I've worked as a doctor for more than 20 years, including time in Canada and Africa. I recently spent two months in Niger, and I've never felt so surrounded by suffering and death. The worst part about seeing hundreds of critically ill patients every day for weeks is that most of them are less than three years old. They are all victims of severe malnutrition.
I struggle to explain what it is like to care for one precious child after another who is literally skin and bones. Seeing them on television is one thing, but it is quite another to lift the naked, brown body of a two-year-old who weighs only eight pounds! I'd look into the hopeful eyes of this child and imagine what strength of character it takes to fight for life with such few resources. These children and their mothers captured my heart. Rahima was one of the first girls I met. She was so tiny. And she was dreadfully dehydrated from diarrhea. She sat quietly, gazing up at me looking so serene, so wise. It was a very hot day and other kids were crying and fussy. But little Rahima, the picture of peace, taught me about dignity in the face of adversity.
Another child, Ali, is etched in my mind. One morning, after already seeing dozens of ailing, emaciated children, a mother moved to the front of the line. Her baby, Ali, had the most gorgeous, big brown eyes. He was so charming that I had to take his picture. He was amused by the camera flash and responded with the most charismatic smile I've ever seen. It was impossible not to smile back, which only caused him to smile and laugh all the more. Another photo, more giggles. Our private moment of merriment was only a few minutes, but Ali is bonded to my heart. I hope and pray this boy can survive the obstacles that will challenge his young life in Niger. I have to believe God has big plans for him.
But not all my memories are as happy as those surrounding little Ali. Death is omnipresent in Niger, extinguishing young lives. If they are left untreated, more than half of these children with severe malnutrition will die. Even with the excellent medical care of Médecins Sans Frontières, at least two or three young children died almost every day in the therapeutic feeding centres.
I feel numb as I remember Issoufou's death. He and his mother had just arrived and he was brought to me immediately. He was horribly dehydrated from diarrhea and in shock. It was impossible to start an intravenous on him. I knew I had only minutes. His blood flow had almost stopped and I couldn't find a vein. He stopped breathing five minutes after arrival. In an instant, he was gone. It was a very sad moment, even though I realized his illness was too far advanced before he arrived. It makes me crazy to think this is an everyday experience in Niger. A helpless child doesn't even see his second birthday. Yet it is so common, it barely makes a ripple in the day's activity.
It grieves me deeply that, in 2006, thousands of children will die for lack of food. When will we, the wealthy ones of the world, look beyond ourselves and help end extreme poverty and hunger in the world?