February 17, 2009

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nurse Pia Engebrigtsen worked for two months as a nurse in Zimbabwe's Masvingo province during the country's ongoing massive cholera outbreak. This was the Norwegian nurse’s fourth mission with MSF.

I was awakened in the night by a phone call from a nurse on night duty who had been told that four children were seen along the road too sick to continue their walk to the nearest CTU.

It is absolutely pitch-dark here at night; we did not know where the children were and we have night curfew, so we had to wait until sunrise to go looking for them. The hours passed slowly while I pictured the children lying sick, frightened and helpless all alone in the dark.

I prepared myself for the worst and together with a national colleague I set off at dawn with first aid equipment and body bags.

We found them in a village after searching for two hours -- six children and a mother who were more or less unconscious. Some of the children we were not able to arouse, while the others were awake but too weak to speak or move. The children were lying in the arms of the mother. Inside the house we found the father dead. We also found their neighbour unconscious.

We started intravenous fluid treatment and we had to get them all urgently to the clinic. I will assume that they all would have been dead if we had come a few hours later. There was not enough space in the car so we had to put them more or less on top of each other to make room for them all. We were about an hour's bumpy drive away from the nearest cholera treatment center. As we drove the metal floor of the car became burning hot and I tried to gather as many children as possible in my lap while I was also securing airways for them to breathe and making sure that their IV drips were running. Two of the children vomited uncontrollably. I felt so sorry for the family and could not hold the tears back, the reality was too bad.

The neighbour passed away soon after we got to the hospital, but the mother and the children were cured after several days. The mother said that she had lost her husband the same night that she and her children fell ill. Her husband and the neighbour had participated in a funeral for a cholera victim some days earlier. She realized that the disease was deadly and tried to find a way to get to the nearest clinic, which was about 50 km away. But she had no money and her neighbours where not willing to transport her with their donkey carts as they feared contracting the disease. She said she quickly became weak and was no longer able to walk the distance by foot. She was left with no other possibility than to wait for death to come and relieve them. We came the next morning and she said she could hardly believe it when she first saw the car and realised we were coming for them.