Fieldset
"I had never seen a child recover from this before"

A critically ill young girl is brought into a remote MSF health centre. She's unconscious and struggling to breathe. To save her, British doctor Sarah Wookey and her team need two things: dedication and luck

One really shouldn't care more about the prettier children.

This two-year-old was brought in by her parents and relatives. A nomadic family, they had travelled on foot through the wilderness since early morning to reach our health centre. The night was falling as they arrived.

I was pretty sure she was going to die, as I had never before seen a child recover once they’d reached that stage of breathing

She had, the father explained in heavily accented Arabic, managed to get hold of the chemical they'd been using to rid their cows of ticks.

No, they didn't know how much she had drunk, or what it was called, and it would take 24 hours to fetch the container.

The girl was deeply unconscious and her breathing came in shallow, irregular, infrequent gasps.

Like her mother, her body was adorned with the markings and jewellery of her tribe. She was beautiful.

A difficult conversation

Our facilities here are pretty basic and we're nowhere near any hospital with advanced life support.

I was pretty sure she was going to die, as I had never before seen a child recover once they’d reached that stage of breathing.

I explained to her father as best I could how worried we were about his daughter; a conversation that would have been supremely difficult even had we been able to speak the same language.

Breathing

That night, however, we had a few things going for us.

The electricity was working, so we had lights and our oxygen concentrator. We had a team of outstandingly devoted nursing staff.

And, although the child was only taking four or five gasps a minute, this appeared to be enough to get adequate amounts of oxygen into her system.

She had simply squatted down beside the bed and kept her hand on some part of her daughter’s body, taking great care to keep out of the way

We put her in our intensive care unit, which is exactly the same as the other units in the hospital except it has a bright light, oxygen and more nurses.

We explained to the overnight nurses that their job was to sit, watch the child breathing, and to breathe for her using a bag and mask every time she stopped.

By her bedside

From the time of the child's arrival her mother had said nothing. She had simply squatted down beside the bed and kept her hand on some part of her daughter’s body, taking great care to keep out of the way.

As I looked in from time to time that night, the mother's position didn't change. Nor did that of the nurses.

The daughter’s, however, did.

By 11 pm, her breathing was more regular.

At 3 am, she opened her eyes.

At nine in the morning, she was sitting up in bed drinking milk.

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* Top image is an archive photograph showing oxygen treatment for small children. It was taken in N'Djamena, Chad, and does not depict the child described in this blog post. For operational reasons, we are occasionally unable to specify exactly where our teams are working