“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”
-Dr. Suess, The Lorax

Friday, March 14, 2014

Little Girl, Big Lessons

This is a story about a little bitty girl and some big lessons she taught me.


In late July of 2012, this little peanut entered my world.
Her name is Marie-Carmene.   
She quickly became the real-life, in-my-face representation of the heartbreaking struggle that too many children in Haiti have to endure.

Her mother died shortly after childbirth.  After her mother's funeral, her aunt walked many hours with her to the clinic we were at, hoping to find a place that would take care of her until she was older, allowing a better chance for her to survive.  Even with a papa, it's well known that a child - especially a baby - has frightening odds stacked against her without her mama.  No mother equates to no breastmilk, and formula is nearly impossible for most families to afford. 

Quick Haiti facts*:
1 in 83 - women who will die due to childbirth.
430,000 - the total estimated number of orphans in Haiti in 2012.
31st - Haiti's worldwide rank of child (under 5 years) mortality rate.
Haiti has the worst maternal health statistics in the Western hemisphere, and among the worst in the world.
*Source: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/haiti_statistics.html

Marie-Carmene was about one week old and weighed 4lbs. 6 oz.  When she was handed to me to weigh, I was amazed at how this precious, tiny person seemed to be no bigger than a potato.  She was all alone in this hard world, and was perhaps the most vulnerable human I had ever met.  No momma to fight for her, and a family that felt unable to care for her.  Left in the hands of strangers, she had no voice.  Utter innocence.  And there she snoozed in my arms, content and peaceful.

I had heard many stories of Haitian mothers dying during/after childbirth.  I had seen the statistics.  I thought I understood.  But Marie-Carmene would take my compassion and understanding of this devastating reality to an entirely new level.  God would open my eyes to so much through this little booger.    

Marie-Carmene was always perfectly content, totally laid back.  Only really fussed when she was hungry (and would totally wail when that tiny tummy grumbled).  My kind of kid.  Even Brennon, not much of a fan of babies, thought she was pretty decent company.  For the first few months that we lived in Haiti, we resided in the guesthouse, directly upstairs from the ICU where Marie-Carmene was living at.  Knowing how vital it is for young infants to have eye contact, physical touch, to be talked to, and given a feeling of security, I felt strongly compelled to nurture her as much as I could.  This baby needed a substitute mommy, right?  I would try to spend a little time with her every evening.  She was a snuggle bear.  It seemed like my stress would just dissipate when I held her.  I don't know which one of us needed the other more.
(Photo above and below - August 2012)

Institutionalized kids are at high risk of not developing properly - not just emotionally, but also physically.  Much research has been done all over the world on the subject.  Some potential effects that have been well documented:  lower quality brain activity as measured by EEG, shrunken volume of gray and white matter in the brain, developmental delays (motor skills delays, delays in reaching developmental milestones), emotional attachment disorders, reduced intellectual/social/behavioral abilities, physical underdevelopment (weight, height, head circumference), failure to thrive, abnormal behaviors such as body rocking and head banging, poor health and increased sickness, and learning disabilities.     
*Sources:  http://www.livescience.com/21778-early-neglect-alters-kids-brains.html, http://www.crin.org/docs/The_Risk_of_Harm.pdf

Brennon's hand looks like that of a giant in this photo.

Marie-Carmene's quiet contentment, in spite of her circumstances, really spoke loudly to us both.

She was doing well, gaining weight - ounce by ounce - and making good progress in her development.  Then in September, a wretched stomach/intestinal virus circulated through the ICU.  Marie-Carmene fell victim to it.  She was way too tiny to have to fight such a violent battle.  

During the course of the virus, she became very dehydrated and required an IV.  She spiked a fever of up to 105 . . . yet never complained.  Seriously.  I remember walking into the room to check on her and the other really sick kids.  I felt her forehead and thought she was a bit hot, though she was just laying there with a relaxed expression and seemed happy to have a visitor.  I slipped the thermometer under her armpit . . . it registered 105!  This is one tough kid, I tell ya.   


