A birth tragedy in Ethiopia with a moment of grace

African father holding his little sons hands.

The young couple had been married for a year. Their families had met and had shemaglis (agreements between elders of the families) for a year before the ceremony in the mountains of Northern Ethiopia. The young mother to be was very poor and lived in remote area hours from any clinic so there was no pregnancy planning or prenatal care. She presented to the hospital in early labor. A few hours later Neurosurgery was called.

The little boy had a beautiful face, arms, and legs but had a large defect in the back of the head. A naked imperfectly formed brain was exposed without skull or skin to cover it. Despite this the child was opening his eyes, weakly crying, and moving his tiny fingers.

Nurse relatives had brought the child to the operating room emergently hoping there was something I could do. The mother was recovering from a C-section done for fetal distress and was I was told in emotional shock. The father stood 3 feet away from the baby on the stretcher with a look of unbearable terror on his face.

This unfortunately was not the first time I had seen an anencephalic newborn. Many of them are actually stillborn. There was no heroic surgery I could do. The child would not feed and was doomed to die within a short time. The easiest thing to do sometimes for a neurosurgeon is to briefly say there is nothing we can do and walk away. Taking on the full emotional load here is a broadside that is tough to absorb.

However, I felt compelled by the look on the father’s face to remain but what could I do? Through an interpreter I explained the birth defect and prognosis. That with the next baby the mother should take folic acid daily three months before getting pregnant. Throughout this time the father kept his distance from the child looking at it like it was cursed. Frequently here they belief in buda which is that such babies are caused by curses invoked by some wrong doing.

I was watching the little hand of the baby moving as if it was searching for something. Something came over me, I like to think it was the Holy Spirit, and I reached out to take the father’s hand and pulled him close to the child. He was afraid and moderately resisted. Then I put the child’s hand into the father’s and hand gently causing him to grasp it.

The baby grew quiet and calm. The father’s look of horror turned to a sort of determination and love. He held that baby’s hand and then picked up the baby for a couple of hours until God called the child. Even though his son’s life was short the father had shared something irreplaceable and special in this tragedy. I learned the human experience is something we must not take for granted and valuable if only for a moment. That we thank God for every moment of Grace He gives us.

Author: Professor Tony Magana

Professor Tony Magana is Head of the Department of Neurosurgery, School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences at Mekelle University in Mekelle, Ethiopia. He directs a neurosurgery residency and training program as well as neuroscience research.

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