Fighting for the life of a child in Africa

Narrrated by Dr Lemma (based on a true story)

As usual I was responsible for the whole emergency room, adults and children although I was just an intern! That was the expectation. It was business as usual until a child arrived in distress. He was very young, held tightly by his mother who was sobbing and desperate for help. You don’t have to be a doctor to tell that the child was very sick. His chest jumped up and down, his belly moved in and out, he had high fever. I could hear the abnormal sound in his lungs with my stethoscope. It was severe pneumonia, a major childhood killer.

He needed antibiotics right away! More urgent, he needed supplemental oxygen! I knew there were a few oxygen tanks in the hospital. I went around looking for one and couldn’t find any. I was nervous. I ran to the adult ward and came across a room with a patient on oxygen who was chatting with his extended family. He had chronic lung problem but was recovering. He was on 2 litres of oxygen.
I knew this was my only opportunity to save the child. I politely approached the family and started to explain about the sick child who required oxygen to save his life. I continued and said this is the only oxygen tank available in the hospital and would like to borrow it for short time. The patient and his extended family reacted angrily; they grabbed the oxygen tank and held it tight. The younger relatives told me to leave and threatened to harm me if I touch the oxygen tank. Helpless I tried to explain a little more… “Look he won’t be harmed if he is not on oxygen for few hours! He does not need the oxygen all the time…he is recovering but this could save the life of the child!” It was not enough. I noticed some of the youngsters were standing up and swearing…
I was desperate, frustrated and helpless. I left the room. I still could hear the grunting of the child through the hallway. I had asked the nurse to give him the first dose of antibiotics ASAP. His mother must have wondered about my whereabouts?

“Did the doctor abandon my child?”

I wish she knew what I was going through but there was no time to explain. Suddenly I had an idea! The guards! The guards are the only armed members of the medical team. They are the ones that accompanied us at night to walk on dark streets in the vicinity of the hospital. I walked to the onduty officer in haste almost startling him. He immediately recognized me but was surprised by the urgency of the visit.

“I need help! Patient’s family is threatening to harm me!”

There was no further discussion; he followed me to the room where the adult patient was with his family. He asked the family members to leave immediately except his mother who sat next to the patient. They had to obey, after all he was armed. No question, no explanation.

“Mother, this won’t hurt your son but it will save the life of a child…” She agreed with hesitation.
The patient followed after he sensed that he had no option,

“You can take it but bring it soon.”

I did not waste any time. I immediately grabbed the oxygen tank and ran to the child in the emergency room. Mission accomplished.

The child made it.

In that stressful day, I learned a lesson that there will always be a conflict when resources are scarce but have to give everything to save a life!

About Tenayistilign

I am a physician trained at Jimma Institute of Health Sciences ( now Jimma University, in Jimma, Ethiopia) and Wayne State University ( Detroit, MI, USA). I teach and practice General Nephrology/Hypertension and Kidney Transplantation in the USA.
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