Huffpost Impact

Fighting Neonatal Tetanus: The Story Of Two American Women In Sierra Leone

Posted: Updated:
Print
Kiwanis International
Kiwanis International

By Chrysula Winegar For The Million Moms Challenge

Late last year, Linda Christiano, a mother of two and grandmother of three, visited Sierra Leone with her husband Jerry and granddaughter, Sophia Bird. She joined fellow members of Kiwanis International and UNICEF to see firsthand the impact of Eliminate Project -- a partnership launched in the summer of 2011 between the two organizations to protect 100 million mothers and their children from maternal and neonatal tetanus with life-saving vaccines. Tetanus is a painful disease that kills one newborn every nine minutes -- 160 babies every day.

Below, Chrysula Winegar of the Million Moms Challenge, asks a few questions to learn about Linda and Sophia’s trip and the mothers they met who changed their lives.

LINDA

Q: What was in your mind about Sierra Leone before you left home?

Preconceptions? I don't know I had any. I was excited to be going and I felt I could help Kiwanis members by knowing more about the Eliminate project and I wanted to see the end result—the vaccines. If you want to raise $110 million you want to see where it's going. I don't think I really thought about it, except that I wanted to be able to speak better to other Kiwanis members about what we were trying to do.

At the Kiwanis International convention in Geneva, it broke my heart when I saw the videos that showed what tetanus does to infants. I was previously totally unaware, maybe because I didn't care enough to look. I had no idea the suffering tetanus puts babies through, and how many of them die from it.

Q: What was familiar to you when you arrived in Sierra Leone?

I noticed that they are very gracious people, they smile and wave at you. The children are extremely well behaved, very friendly, the village just embraced us -- we sang with them, we danced with them, we hugged their babies. We got to see the women and young ladies being vaccinated. There was overpowering acceptance. Even though we are thousands of miles apart, we found so much in common. They didn't know me, but they still embraced me.

Q: How have those images/experiences stayed with you?

My daughter as an infant experienced a double cerebral hemorrhage. It took four days for the hospital to find the right kind of surgeon—four days of my baby in excruciating pain—and I couldn’t hold her because we feared it could do further damage.
I didn't expect it to open wounds of my own daughter's experience - I thought I'd buried those emotions. This project brought up all those memories again.

[While in Sierra Leone, Linda met a mother named Maumie, who had previously lost three babies, including a set of twins at 7 months). She visited with her and her new 5 week old baby, James. At the time of his birth, James was suspected as having neonatal tetanus.]

When I was sitting with Maumie, I sat right beside her and touched her and her baby and I felt her pain. I could feel it in her. The only difference was her babies died and my baby lived. My baby lived because I had access to money and insurance and this amazing, wonderful doctor who saved my daughter. I can still vividly see her laying there as though it was yesterday. I can still hear my daughter's cries. Sitting by Maumie, she said the same things. Every time she sees children, walking to school or playing. She always thinks of her kids and what they would have been like.

When I got home, I would walk around the house crying. Every time I thought of going out for dinner, I’d remind myself that the money I’d spend at that restaurant could send 10 life-saving vaccines to protect babies from tetanus, or that the price of a bottle of water could save a child from this disease.

I realized I am not strong enough to be born in Africa. I could not sit there in stoic silence. They are the silent women, they hurt. No one wants to know, it's too hard. But I have a voice and I am using it.

You could see the smiles on their faces, but you can't see the scars on their hearts. It is the same for me. No mother should go through this. Especially when you think that $1.80 could give three tetanus vaccines to protect a mother and her newborns. My daughter's operation, was thousands and thousands of dollars.

Q: What was it like to “go back to normal" after your experience in Sierra Leone?

I haven't. I still walk around trying to process a baby's life. How could you ever go back to a normal life, knowing that these babies are dying? How come these women are going through this? I don't understand. It comes down to this:

- Every women deserves to be a mother.
- Every mother brings forth the gift of life.
- Every gift deserves to be healthy.

Why has that been put on the back burner? How have we not known about this? Where are our priorities?

Moms go through a lot. Now moms need to bond together to help other mothers. We've got to reach women all over the world!

Q: How would you advise other women to connect with their sisters around the world -- women who cannot necessarily get on a plane to Africa? How can they have a glimpse of your experience and learning from right here at home?

