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Mbali means flower in Zulu. It describes the little girl I held in my arms as she past perfectly. Gentle, delicate and only able to bloom for a short period of time. I first met Mbali two weeks before she passed away. It was my first day in South Africa and at TLC, the child’s home I would be calling home for the next few months of my life. Young, bright-eyed and bushy tailed and not really knowing what I was getting myself into, it was my first time in an orphanage (although I hate that term and hate it being applied to TLC). I was over-whelmed by the sites
and sounds – all the children playing and crying at the same time.
I was partnered with, Ester, a young volunteer from Germany who had lived at TLC for six months. She alone was caring for eight young babies between the ages of two and five months. She taught me about their feeding schedule, their needs and personalities. All of the eight babies had been transferred there from the same hospital in the same week. The hospital was in a very poor section of Johannesburg and had a number of highly contagious viruses passing through the pediatric wards at the time so the children where set up in a little room removed from the rest of the nursery – so as to not spread anything they had gotten from the hospital to the other children at TLC. As Ester taught me about the children I was in awe of how she seemed to know everything about each of the kids. She explained that Nathanael had trouble sleeping and had a blood curtailing scream. Payton was the smallest, born extremely prematurely, and slept all the time. And Mbali, she was very, very sick – she wouldn’t eat and was becoming very dehydrated. She told me all about Joanna, who worked at TLC and did not have a lot of formal training with the health issues of babies and children but had years of working with the babies at TLC. It was Joanna’s responsibility to determine if Mbali needed to go to the hospital. A few minutes later Joanna flew into the room. Mbali was quickly whisked off to the hospital – Joanna was afraid that without medical intervention she would pass in the next few hours. I was scared, to say the least. It was a jolt of reality like I had never had before.
Two weeks later I had gotten my bearings a little bit – I’d gotten into the groove of 12 hour shifts of feeding, changing and playing with little ones for six days a week. It was now my turn to do the nigh shift – a 13 hour shift (day and night shift volunteers over-lap for a one hour period everyday) during which volunteers do much of the same work they do during the day – feed, change and play with babies.
That same day Mbali returned from the hospital. The hospital did not return her because she had improved. They returned her to TLC because they knew they couldn’t do anything for her. The hospital needed the beds for children they felt they could actually help. At four months of age, having been abandoned by her mother at birth, Mbali was being left for dead by the best hospital staff in Sub-Saharan Africa. There was no room to try to care for her any longer.
Arriving for my night shift I was told Mbali was being cared for by Thea, the amazing woman who started TLC, but that soon they would be bringing Mbali to me to care for her during the night. I would receive training on how to feed her through the tube the hospital had inserted and if I needed anything during the night I could find Thea or her daughter Pippa. About an hour later Pippa brought Mbali in to me. She explained how to feed her through the tube and explained that I needed to pay extra special attention to her that night and continued to say that if I needed anything to have one of the other volunteers come find her. A few hours later I was holding Mbali and trying to feed another child when I noticed her breath was short and weak. Suddenly and calmly, there in my arms she let out one last breath. And that was it. She was gone. I called to one of the other volunteers to go find Pippa. A few of the other babies were crying but I was afraid to put her down – I wasn’t ready to leave her. I hadn’t yet known her. The other babies kept crying. I tried to care for them while holding her but it wasn’t working. Where was Pippa? I needed to decide, hold her after her death or care for the others. I put her down and picked up another child. I’m sure it was just a matter of minutes, but it felt like forever until Pippa came in. I looked at her scared, “She’s gone” I said. Pippa hugged me, said she expected it to happen but just not that quickly. She whisked her away and I went back to my tasks. Just like that, Mbali had passed and I needed to move on. I had seven other children to care for and nine more hours of my shift. I continued…
I’d like to say I’d known her better. That I had spent months caring for her, that I had gotten to know her. I can tell you small things about her, the things I made myself learn so that someone knew them…the birthmark on her leg and the pleas to end the pain in her eyes. The truth is, no one knew her. Just like the thousands of orphans who pass away every day. They are nameless, faceless children. This month we are going to try to give the nameless, faceless children a voice. Some of the children you will hear about this month have already passed. Others are waiting for someone to step up and care for them, hoping for a family. I hope you take the steps this month to help these children – maybe you can’t adopt them but maybe you can help spread the word about their needs – do it everyday in memory of my little “flower.”
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