Gabriel was a 9 month old little boy, loved and adored by his Shona-speaking mother and out-of-work father; chubby and doted on. One evening he pulled a full paraffin lamp onto himself, the fuel and flames engulfed his body and worse still, as he opened his mouth to scream, he inhaled the flames. His whole body was burned, including his chin, lips, mouth and throat. He could not suck to breast feed, his lips are badly blistered, his chin exposed flesh and there was no point on his body where the doctor could put in an intra venous drip to give him fluids and nutrients. Jenny Mortleman, a burns ward volunteer of one month at Mutare Hospital in Zimbabwe, supplied a mini-medical starter pack and two days later demand to know why he has not been dressed and medicated.
One of the nurses told her that this was the procedure for this kind of burn. Two more days passed and on the third day that she went in, she saw he had been dressed, his whole body like a mummy, even his hands and feet. He was grunting in pain and his eyes kept rolling. She felt totally helpless. His mum desperately dribbled liquid off a spoon into his mouth, to try to rehydrate him. Through a translator she told Jenny how traumatic the ‘dressing’ process was and how she had collapsed during the experience.
Jenny wrote: “Like a coward (and a mother) I refused to even begin to imagine what it must have been like for her as the nurses took her baby, stripped off old clothing, burnt flesh, washed his raw body in betadine, covered him in cream and then dressed him. All of this on a single dose of over the counter Paracetamol.”
Burdened, she was unable to sleep at night, thinking of this little cherub, tossing and turning, feelings of anger at the injustice of it all, feelings of total desperation, questioning God and his reason. Then it came to her, they needed to use a syringe to feed Gabriel, like one does an animal that has lost its mother, so on Saturday she took some milk and yogurt to the hospital to at least try it out.
The mother and other mothers on the ward complained how Gabriel had cried all the previous night and all that day. They tried the syringe thing and laughed together as they realised how starving this little soul was as he consumed each drop placed between his lips. Jenny said; “He was so beautiful I thought he was a girl!”
With no spillage on his raw chin and in a position where the liquid could run freely down his throat, he could not get enough. And the best part was the wind he passed in satisfaction!
On Sunday night Jenny had fed the baby liquid egg, milk and sugar from a syringe. He seemed agitated and was moving his one arm up and down a lot. She thought that his bandages were bothering him as they were badly strapped and he was in pain.
On Monday August 27th 2007, a little angel Gabriel died.
The doctor said that he had inhaled the paraffin fumes and his lungs were damaged. Jenny wrote: “His breathing seemed fine to me. But then I am only a mother and have no medical experience.”
When she arrived at the ward that morning, she held his broken mother and they sobbed together. It was all rather bewildering. She wrote: “I am doing this ‘blind’ and this is my first loss. . . . “
Jenny is a single mum of three, working full day, fitting in the burns children and their requirements, and only being able to email when there is electricity. These days in Zimbabwe, that’s not often!
Before Gabriel, there were other stresses. Jenny wrote:
“Yesterday my heart wept ~ In trying to catch up with the doctor on rounds duty, I went to the hospital at 9am, not a usual time for me to go to the hospital. No delighted little squeals or little bodies came to meet me – which of late has been the usual routine. Two little girls, (who when we started helping, were bed ridden their burns so severe, had come along so miraculously, that they are now just waiting for skin grafting operations) both four years old ‘run’ to meet me and try help carry the parcels I have ~ but this day I was met by a tense silence. . . .
“Each child was in various states of undress, all wounds exposed, anxious expressions and a couple of tears. It was ‘dressing day’ and every child was taken individually by a nurse or two to the ‘dressing room’ where their burns are washed with betadine, then the burns cream (SSD cream) is applied and they are re-bandaged. It is a traumatic time for both child and mother. This process I appreciate is a necessity, but gives the true meaning to “being cruel to be kind!”
“It is so humbling to see an anxious child standing (if they are able) naked, with burns of various degrees, wounds from skin that has been removed from one area to graft on another, ‘bubbles’ of flesh exposed and ready to be treated, yet still able to smile and be excited by my arrival. Horribly heart wrenching.
Ten month old Merit recently had his legs amputated. Nothing prepared me for what I saw. A little boy lying naked, holding up exposed stumps, waiting to be dressed again. The doctor had not had enough skin to flap over and sew up. I now could see why. There was no skin, he was raw flesh on his groin area, the doctors have removed all burned flesh (to prevent rotting) and subsequently left him with raw little stumps. He still smiled at me as I talk to him; I was unable to even begin to comprehend the kind of pain he must be in. His mother, a single out of work mother of 10 month old twins, with no visiting relatives, already overwhelmed, still had to gently pick up her son and take him to the ‘dressing room’. . . all alone. Absolutely humbling. We complain if the milk turns sour! But we can make a difference and friends have – funding the operation, pain relief for him, antibiotics, creams and bandages, food and prayers. Merit still has a long road ahead of him, one of skin grafts, pain, and a life of being disabled but this need not be a handicap. Many of you know folk who are disabled but have grown into stronger, better people as somewhere in the healing process SOMEONE made a difference. That is our job.”
When I go to the hospital today, I pray and hope for a happier, more relaxed atmosphere, all freshly bandaged, full tummies and children as comfortable as we are endeavoring to make them. . . Jenny M
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” Romans 12:12