Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Fates of Babes

"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

Frederick Douglass

I feel that the very centre of my being beats the heart of a storyteller. It is the reason why I write. I consider everything that happens around me to be unformed and untold stories, and it is my responsibility to drag them out of the chaotic neverending narrative that is reality, and define them. Every story that gets washed away in the currents, distorted by time and diluted to oblivion by amnesia is as good as if it never happened at all. When I write a story down, it lives on in words.

I have been in the Department of Paediatrics for about a month now and while there are many stories I wish to tell, none is quite worth the telling as much as the one I am about to tell you. This is a true story, and rumour has it that there is nothing quite as strange as the truth.

There is an infant about a year old who was recently admitted to my ward with the startling diagnosis of kwashiokor - startling in the sense that it is the sort of thing one would encounter in the hungry depths of most wretched Africa, not in bounteous Malaysia. Kwashiokor is a form of malnutrition where a child is disproportionately starved of protein in his or her diet, while receiving a relatively high amount of carbs. Protein is Very Important, as you can imagine and it is needed in a lot of essential bodily processes. It is needed to make antibodies, so a kwashiokor child is often susceptible to serious infections. It is needed for growth, so that child will fail to grow and thrive. A kwashiokor child is often identified by his grossly bloated belly and general swelling of his entire body - because one of the things protein does is keep water in your blood vessels. When you are deficient of protein, it allows plasma (the watery bit of your blood) to leak out into all your other tissues. This is a simplified explanation of what kwashiokor is because I am telling a story, not teaching a class. Anyhow, I am sure that all of you have an image of that stereotypical starving Somali kid with an upsettingly large belly in your minds.

Upsetting right?

The kwashiokor baby in my ward was bloated and weak. His teeth were all rotten and brown. He was developmentally retarded. He lies on his back like an upturned French bulldog puppy all day long unable to turn himself, being irritable and miserable, when infants his age are taking their first steps. Have you seen babies taking their first steps? They have that huge goofy ecstatically surprised grin on their face that seems to say, "I IS WALKING! OMG OMG OMG!" Jesus walking on water is a cool story. This is a real everyday miracle.

The mother is young, uneducated and impoverished, and the baby probably ended up this way due to her deficient understanding of nutrition or the need for a balanced diet. It made me angry. It made me think that there should a competency test for anyone who wants to be a parent because as she had proven beyond reasonable doubt, it is in fact possible for a person to be too stupid to mother. Then, I felt angry for the conditions that nurtured her ignorance, her lack of access to sound education (even though she is younger than I am).

But this is not the story I want to tell.

A couple of days ago, the police brought an Iban child in and put him under our care. He seems to be about four years old but there was really no way to be sure short of cleaving him apart and counting his rings. This very young child was found loitering at the Bormill Estate outside a coffee shop with nothing more than a cheap backpack on his back. The passerby who brought him to the police station said he was left there by his parents. Having no identification on him, there was no way of finding out who his parents are. He was dirty. There were scabs on his scalp. Coincidentally, he was then placed in a cot beside the one occupied by the kwashiokor baby and his mother - possibly because the universe remembers how misery loves company.

The first day he was in the ward, he wouldn't talk to anyone and was going through cycles of crying, sleeping and then crying again. During our clinical rounds, after failing to console the boy, the mother of the kwashiokor baby looked over to his cot and started chastising him in his native tongue, to our surprise. She seemed to know this child so I asked.

"This boy is my brother," she answered.

She went on to explain that her father had left her mother and went on to start another family with another woman - and this presumably abandoned child is really her half-brother. Whoa, I really didn't see this coming!

What is the chance that this kid would be abandoned by his parents at about the same time as the kwashiokor baby was brought in? What then is the chance that they would be admitted in the same ward and placed in cots beside one another? I am not a mathematician so I don't know the answer to those questions but I am sure "damn hell improbable" is only knocking on the door of describing how unlikely this is. Anyhow, that made tracking down the kid's parents a cinch rather than the citywide needle-hunt it would have demanded. Suddenly it made a little more sense why the kwashiokor baby's mother was so neglectful - she learned parenting from the bloke who misplaced this other child.

Being ditched by your parents when you are just a teeny tiny kid must have sucked, so I bought the kid a lollipop to cheer him up. He greedily took it and started gnawing on it with a ferocity that made me flinch. I tried to mime how one would typically consume a lollipop but to no avail. I quickly stopped because I realised that it also looked like an overly obscene gesture to do to a young child.

And a cup of Nini peanut butter dipsticks. I loved that shit as a kid.

One of the custodial staff members, a middle aged woman, sort of took a special interest in the kid and brought him more snack, as did other parents in the ward. I guess they took pity on the boy because he was always in his cot alone, while all the other children in the ward were accompanied by their mothers or fathers around the clock.

Now, at the time of writing this, the child is waiting for a representative of the child protective services to review his case and presumably, ensure that the kid gets taken care of one way or another. Anyway, I wanted to tell this story because of two reasons. The first is because it's an amazing coincidence, and that is always worth telling. The second is because I need to remember what having a child means. It means being responsible for the life, happiness and ultimate destiny of a helpless little individual that needs you to always do the right thing. And I want to.

Lollipop dispenser,

k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

Lollipop dispenser XD

Ah. I don't know what to say. This is just such a sad story and it isn't even a story. Can't even begin to imagine the lives of these children. And it's just disturbing to think that these won't be the only cases of abandoned / malnourished children in Malaysia. And that really is an amazing coincidence. I have no idea how big a city Kuching is, but still.

Ah, Julian walking for the first time. No "OMG I IS WALKING" surprise, there. He didn't even notice, to be honest. I'd just held out a bit of bread to him and he casually picked himself off the floor (it was a week after his first birthday) and started walking for the first time toward the bit of bread. Then he got the bread and sat down to eat it without fanfare :D

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: I can't even imagine what sort of adults they will grow up to be. Anyhow, I am starting to notice children now that I am on the verge of imminent parenthood. Have you considered that Julian might not even notice that he had started walking? Or that he just loves bread that much? Haha.