The early morning air was chilly as I roused from an hour’s sleep at 4 am and set about preparing my daughter for her first post hospital discharge appointment with her Paediatricians. The Paediatric Outpatient Department aka POPD of the National Hospital Abuja gets really crowded on clinic days. The fact that doctors don’t attend to more than 40 patients on any given clinic day made it expedient to always get there early and clinch an early spot. For appointments which begun at 10 am, we made it a point of duty to get to the clinic for 6. On this fateful day, we were a few minutes late but early enough to get the number three spot on the list.
By 8 am, the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) on duty started calling in patients to take babies’ weight measurement and other vital signs. Five patients were called into the room at a time, meaning that I was in the room with four other mothers and their babies. Now, my daughter was small. And when I say small, I mean small. On this day, she was 3 months, 18 days old but she looked and actually was smaller than a neonate born at full term. But her size was the issue; this story would not have such prominence in my diary and life. When I undressed her to put on the scale, I heard gasps. She was bony and her rib cage was very transparent. She was really sickly at birth and had all sorts of intravenous medications. Hence, she had ugly bruises on her scalp from shavings for setting of IV lines.. My daughter was bruised and battered. Not a very good sight to behold of a baby.
Then the CNO, to the utter consternation of the other women, spoke out “good; She weighs 1.45 Kg”. And just as my heart welled up with gratitude to God for an added 300 grams (.3kg) over a month, I heard it: “what kind of a child is this?” I picked my daughter up, turned and stared straight into the eyes of the woman who made that heart rending and joy killing statement. Of course I didn’t say a word. What was I to say? I probably would have thought same were I in her shoes. Well, probably wouldn’t have let my thoughts through my mouth and if I did voice them, I’m sure I’d have done that with so much more tact and grace.
I felt bad in my spirit. Oh! ‘Bad’ doesn’t quite describe that feeling; I was broken inside and felt ‘unloved’ by God. And wondered how special to God other women were that they had full term pregnancies and healthy deliveries. I couldn’t fathom why my daughter had to go through so much just to weigh 1.45 Kg over 106 days post partum while other babies were born at a minimum of 2.5 Kg. I fought back the tears as these and more thoughts chased themselves about in my head. I looked into my daughter’s eyes and I saw strength, love, gratitude in them; indeed, her tiny, bony, scar-ridden body spoke only of courage, resilience and will. The look in those tender, warm, innocent eyes and the message conveyed by the beautiful encased in a not-so-perfect body transported me back in time to when the journey started. In that instant, she smiled. A pure, true, and sweet smile, it dispelled every trace of sadness and filling my heart once again with joy and gratitude.
The experience was basically the same with appointment kept, but with slight dissimilarities in intensity. As with all of life’s lessons, each time toughened me up for the next;I developed a thick skin and loved my daughter no less than those whose babies were big, and beautiful to the sight. The positive thing for me was this: I knew that we couldn’t be the only ones facing such form of discrimination and stigmatisation because of what our babies look(ed) like. And this message is for all such mothers.
I recognise that people have an image of what a new born baby should look like. But if yours, or that of someone you know, does not fit into, remember:
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO HIDE YOUR BABY JUST BECAUSE S/HE DOESN’T FIT SOCIETY’S EXPECTATION
Love your child no less than the one who was born at term. And when you find yourself in an environment with a preemie mum whose baby is a little too tiny and/or looks sickly, be nice: offer words that uplift the spirit. Make them realise their story isn’t so bad; if you have a success story like I have, share with them. BE A SUPPORT SYSTEM for preemies and their care givers.
Today my daughter is 3 years, 8 months and 4 days old. She’s healthy, very active and full of life. I share her story with every preemie mum who is passing though what I experienced and like a miracle, I see hope reignited in hitherto weary eyes. At such times, I thank God for the flippant tongue of that woman with the lovely, healthy baby in the POPD unit of National Hospital, Abuja on that beautiful harmattan morning of Tuesday, December 8 2009.
– First published online in September, 2014.