Thursday, March 28, 2013

Love Me, Care For Me, Adopt Me

Holding a newborn twin
Earlier this week I had an experience that was simultaneously one of the most heartbreaking yet uplifting ones I've had since we've been in Albania.  Although I had known about the Organization for the Support of Albania's Abandoned Babies, OSAAB, since we had arrived in the country, I had never visited their nursery.  On Tuesday I finally did and after my visit I know I will never think about babies, family, or privilege the same way again.

Since 1996 OSAAB has been working to provide food, clothing, diapers, and love to abandoned babies while they await a spot in one of Albania's overfilled and under funded orphanages.  OSAAB is housed in the Queen Geraldine University Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynecology here in Tirana.  As a beneficiary of international support, the hospital has been able to expand and modernize its facilities to more western standards.  ("Before" pictures just bring me to tears).  Through dedicated leadership and commitment, they have been able to expand their services beyond basic health care to include preventive care, parenting education, and outreach to Albanian women throughout the country.  These are services that Americans take for granted but in this little Balkan country are only beginning to be offered.  OSAAB is a natural expansion of the hospital's mission. This partnership proves to be mutually beneficial for both OSAAB and the hospital since they are able to share the limited facilities, staff, and resources that are necessary to keep both organizations operational.

As a mother I can't fathom the idea of abandoning my child.  Of course, my circumstances are so much different than the hundreds of Albanian women who have done just this before and since the inception of OSAAB. Abandoning one's baby is not unique to Albania; after all, national safe haven laws in the United States provide women who are unwilling or unable to care for their babies safe alternatives for the well being of their children.  Circumstances in Albania are just so different than they are in the U.S.  While the stigma of being a single or teenage mother has diminished greatly in  most of the United States, here in Albania it is still considered the equivalent of wearing a Scarlet A on one's forehead.  Single women who find themselves pregnant are often ashamed and take great measures to hide their pregnancies from their friends and families, and most likely the fathers of their children.  Attempts to hide pregnancies result in expectant mothers receiving no prenatal care, delivering babies in hospitals under assumed names, and yes, abandoning their babies with the hope of putting the whole incident behind them and moving on with their lives.  I don't know how possible truly moving on is but I find these entire circumstances and the reasoning and mindset behind them to be just horrific.  When these circumstances do arise, although only temporary, the OSAAB nursery provides the necessary love and care that newborn babies need.  It really is a beacon of light in an otherwise dismal situation.

As good as the hospital is, it is by no means on par with American hospitals.  I saw this first hand when we toured the NICU.  As many of you know, because of Sidney's twelve week stay in two separate NICUs, I am quite familiar with the ins and outs of both civilian and military NICUs. I was apprehensive of what I would see and on a very personal level wasn't sure I would be able to go into the ward.  As we suited up I was still unsure whether or not I could stand to see all of those tiny babies fighting for their lives.  With the tiny isolettes lined up in rows, the NICU was more like the naval hospital NICU than I wanted to admit.  Looking at the smallest of infants, already weeks old but still well below healthy birth weights, brought back images of my own premature baby fighting for his life.  While the incubators were the ones I am all too familiar with, the monitors and equipment were in no way as modern as the ones that had nursed Sidney to health.  I was simultaneously heartened to see that modern equipment was available yet saddened knowing that even more modern (and expensive) technology exists yet isn't readily available in Albania. 

Still there were several things that I found comforting.  The nurses staffing the NICU cared for the fragile babies with the same level of love and caring that Sidney's American nurses had for him during his time of need.  I was told that many of the nurses had received specialized training in Italy and other parts of Europe before returning to Albania to care for babies.  I was elated to see that "kangarooing" was not only encouraged, but readily practiced within the unit as a mother was cuddling with her own infant during our visit.  This skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn infant provides a vital link and bonding experience that is so necessary for both mother and child. I learned about kangarooing in Sidney's first NICU and fought the second NICU to allow me to continue doing this with him.  During his hospitalization, I spent hour upon hour each day holding Sidney against my chest while we read, slept, and bonded.  For me it was both therapeutic and healing.  It was these moments that helped both of us get through those first long weeks and months. 

For me, this visit reiterated how lucky I am, and how lucky all Americans are.  We are fortunate to be citizens of a country where being a single mother does not carry a stigma so great that we feel pressured to abandon our babies.  If we decide we can't care for them, there are safe and legal alternatives.  Modern health care is readily accessible for both mother and child.  Pre-natal care is the norm rather than the exception.  There are days when I bemoan aspects of my life and think that things are unfair.  In reality, my even thinking this is unfair because I am privileged simply because I am an American. When Sidney was born I knew he had access to the best neo-natal health care available.  Sure I had to do battle with the hospital on occasion but I had a modern hospital to do the battle with and at the end of the day he really was well cared for.   My heart breaks for those little babies currently in both the NICU and the OSAAB nursery as well as the ones that will fill their small cribs once they leave.  If you want to talk about unfair, the fact that hundreds of little babies fight this fight is what is unfair. 

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