From our base in the busy, bustling Ugandan town of Mbale we drive for an hour and a half to Pallisa and our first destination, a shockingly rundown hospital serving an area with a population of over 32,000. The place is in a state of decay and looks like it has been set-dressed for a drama: broken windows, wires hanging out of walls, peeling paint, dirty floors, rusty equipment.
I meet Doctor David Okoth, Nurse Irene and Sister Mary who explain the huge challenges they face on a daily basis – lack of equipment, lack of staff, lack of transport and frequent and unpredictable power cuts. There are three wards – male, female and paediatric, although due to the sheer numbers, only children aged five years or younger are allowed in this ward.
The paediatric ward has just 24 beds but by the end of the day 100 children have been admitted. I look around for a broken leg, signs of an accident, but instead there are terribly sick children with a cocktail of preventable, but potentially fatal illnesses. I meet a little boy called Isaac who is just five months old and was rushed into hospital with severe malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia. Due to his malnutrition the nurse has difficulty finding a vein in his arm, so the decision is made to attach the drip to his head.
It takes her 15 minutes of repeated attempts before she’s able to find a vein and Isaac, though listless and lifeless, cries out in pain every time the needle pierces his little body. I stand there watching, sometimes having to look away; only to be faced with a room full of children just like Isaac, all waiting to be seen. Isaac is one of 28 children admitted with malaria that day.
Once the drip has been attached and Isaac’s body begins to receive much-needed hydration, he’s taken to the ward, a large oblong room with metal cots on a concrete floor and dirty windows all around. The place is populated with mothers sitting with sick children on their laps. They’re huddled around stands from which several drips hang, some delivering hydration, some blood. Three or four mothers share one stand, their children lying lifeless in their arms often with a pool of their own waste spreading around them.
I’d have expected the mothers’ faces to be wrought with anxiety but the truth is they’re set in an expressionless mask of acceptance. As the day progresses, the numbers grow, along with the smell – a sickly mixture of blood, urine and faeces. As a father it’s very difficult to remain unaffected by the scenes unfolding around me. I find myself drifting outside for some fresh air and a few moments away from the illness.
Day two – without a bike Dina would’ve died
We drive out to visit a health clinic in the rural village of Agule where I meet Harriet and her two-day-old daughter, Dina. When Harriet went into labour at her home, her husband desperately went in search of transport to get her to the health centre, an hour’s walk away. He tried everywhere he could think of to borrow a bicycle but returned home empty-handed and Harriet had resigned herself to having her baby at home, without any help.
Fortunately, Harriet was found by a passer-by who’d heard of a Comic Relief-funded project that provides taxi bikes to collect and transport women in labour to the nearest health centre. Without this service, little Dina wouldn’t have survived, as the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, a condition that requires the help of a trained midwife. Without your money, Dina wouldn’t be here, it’s as simple as that.
When I meet Harriet, her husband and her healthy newborn baby, they’re much like a typical happy UK family who have just welcomed a new baby into the world. It really brought home to me the importance of the taxi bikes and how such a simple service can make the difference between life and death.
We later go back to the hospital to check on Isaac’s recovery. Thankfully, he’s a lot better. It’s amazing just how quickly his health has improved after a blood transfusion. Luckily for him and five other children who had transfusions that day, there was blood available. If they’d come to the hospital just one day earlier, they’d have found there was none.
The steady stream of poorly, seemingly lifeless kids with the same illnesses – malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea – keeps flowing in. Different faces but the same fear, the same sounds and the same overwhelming smell. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the corridor in which parents wait patiently for treatment, just hoping that, for their child, they have made it to the hospital in time.
Day three – saved by a jab
We travel to a health clinic in Kadama where I get the chance to see Comic Relief money in action. A vaccination clinic has been set up to immunise children against five killer diseases all of which are preventable. The Pentavalent vaccine costs just £5 – that sounds like pretty good value to me.
Compared to the darkness of the hospital this is a happy sight – mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters with children all queuing up under the Ugandan sun. I meet a 12-year-old boy who has brought his two younger sisters to be vaccinated. Just like my kids, they don’t like receiving the jabs but I walk away knowing that the money the public has donated to Red Nose Day is really making a life-long difference to them.