1. BE AWARE -- learn about the issues that women have all over the world.

2. HAVE EMPATHY -- put yourself in their shoes, how would you feel if you'd been in my shoes? Think about what these mothers are going through? I know Maumie was thinking about how long her babies would live since the day they were born?

3. SHARE -- the more this is out there, the more people will take notice.

Neonatal tetanus is can be a seven-day excruciating death for these babies. I understand Maumie's heartache. They are right there, watching their babies shake. I watched my baby shake, she stopped breathing every few minutes, she endured four days of excruciating pain, just like these babies with tetanus. Except tetanus is preventable.

We've got to expose this to the world and make it real, make everyone understand it and know they can help. That's what Africa did to me. It ripped my insides wide open.

SOPHIA, aged 14

Q: What was in your mind about Sierra Leone before you left home?

I thought I knew it all, I'd read books, done a lot of research. Everyone was telling me when I was there it would be a huge life changing experience. When people say that stuff we listen to them, but not really. I was amazed at how right they were in that aspect of the trip.

It was really different, it was a big slap in the face. It was amazing to see what I really have, and see people who have so much less than me and how unhappy I am sometimes with what I have and how happy they can be with what little they have.

Q: What was familiar to you when you arrived? What did you notice that people do that you do?

Everything had an element of familiarity; they have the same stuff going on, families and friends, parents trying to get their kids somewhere, cell phones, texting, streets, houses, cars… that was definitely a little bit of what I was used to in a place where I wasn't used to anything.

Q: You met a young girl who I believe was 12 years old, who was a new mother. Tell me about your time with her, what did you learn?

My little sister is 12 years old, so for me that was really weird. It shocks me when she walks out of her bedroom in the morning wearing makeup! I feel like telling her to wash it all off, she's too young! It was hard to see someone my sister's age as a mother and going through things I hope my sister doesn't go through for another at least another 10 years. To envision her in that experience knowing she (and I) couldn't do that. I have a nine-month-old brother now who I babysit sometimes, but I’m not responsible for him.

She was a sweet, sweet person, but you could tell she wasn't ready to be a mother. It was a very powerful thing for me to learn how common it for such young girls to become mothers.

I saw these young girls with children and it wasn't until half way through the week that I started seeing the guys standing around and thinking which ones were the Dads? Why weren’t they walking around with babies on their backs?

Q: What was it like to "go back to normal" after your experience in Sierra Leone?

People didn't ask many questions. That kind of disappointed me a bit, even though it's probably what I would have done. We have no idea what it's like. They heard about it anyway - I told them what I had to say! People usually asked things like, was it hot, did you have fun, did you shower? People expected me to put it behind me, but I haven’t and I won’t.

Q: What has changed for you, since this journey?

Meeting and seeing that people on the other side of the world are like me made me think, "What are you doing thinking you're the only person going through something?" It has given me more sympathy for people I didn't necessarily like before and it has made me accept that everyone has their own place and own beauty in the world. My experience in Sierra Leone has helped me see the good in situations. I feel like I've done a lot of stepping back and saying "I'm sorry, shouldn't have done that", and thinking "I should be worrying about more important things."

Q: You talk about the people feeling grounded and connected to everything around them, of belonging to each other - something you remark you don't feel in the USA -- what does that mean, What did you see that made you feel that?

Here, I don't know my neighbors, I've talked to them once or twice, but compared to what I saw in Sierra Leone I have no neighborhood or community where I live. I regret that.

I felt how comfortable the people I met were with each other and themselves, they made me feel connected to them. We were all at home there. Imagine if a bunch of official looking people in matching t-shirts with cameras descended into your neighborhood - we'd be all like "Whoa, what's going on?!" But they were happy to see us and welcomed us with smiles.

More than 35 percent of deliveries in Sierra Leone are still done by unskilled birth attendants, mainly at home, leading to unsafe and unhygienic birthing practices. To learn more or donate to The Eliminate Project visit www.eliminateproject.org.

Around the Web

Neonatal Tetanus in Sierra Leone

UNICEF - Press centre - Scaling up Child Survival in Sierra Leone

WHO | Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus (MNT) elimination

Battling Deadly Tetanus in Sierra Leone - ABC News

Blog | eliminating maternal/neonatal tetanus > Sierra Leone ...

Vaccines: Global/Making a Difference through Global Immunization