of our nurses recently, that recounted a conversation she'd had with a mother whose child very nearly died multiple times during his rehabilitation. The scariest of the photos, taken just after one hospitalization and just before another, was shown to the mom during her last week at the center. It was a reminder of how far she'd come.
The photo brought her to tears and the nurses rushed to make her feel better. She should be happy, they said. After all, her son was alive and well and she knew exactly how to keep him that way. The mom reassured the nurses. She was happy, she promised. And then she added this gem of a remark. “I love him even more now.”
Now either you're thinking: what a terrible mother! How could she admit to loving her son on a sliding scale of not so much to even more!? or, you're thinking: this is a perfectly normal sentiment and you find it absurd that I’ve chosen to highlight such an everyday parental feeling. If you’re in boat #2, I’m with you.
Of course, she loved him even more now! Each time we go through something tough, each time we almost loose a loved one, each time we experience something hard, something that brings us through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, don’t we bond with those who share our experience? Doesn't that strengthen our feelings toward them, love or otherwise? Don’t we feel proud of our loved ones when they prove themselves remarkable? Don’t we love them more?
Myson did prove himself remarkable. And so did his mother. They shared a life-defining experience filled with highs and lows and she came out loving her son even more.
Which brings me to mom #2. This mom seemed distant at first and not overly compassionate towards her underweight and stunted 5 year old son. During the first days, she kept the program at arms length. In addition to her son, she had two other (healthy) children with her, a 3 year old daughter, and a breastfeeding baby. It was almost as if the the five year old, especially the fact that he was sick, was an inconvenience. Truthfully, it was. She had a lot on her plate. She had a family of mostly healthy children, a huge responsibility and clearly she wasn't a bad mother. These children, even the sick one, were sweet and full of smiles. Still, his progress wasn't exactly fast, and I wondered if there would come a day when she wouldn't be able to wait on her middle child (there were still older children at home) any longer.
But she kept coming back. She attended every class without fail and became immeshed in the fabric of the center.
Just after lunch today, I overheard her describing to another mother something the 5 year old had done. Seriously and with admiration in her voice, she shared.
“He brought me a chair."
"He walked over to me and handed me a chair. He told me, 'sit down Mama, you’re breastfeeding.'”
"He did that."
She repeated the story twice. I thought she might cry. She didn’t say this in a my-child-is-better-than-your-child tone. She sounded genuinely surprised by her son, honestly touched, truly in love.
I caught her admiring him throughout the afternoon..
...as he ate his Mamba.
....as he played with his siblings
...as he dominated in a game of kick ball.
With the family together-- with the baby who was breastfeeding and the 3 year old sister who was clearly a close friend-- mom began to discover pieces of her son's personality that were hiding under illness and disguised by the fatigue of a failing body. She waited it out. Now he’s momma’s helper. He’s polite. He’s a good soccer player. And he's funny. And it all played out with the family together.
At around 2:30 pm "the mother of the tiny baby" returned from the hospital. The staff had sent them to the hospital assuming that the baby, at less than 3 lbs, would be admitted for treatment. But, with several public hospitals on strike, the private hospital where we send children for admission had a full neonatal unit. The term neonate (a baby less than 4 weeks old), doesn't actually describe this baby at all.
He's now more than 100 days old.
Born prematurely at 28 weeks (6.5 months), he's already accomplished what 2.6% percent of children born in Haiti find impossible: life passed the 30 day mark.
I had to see him for myself. When I located his room (not an easy task now that there are 11), he was enveloped in receiving blankets so that one couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. His skin, rubbery with a glossy sheen, didn’t look human. I lifted the blanket to verify when his Mom caught me. “Are you scared?” she asked with a grin. And that’s when I learned that she was not.
I watched her change him and feed him, weigh him, and dress him. She was not scared. He was hers. She’d been with him during her pregnancy. All 6 weeks and 15 days. She pushed him into the world and stayed with him during the 45 days he spent in intensive care. No amount of bony ribs, unworldly wailing, or baby vomit, could shock her now. She knew him and she knew what he was capable of. We may have been shocked. She was not.
At the same nursing station, there was a mom taking her exit test. Her baby had reached her goal weight and they wouldn't be coming back to the center on Monday. The exit test is mostly questions straight out of the health education classes. But there are two un-scored questions that are just for us. "What hopes and dreams do you have for your child?"
Who doesn’t love to hear that?
And "how did the center help you?"
These questions are just as important as testing whether the caregivers have captured the important health messages. After all, these women have spent anywhere from 4 weeks to 3 months with us, it's important to hear their side of the experience.
When asked How did the center help you?, this particular mother acknowledged everyone from the cooks to the security guards and thanked the nursing staff by name. "I have nothing negative to say. You valued my baby. You respected me."
Hidden by a computer screen I was able to pretend that I wasn't paying attention. In reality I was eating this up. It's a reflection of Second Mile's upstanding staff members to hear a mom say that she felt respected. Even though I know they’re awesome, it was nice for the staff to get such a rave review.
Respect. That's the goal.
By 3:30 pm Moms had started to convene in the education building. I'd already sat through half of a health education class, and by the looks of it, I would also catch the start of the daily literacy session.
Both classes had me in awe. I enjoyed hearing mothers dialogue during the health class. They asked questions. They wanted... no, they needed... to know this critical information.
But literacy class... it knocked me off my feet a little bit.
The average years of schooling achieved by caregivers admitted into our program is 3.
And more than half of the women cannot read or write. Literacy class is an opportunity for mothers of all ages to learn and practice these skills in a safe and respectful environment.
There was just something about the way the mothers made literacy class their own. They were in it together: 20 moms ranging in age from 16 to 67, from 0 years of formal education to 11. They sat at the tables with pens and notebooks and a few took to the chalkboard. The class had split somewhat organically. A mom with a baby in her arms led half the mothers in recognition and repetition of numbers and letters.
On the other side of the chalkboard the more advanced students submitted homework, and brushed up on math skills.
The kids were all there. Sitting on tables and cradled in the crook of non-dominant arms. There was focus. It's not easy to learn a new skill. But reading and writing is something these moms clearly wanted--for themselves and for their children.
The various women I observed today-- 16 years old and handling her 2 lb son without an ounce of fear, 67 years old and plugging away at some of the alphabets more challenging letters, 20 years old, with education booklet in hand helping mothers study for the exit test... 33 years old, stepping up to the chalkboard, sharing literacy with her peers --- they impressed me.
We're just a few days shy of May, a month for mothers. It's time to honor them. It's time to get their heroic acts #trending in the media. I just found out that today is National Superhero day. I didn't know that was a thing, but I think the discussion fits. Moms are heroes. I can't speak for moms the world over but I can share my highest praise this group.
Today they kept their babies tucked under mosquito nets. They attended classes.
They offered each other advice. They accepted each other's advice.
They carried water. They boiled water. They washed.
They prepared for visits to the hospital. They learned about their children's prescriptions.
They spent time with the nurses. They talked about business. They pressed coconut oil.
They laid out clean blankets, washed by hand with love, to protect their children while they slept.
They encouraged one another. And they played with their kids.
And they did all of it in four hours.
In case you didn't already reach this conclusion yourself, Moms are heroes. They should be supported. They shouldn't have to watch their babies die of malnutrition. And they shouldn't have to be separated from them.
We call this "The Second Mile" but shouldn't it be our first response?