 She survived the virus, which was a blessing.  It could have easily taken her life; I am certain that God intervened.  But that virus did ravage her small, defenseless body.  I would like to punch that virus in the face.  Big props to Dr. Jen, who was helping cover in the clinic during that month.  Several little lives survived that horrible virus because of her expertise and hard work.

So for the next several weeks, this poor girl would roller-coaster between being well and being really sickly.  Good-bye to that full head of soft, curly hair.  Scalp IV's became almost a norm.  She was vulnerable to every germ, her gut couldn't get regulated, and chronic diarrhea would often keep her dehydrated.  But she still kept smiling.

November 2012.  C'mon little one.  Pull out of this rut, I would think.  Instead of gaining weight, she was staying the same . . . or losing.  No growth.  No strength.  A good day or two would be encouraging, and then a bad day would swoop in.  Two steps forward, one step back, or even two steps back.

As fall progressed, I was unable to spend as much one-on-one time with Marie-Carmene, being busy with more office responsibilities during the days and away from the ICU in the evenings (my family and I had moved into our house down the road in October).  I also need to mention that there were always several other children in the ICU in need of attention, love, and encouragement.  Each hurting child had his/her own story.  Each child was just as special, just as worthy of nurturing.  Oh so often I wished I had more hours in the day and more arms to hold them.  Never was there a lack of children needing love and hope poured into them.  Even with staff and volunteers, the emotional needs of those children was huge (in addition to their demanding physical needs).  I could write a list of dozens and dozens of names of children that my heart was broken for.  Precious children who had suffered so much in their short lives.  Some kids had me so wrapped around their little finger.  Five minutes with this child changing a diaper, ten minutes with that child trying to coax a smile, fifteen minutes with another child that simply needed to be held.  A new child here, a dying child there.  All I ever wanted was for each of them to feel the love of Jesus within me.

This was my passion.  This was the calling on my life. 
It wasn't a Marie-Carmene obsession thing.  It was a James 1:27 and Matthew 25:36 thing.
I didn't desire to make that little girl (or any other child) mine,
I simply desired to make sure they knew they belonged to Jesus. 

My Heavenly Father has shown me such amazing love.  What a privilege to be able to let His love flow through me to those children.  It wasn't about me at all.

It's all about Him.  

My older daughter Lesley with her tiny buddy.

Weeks turned into months.  Marie-Carmene struggled along.  Never fussy or one to complain, she was often assumed to be fairing better than she really was, in my personal opinion.  It's very easy to overlook the quiet baby.  When I returned after spending 6 weeks back in the U.S. during Christmas/January with our family, I was very worried upon seeing her again.  My mommy radar was on full alert.

It was a Sunday afternoon.  As she was sleeping - which is all she was doing when not taking her bottle - I took this photo (above).  I was shocked at how much Marie-Carmene looked dead.  Like so many deceased babies I had seen in the previous months, she had that look of death to me.  Her muscle tone was decreasing, and there wasn't a bit of fat on her.  Her ribs were prevalent.  Her eyes were sunken in and always looked fatigued.  A feeling of helplessness and anguish swept over me.  I knew deep in my heart that her fight was nearing its end, and I could not just sit there and watch her fade away.

During a casual Facebook chat with a dear friend, one who just so happens to have extensive experience with caring for fragile babies in Haiti, I mentioned my worries.  My friend shared several tips and ideas on things that might help Marie-Carmene.  We discussed poop details, pro-biotics, and Digestion 101.  I learned a lot of valuable information.  But the biggest lesson I was reminded of was how one thing was ever so vital to her recovery: LOVE.  Well, buddy, I got that.

After some discussion back at the office, it was agreed upon to try some of these ideas.  Marie-Carmene was put on a special soy formula that was purchased by caring individuals and carried in by volunteers from the U.S.  We started getting that little gut of hers to heal. 

 After a couple of cans of the fancy soy formula, we transitioned to a step-down fancy soy formula.  By that point, the kid was finally having mostly normal poops.  I've never gotten so excited about poop in my life.  She soon transitioned to plain ol' soy formula.  Daily I would feed her a dose of pro-biotics mixed into a spoonful of mashed up banana.  I loved having to make time to feed her the banana medicine.  No feeling guilty for loving on a baby instead of doing computer work.  

