On a Wednesday morning, dozens of medical staff gathered at the gates of a new Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kenema district, Sierra Leone. Dressed in green scrubs they waited; the morning light flooded into the empty hospital in Hangha town.
With cheers and excitement, the hospital gates opened. Almost two and a half years of construction, months of planning, training, and preparations had gone into this moment, and now we were here, ready to serve the people of Sierra Leone’s Eastern District.
The first patient
One of the conditions the hospital was equipped to help with is malnutrition. The staff of the in-patient therapeutic feeding center (ITFC) went to the unit to wait for the first malnourished patients to be admitted.
Later that day, we received a call from the emergency room (ER) that we would be receiving our first admitted patient. A mother from Kenema had been trading onions at the market in Hangha town when she heard about the new hospital. She had come with her daughter, Fudia.
The first time our sweet patient started clapping and singing with the staff at feeding time, I knew that we were here for a reason
A group of nurses and nurse assistants from the ER brought the anxious-looking mother to the unit, carrying the 15-month-old. The young girl looked tired and nervous as her mother laid her down on the bed and the ER nurses gave their report.
Fudia had had one month of fever and diarrhea, complicated by severe acute malnutrition.
The ER team told the nurses at the feeding center that Fudia had been admitted before at the local governmental hospital supplemental feeding center, but the mother had not been able to continue giving the therapeutic food in the outpatient program.
Every patient interaction brought all of the nurses, nurse assistants, and community health officers (CHOs) to the girl’s bedside, eager to treat our first patient.
Fudia cried when the staff in green scrubs checked her height, weight, and mid-upper arm circumference and vital signs. Her mother was quiet as she watched. I could only imagine how strange and overwhelming it must be to be in a brand new hospital as the only patient.
When I saw the mother become tearful and tie her daughter to her back with her colorful lapa, I worried that she might leave. One of the feeding center nurses walked outside with her, comforting her as she told him that she felt very lonely in the unit.
As the day went on though, the nurses sat with Fudia and her mum and shared words of encouragement. They tried to bring some laughter and familiarity to the day.
Healing and growing
At the first feeding time the staff began singing and clapping, and we saw the first smile from our young patient. It was beautiful.
Over the next few days, I saw the mother and girl healing and growing. The first time our sweet patient started clapping and singing with the staff at feeding time, I knew that we were here for a reason - that in opening this hospital we would help more children smile and grow and thrive.
As the feeding centre admitted more patients, the staff began to call Fudia our “first little lady”. The days went by and she laughed and smiled bigger. By the end of the next week, the beds in the feeding center were close to full and it was time to discharge our first patient.
With medications and enough therapeutic food to give Fudia until the follow-up day at the community health center, her mother wrapped her daughter on her back and walked out through the gates of the hospital. You can see a picture of them at the top of this blog post.
Fudia would be the first of many people that we would treat here in the hospital, and that is a beautiful thing.