Fieldset
Family and floods: Saving two lives in South Sudan

In South Sudan, catastrophic flooding has left many communities cut off from essential healthcare and basic necessities. Midwife Erin Lever tells the story of a critically ill mother whose family were determined to get her to the treatment she needed…

For the past six months, I have been working for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in a camp for displaced people in Bentiu, South Sudan. The MSF hospital here is the only secondary healthcare facility serving the camp's 130,000 residents.

In the maternity department, we receive women who are experiencing complications in their pregnancies, and often emergency referrals that arrive at the last minute in very critical conditions.

As a midwife, I am always on-call on the radio to assist the team with any complicated cases. One night, I receive a call that a woman in the final weeks of her pregnancy has arrived with significant bleeding. This is a medical emergency.

The long journey

It's dark. When I walk into our maternity unit, our waiting area outside is unusually crowded. There are at least ten men. One of my colleagues tells us that they are the family members of the woman, and that when her condition became serious, they set off, on foot, to carry her to the hospital.

This year’s floods are the worst that South Sudan has witnessed for the past 60 years. They have almost surrounded the camp here, and many villages are cut off from everything, including food and healthcare.

This can be one of the most critical conditions in pregnancy...

These men have walked for three hours, through the floodwater, in the middle of the night, carrying the pregnant woman on a blanket.

They explain to my South Sudanese colleagues that in the deepest of water, the taller men took their turn carrying, and the shorter men took over in the shallower stretches.

They are sodden and muddy, and look exhausted. The whole team, including midwives who have had incredibly challenging lives themselves, are amazed at their resilience.

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Aerial view showing Bentiu camp surrounded by flood waters
Aerial view showing Bentiu camp surrounded by flood waters

Critical condition

Quickly, we assess the woman. She is slightly anaemic from the blood loss but is otherwise stable, although still bleeding. Her baby, thankfully, is still alive.  

We suspect a partial placental abruption, where the placenta starts to separate from the uterine wall before delivery. This can be one of the most critical conditions in pregnancy. It can cause a life-threatening haemorrhage for the mother, and because the flow of blood to the placenta is compromised, the baby can pass away.

At last there’s a cry, and a wave of relief breaks over me. The baby girl is breathing on her own

We have a small blood storage unit here where we collect donations from volunteers living in the camp. We are one of the only maternity facilities in the area fortunate enought to have this option.

However, blood is often a challenge to come by, particularly for rarer blood groups. Luckily this woman’s blood group is a common one, which means we are better prepared if she does need a transfusion.

Not breathing

During the assessment we find that the woman is already in the early stages of labour, and we get her consent to accelerate the process so that the bleeding stops and the baby has a better chance of survival.

She has already had several pregnancies, and so her labour progresses quickly. Soon her baby is born, but not breathing.

We start our emergency haemorrhage protocol and it becomes clear that the woman’s condition is unstable. She will need blood transfusion...

We start resuscitation. This is what we feared – it is likely due to the placenta being only partially functional during labour. At last there’s a cry, and a wave of relief breaks over me. The baby girl is breathing on her own. She will be fine.

Two emergencies

But there’s no time to relax: the mother has a heavy postpartum haemorrhage. We start our emergency haemorrhage protocol and it becomes clear that the woman’s condition is unstable and that she will need blood transfusion.

The woman’s relatives step up without hesitation...

The blood loss is rapid and the woman is showing signs of her body not coping well. She starts to lose consciousness.

It is the middle of the night and we don’t have enough staff to deal with the two emergencies simultaneously. However, members of our nearby neonatal nursing team step in to help us through the emergency.

Stepping up

Because blood stocks are hard to come by, we can always get one unit of emergency blood from our bank, but after that, the patient’s wellbeing often relies on donation from family members. This can sometimes be difficult, as people tend to donate blood only in emergencies.

However, on this occasion, the woman’s relatives step up without hesitation.

Many of the men who carried this patient here are very young adults. Their thin bodies show the consequences of the harshest living conditions. It is touching to see them, having been through an immense physical feat to arrive here, now lining up to donate a pint of blood to help us save their relative.

Adrenaline and exhaustion

By early in the morning, the woman has received three units of blood and it is clear now that she will be okay.

The night shift team go home; alongside this emergency, they have also been attending to the other women in the maternity ward. We are all exhausted and feeling the after-effects of our adrenaline-fuelled night.

The impact

Years of instability means that South Sudan has very limited reliable public healthcare system, and in this region MSF provides much needed, high quality care. But the floods are impacting all aspects of people’s lives, cutting them off, increasing the risk of diseases like cholera and malaria, while also making it even harder for people to access basic services.

Without the MSF hospital, the teamwork of our maternity and neonatal staff, and the strength and determination of her family, and the woman's own endurance, this patient and her baby would not have survived.

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Top image shows people affected by the floods in Unity State.

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