Saving Haiti's most fragile lives

Monica Terez
Clinical nurse educator and program manager, Office of Global Health

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Ohio State is tackling the global issue of infant mortality. Clinical nurse educator Monica Terez reflects on the hundreds of newborn lives saved in Haiti through the OSU/Greif Neonatal Survival Program.

We typically associate the word "anniversary" with momentous, memorable events in our lives. Wedding anniversaries, for example, as well as college and high school graduations, the date an adoption is finalized or the day you entered remission for cancer. All are reasons to celebrate.

On April 30, St. Therese, a district hospital in the city of Hinche, Haiti, celebrated a first-of-its-kind anniversary. It marked the date that, one year earlier, the first infant was admitted to the hospital's Specialized Newborn Care Unit. 

That was the first time any of the more than 2,000 infants born each year at St. Therese have had access to a crib, clean linens, life-monitoring equipment and, most importantly, a trained neonatal nursing staff.

St. Therese Hospital in Hinche, Haiti.

Revolutionary neonatal care

Thanks to a generous gift from the Greif Foundation — the philanthropic arm of an industrial packaging company based in Delaware, Ohio — The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Office of Global Health established the OSU/Greif Neonatal Survival Program in 2012. The program works to improve the lives of mothers and infants in low-income countries through self-sustaining education and training programs that increase the capacity of local health care workers.

Immediately, we set out to tackle the significant issue of infant mortality and morbidity. In 2013, the global infant mortality rate was 4.6 million, significantly contributed to by poor prenatal care and a series of other factors. After careful analysis, we decided to launch our initial program site in Hinche, a centrally located city in Haiti, a country with one of the highest rates of infant mortality worldwide. 

We conducted hospital-wide training on neonatal resuscitation and assisted with the hiring of nine Haitian registered nurses. A six-week didactic/experiential course was developed and delivered to the new neonatal nursing staff by five nurses from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Wexner Medical Center, who volunteered their time and expertise to help in Hinche. 

While the neonatal nurses at St. Therese learned how to treat hypothermia and calculate IV fluid requirements for premature infants, construction workers removed chunks of cement and rusted pipes from a small, empty room in the hospital that would soon be transformed into a neonatal care unit.

The King arrives

On April 30, 2014, the neonatal nurses at St. Therese welcomed the first infant into the new Specialized Newborn Care Unit. He was endearingly called "The King," a fitting name for the first infant to enter the unit's doors. 

One week after admission, The King accomplished another first — he became the first infant discharged from the unit. Little did he know, as his mother cradled him in her arms on their way out the door, that his young life had become a milestone for the hospital and its nurses.

Hundreds of infants have passed through the doors of the Specialized Newborn Care Unit since it opened a year ago. Some entered the unit weighing barely 2 pounds, only to exit 12 weeks later, healthy and strong. Some entered and struggled against all odds to stay alive. Many succeeded; some did not. Yet all of them received expert, respectful care.

Since its inception, the OSU/Greif Neonatal Survival Program has trained more than 500 nurses and physicians in three countries in newborn resuscitation. Plus, Ohio State faculty and staff have contributed more than 2,300 teaching and training hours, 500 of them volunteered. Their work has saved hundreds of newborn lives, to the gratitude of hundreds of families.

Celebrating the gift of life

Earlier this year, on May 30, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, mothers, fathers and the guests of honor — the babies who once stayed in the Specialized Newborn Care Unit at St. Therese — gathered together to celebrate the unit's successful first year. Born in very fragile states to hopeful mothers, one by one the infants who had spent weeks, sometimes months, in the neonatal unit arrived for the one-year anniversary party. They were dressed in their Sunday best, sitting in their parents' laps, surveying the world and all it has to offer.

When given an opportunity to share their stories during the celebration, most parents held a microphone in one hand and their son or daughter in the other. They spoke emotionally and directly to the nurses and physicians in attendance.

As one mother stated:

"I delivered three babies previous to this one. Each baby died because they were born premature, and I was told nothing could be done to save them. Now look! This was my fourth pregnancy, and I stand before you today holding my baby in my arms because of your amazing work!"

Another held her nephew in her arms and explained:

"My brother's wife died at home four days after delivering this baby. Not only did we lose a wonderful mother, friend, wife and family member, but we thought: Certainly we will lose her baby as well. He was born 13 weeks early, and we had no hope for his survival. I stand here today with him in my arms, now 5 months old. This is a gift that my family will be forever grateful for. Thank you to all the nurses for giving us this gift of life!"

The journey for some has been a long one already, but thankfully it is only the beginning. It is often said that life is a journey taken one step at a time. For the "graduates" of the Specialized Newborn Care Unit at St. Therese, it’s one baby step at a time.

About the author

Monica Terez
Monica Terez -
Clinical nurse educator and program manager, Office of Global Health

Monica Terez is a clinical nurse educator and program manager in the Office of Global Health at Ohio State. She has more than 30 years of neonatal experience, including nearly 10 years in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Wexner Medical Center. She also has extensive experience working in resource-poor settings and loves having the opportunity to deliver professional nursing care education far beyond comfortable borders.


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