This little girl was coming back to life.  The soft spot on her head was finally not depressed.  She wasn't sleeping as much.  She was gaining a few ounces.  Mesi Jezi !  

March 2013 was a good month.  (Above)  Progress, ever so slowly.  From 7 lbs 7oz in February, she hit 9lbs. 4oz. in March. 

Everyone caught on to how to much I loved this kid.
And how much she loved me. 


May 2013 (above and below).  Little Miss was getting stronger (up to 10 lbs 4oz) and maybe even a bit sassy.  When she would see me walk into the room but not pick her up, she would protest with a big, wide-mouthed wail.  Almost a roar, with her back arched and tears rolling.  There was no discussing the matter.  I was hers. And I'll admit, ate it up.  It's awesome to be loved.

We had bonded, and that's so important for a baby to form bonds.  I do know a few things about attachments.

Our younger daughter, Brianna, is adopted.  She joined our family at the age of 13 months as a foster placement, which eventually led to adoption.  My Brianna had been severely neglected, and it took a hard toll on her.  Brianna's birth-mother never talked to her, didn't nurture her, was clueless about her emotional needs.  Now 13 years old, we still struggle with Brianna's emotional baggage from that time in her life.  That first year of life is SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT to a person's development.  This fact cannot be overstated.  Babies need to bond.      


These months weren't easy, the balancing act I had to do.  Constantly trying not to overstep my boundaries.  Trying to not offend anyone.  To help, but not hinder.  To love Marie-Carmene wholly . . . but not too much. Fostering wasn't an option for some reason, though she (and other kids) would have benefited in many ways.  I loved her the best I could in the situation we were in. 

To not attach too much.  
To protect two hearts . . . mine and hers.
A bit agonizing, for both of us. 

June 2013 (above and below).  A well-established sucker of the two middle fingers.  A fan of having a blanket or the hem of her onesie caressed on her cheek.  Growing.  Gaining.  Teething.  A bout with chicken pox.  A skin infection on her hands and feet.  Random fevers.  An ear infection.  Two steps forward, one step back.  But overall, moving forward.  She made it up to 11 pounds in June.

August 2013 (below).  Finally teething.  Hair growing.  Crawling becoming a consideration.  Sitting like a champ in the Bumbo, but not so awesome at freestyle sitting yet.  Reached 12 pounds, but got sick again and went back down to 9 lbs 5 oz.   

September 2013 (below).  Personality developing.  Silly.  Laughing.  Engaging the world around her.  Eating rice and beans.  And a record heavy weight of 12 lbs 10 oz.  

October 2013 (below).  Still not crawling or pulling up, but muscle strength increasing.  So many teeth coming in.  Fuzzy hair all a mess.  Weighing 13 lbs 11 oz. at 15 months old.  

In October 2013, I told her good-bye.  Not knowing if our paths will ever cross again in this world.

That was hard.  Hard. Hard. Hard.

She was asleep in her crib the afternoon I was saying my good-byes.  Sucking her fingers, through the crib bars I whispered to her how much I love her.  And always will.

I have prayed so much for that child.  To just have a shot at life, to be happy and healthy, to be loved, to know Jesus.

Marie-Carmene returned home with her papa a month or so after we left.  I've been told that she was doing okay.  I sure hope so.  Keeping kids with their birth families - if at all possible - is the healthiest thing.  Supporting birth families and preventing children from becoming orphans is vital.  

I'm still deciphering the things God taught me through this little bitty girl.  One lesson that I have grown to understand deeply - 

Love with all your heart.  
Even if it hurts, 
even if it's a battle, 
it's absolutely worth it.

Mark 12:31
"Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these."

And no better joy, I'd add to that. 

Marie-Carmene is just one of hundreds of thousands of kids struggling to survive and thrive in Haiti.  Each one is precious.  Each one needs love, attention, encouragement and support.  They deserve our best efforts, our open minds and open hearts.  Pray for them, would you?  

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