Katherine Franklin is a medical doctor from Melbourne who recently returned from her second placement with Médecins Sans Frontières, where she spent four months in Wau, South Sudan. Katherine describes two patients she met who made an impact on her.
“We had this awful couple of days when the isolation tent was full of patients with measles. Unfortunately, there were some children who were infected with measles before the mass vaccination campaign and struggled with the disease for a long time before passing away. There was this one 18-month-old boy who was very, very sick. As well as measles, he had awful pneumonia. The severity of his measles meant that his skin also peeled off like a burn. He was so sick, everyday I went into the tent and was scared he would have died overnight. People called him the little Khawaja (white person) because as he recovered, his healing skin was white. The boy next to him died from exactly the same thing. We admitted a girl on the other side of him and she died within an hour of coming in. Then another child in the tent just opposite him died, all within 15 hours. There was this one boy left who had empty beds around him. Each day when I walked in, his mother would point at the empty beds and then at her son – it was her way of asking if the same thing would happen to her son. I didn’t think he would live.
"At 11 months old she weighed in at 3.2 kilograms, which is the weight of a newborn baby"
One morning I walked in and I found him curled up in the bed with a little packet of Plumpy’Nut (therapeutic food) in his hands, like how you would hold a teddy bear. He was finally hungry and was eating. That was the morning I hoped he might actually get better, and he did. Little tiny bit by tiny bit he would eat. Then he started to sit up, then he made it outside with his mum and his mum finally started to smile. She usually had this face of the mothers who know they are going to be taking home their children’s bodies. But he survived. His brothers and sisters came and took the boy home. He has been there a total of 21 days.
Another patient I recall was a 12-month-old girl, Victoria* who was admitted for the treatment of severe acute malnutrition. As well as the malnutrition, Victoria had laryngeal tuberculosis (TB). I’ll never forget the sound she made as she struggled to breathe. She was very sick. We could not feed her. We could not do anything to help her breathing, just treat her TB and hope. At 11 months old she weighed in at 3.2 kilograms, which is the weight of a newborn baby. We had a nasogastric tube in to feed her because her breathing was so bad. She kept pulling it out, so we had to bandage her hands. She lay in the intensive care unit on oxygen for three weeks before she was slightly better. Victoria’s father spent every day in the hospital feeding her little bit by little bit with her nasogastric tube. She started to get better and one day sat up - with a lot of blankets for support! She got better, which was so unlikely. She began to put on weight and her breathing improved. She stayed with us for 28 days. The last thing she did as she left was put her hand up and wave goodbye. She is a strong girl with eyes that look right into you. I will never forget her.”
* Name has been changed to protect privacy