TACLOBAN, Philippines – Althea Mustacisa was born three days ago in the aftermath of the killer typhoon that razed the eastern Philippines. And for every one of those three days, she has struggled to live.
But she has clung to life because her parents have been pushing oxygen into her tiny body with a hand-held pump, nonstop, since she came into this world.
If they stop, the baby will die, said Amie Sia, a nurse at a hospital in typhoon-wracked Tacloban, a city that is running without electricity and few workers or medical supplies.
She can’t breathe without them. She can’t breathe on her own, Sia said. The only sign of life this little girl has left is a heartbeat.
More than a week after Typhoon Haiyan annihilated a vast swath of the Philippines, killing more than 3,600 people, the storm’s aftermath is still claiming victims – and doctors fear Althea may be the next.
When the fierce storm smashed into this tropical country Nov. 8, it transformed Tacloban into an unrecognizable wasteland of rubble and death.
The bottom floor of the two-story, government-run Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center was flooded, and the intensive care unit for newborns was left a muddy ruin.
Life-saving machinery, including the facility’s only incubator, was soiled with water and mud.
As the storm hit, doctors and staffers moved 20 babies who were already in the intensive care unit to a small chapel upstairs for their safety, placing three or four in a crib built for a newborn.
With the chapel converted into an ad-hoc neonatal clinic, all the babies survived initially. But six died later, because we lack vital medical equipment that was destroyed, said the attending physician, Dr. Leslie Rosario.
Within days, however, 10 more babies born during or in the aftermath of the storm were taken in, including Althea. She was born in her family’s typhoon-wrecked home Wednesday, weighing 5.84 pounds, suffering from an inability to breathe.
When she was rushed to the hospital, doctors performed CPR on her, and since then, they have been giving her oxygen from the hand-held pump connected to a blue rubber bubble that fits into her tiny mouth.
Doctors said the storm had not been a factor in the baby’s problems, noting that insufficient prenatal care most likely complicated the pregnancy for the 18-year-old mother. The baby was not premature.
Still, there would have been a good chance of saving Althea if the hospital had had electricity to run a ventilator, incubator and other life-saving equipment.
Until Saturday, the makeshift ward in the chapel had no light except candles. On Saturday, one small fluorescent bulb attached to a diesel generator was hung in the middle of the room, where a few packs of diapers sit on the altar below a picture of Jesus.
Only three out of 16 neonatal clinic employees reported back after the storm, Rosario said. The Philippines Department of Health sent two nurses from Manila to help.
The hospital chapel’s windows are all gone. The chapel is now filled with 24 babies – five in critical condition, the rest with fevers or other ailments. Many were premature.
Their parents are there, too, trying to rest when they can on wooden pews. Three mothers have IV drips in their arms.
Nanette Salutan, 40, is one of them. She said her labor began just as the winds from Haiyan began howling. The contractions continued after the storm eased, and she walked to the hospital with her husband.
It was an eight-hour trek through corpse-filled rubble and waist-high water.
All I could think was, I wanted my baby to live, Salutan said.
Her son, Bernard, was born that night – but he did not cry, and they knew immediately something was wrong. The baby was not breathing.
Doctors performed CPR and put clear green tubes of oxygen in his nose. He is fed through a syringe connected to a tube taped to his mouth.
‘I love you so much’
Rosario said Bernard had a decent chance of survival. But Althea’s prognosis was not good.
If we had a ventilator, it’s possible she could live, Sia said. But right now, she’s very weak, and I don’t think she’s going to make it.
They’ve been traumatized by the typhoon, and now they’re traumatized because they’re trying to keep their baby alive, Rosario said of Althea’s parents. They’re physically and emotionally exhausted.
As she spoke, Althea’s mother, Genia Mae Mustacisa, leaned over her baby girl, stroked her forehead and kissed it.
The newborn lay on a wooden table, eyes closed, wrapped in a blue- and white-striped blanket. Her feet poked out, revealing a pair of mismatched socks – one with pink and red hearts, one with the Peanuts comic character Snoopy.
Methodically, her mother squeezed a green rubber bag attached to the tall tank of oxygen slowly, over and over, every few seconds, just as her husband had done for half an hour before.
It’s OK, she whispered, tears streaming down her cheeks. I love you so much. No matter what happens, I love you so much.