Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Let me introduce you to Santiago, age 5-months

Saturday, January 8th, 2011. Near Chiché, Quiche Guatemala. At 6:20 am on Saturday, Frank and I drove out of Antigua, and began a trek designed to orientate me to our Infant Nutrition Program (INP). At just after 9 am, we arrived in Santa Cruz del Quiché, the bustling commercial capital of the Department (State) of Quiché. Twice along the way the four lane highway was reduced to two where repair work was underway to replace 500 yard stretches of roadway that, following heavy rains, had plummeted into the valleys, and in some instances, the homes below. In Santa Cruz we were joined by Diego Aurelio Cordova Toma, a Guatemalan nursing student who is one of the Rural Coordinators of our INP. It would be Aurelio who would introduce me to the families of two infants – Santiago Isaias (age 5-months, shown at left with his mother Josefa Morales Guarcas) and Mely Tzalam (age 4 months) – both of whom were born with clef lips and palates so severe that their mouths were unable to latch on to their mother’s breast. As a student at Boston College, I had frequently spent long afternoons at the Kennedy Library. There I had seen the archival footage of Bobby Kennedy’s journey into the heart of Appalachia, used to demonstrate his awakening to the shocking condition that some American families lived in. Today, walking into this remote Aldea (small village), I too was startled by the poverty around me. I will write more about Mely in the March 2011 edition of our newsletter. Here I will share a little bit of the Isaias’ story.

The Isaias’ home is five kilometers from the nearest paved road and over 300 yards from the small adobe church where we parked our car. It’s about 300 yards from the well that serves the surrounding area. Their home is constructed of mud, stick, cardboard and plastic. Their “kitchen” consisted of an open fire on the packed mud floor. The Isaias family, like the other families in this tiny rural enclave, are without work because of the dry conditions that currently exist in this agricultural region. I was startled by the poverty. I was also struck by the wealth of spirit, generosity, pride and playfulness I witnessed (pictures of my visit will be posted to this blog upon my return to the states next week).

I was immediately drawn to Santiago, noticing at the same time his beautiful, brightly alert eyes and what looked like the tip of a pinky finger protruding out of his mouth. Often thought of as an unsightly facial deformity, the severe form of clef lip and palate that Santiago was born with can be a death sentence because he cannot latch on to his mother’s breast. The survival rate for children like Santiago is grim. Market rate formula, let alone the supplies needed to prepare and serve it, are financially out of reach. Partner for Surgery’s INP offers Santiago and children like him their only chance for a normal life.

Santiago was born at home with the assistance of a mid-wife. Once he came to the attention of Aurelio in December, when he was four months old, he and his family were entered into our program and immediately brought, for the first time ever, to a hospital where he was evaluated against standards of healthy infant development. He was then sent home with the same chart that parents of children in the U.S. receive during their child’s first healthy-visit to a pediatrician, usually on or around the third day after birth.

The goal of our INP is to perform the facial and respiratory passage surgery needed to close the palate and nasal cavity and construct a full upper lip. Even infants who survive into childhood remain at risk of respiratory infection if the palate is not closed. An underweight child will not survive the reparative surgery that a volunteer surgical team can provide. Aurelio’s job is to work with Santiago’s parents to usher the child toward nutritional stability and normal weight benchmarks, providing them with low or no cost formula and the skills they need to use it effectively.

Aurelio began by teaching Santiago’s parents how to properly prepare and serve the formula. During each return visit – one to two times a month – he’ll weigh Santiago and chart his overall growth. He’ll also continue to instruct the family in safe preparation of the formula. I look forward to the day when I meet the post-surgery Santiago and he returns my smile with one as beautiful as the dark bright eyes that followed me around as he sat peacefully in his mother’s lap on Saturday. In my next posting, I will be sharing my first ever observation of a surgical mission in action. (Brian Carome is Director of US Operations at Partner for Surgery, a not-for-profit organization based in McLean, VA and operating in Guatemala. He will be writing here about his visit to Guatemala through January 12th.)

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