Healthcare workers’ challenges, sorrows in battle to save abandoned infants

Treating newborns abandoned by their own parents and bitten by insects or with deadly infections is a big and tragic challenge for medical workers.

On the evening of June 6, Dr Mai Anh of Hanoi’s Saint Paul Hospital received a phone call. It was a doctor from Son Tay General Hospital calling to say they had an infant who was critically ill.

"Can he breathe?" she asked hurriedly.

The child had been abandoned near a manhole for several days, and the medic thought he was breathing, his body was covered with insects.

She told them: "Make sure he is breathing and his pulse is okay. Bring him quickly."

Vietnam, Vietnamese, infant, doctor, newborn, baby, hospital, Hanoi

A doctor attends to an infant at Hanoi’s Saint Paul Hospital. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

Thirty minutes later she removed the towel covering the baby's body and unconsciously stepped back. She has never forgotten the chill that ran down her spine then at seeing the infant covered in ant bites and with his ears, eyes and mouth infested with maggots.

In her 12 years as a doctor, she had never seen anything so horrifying.

After cleaning him up, the emergency team on duty tried to keep him warm and kept watch all night to ensure his vital signs were strong before regular doctors and nurses took over.

Doctors at the hospital later named the boy Nguyen Van An.

"With abandoned infants, we first have to check their respiratory and circulatory systems, and then for infections," Anh explains.

An is among several abandoned infants at the hospital’s neonatology department, which gets five to seven of them every year. In the last ten years, the number of abandoned babies in Vietnam has increased, creating community backlash, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs.

Some are brought by their family members who then abscond, others are abandoned outside pagodas or in nylon bags on the street and found by rescue teams. So far this year the hospital has taken in five such infants.

Taking care of these babies is challenging and requires a lot of coordination, according to Dr Thai Bang Giang, head of the neonatology department.

In some recent instances, infants were left outdoors, and this poses a lot of risks like infection, hypothermia and respiratory failure, he said.

The babies can have septicemia with damage to internal organs, especially the respiratory system, which requires putting them on ventilators.

Sometimes their hearts stop beating due to toxins and bacteria attacking their heart muscles, and doctors must use chest compression and increase vasopressors to save them.

"It is complicated, and we keep an eye on these cases constantly," Giang said.

Vietnam, Vietnamese, infant, doctor, newborn, baby, hospital, Hanoi

A nurse takes care of an abandoned baby. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.

The most severe cases that doctors at the hospital treated recently have been An, Nguyen Phuc Dat, who had been abandoned in a narrow wall gap, and Nguyen Binh An, abandoned on a street.

Dat and Binh An were found early and saved. Dat had severe infection in the first three days before recovering, and his mother's parents came to claim him. He was handed over after DNA test confirmed they were indeed his grandparents.

Binh An was hospitalized with his heart not beating, and doctors put him on high-frequency oscillatory ventilation. Luckily, he did not have much infection and was discharged on September 15.

Nguyen Van An’s was the most pitiable case. Over 28 days while on a ventilator his heart stopped beating five times. Doctors at the hospital discussed his prognosis with their counterparts at the Vietnam National Children's Hospital and keep a watchful eye on him 24 hours a day.

"We placed chairs in the room to watch over him; we did not take our eyes off him," Ngo Thi Minh Loan, a nurse, said. "But he was critically ill."

An passed away on June 29.

Most of the abandoned infants admitted to Saint Paul Hospital are found in places where they can easily be spotted and covered with a blanket or clothes.

Treating them is not too challenging, Giang said.

Doctors and nurses are uniformly thrilled when they see an unfortunate child gets better and is adopted.

"But with An, we have been feeling sorry since the moment we saw him off to the car taking him to his burial," Loan said.

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