In the valley of the shadow of death, a baby crawls near the precipice

Last week, dear friends of ours from college (Fred & Kerri) flew in to spend a few days with us on their way back from adopting an eight month old baby from Ethiopia. They arrived with their now four kids (9, 7, 4, and 8 moths), totally exhausted.  It’s one thing to travel with three young children from Phoenix to Addis Ababa – fear of flying, jet lag, completely new experiences, etc. Throw on top of that the dynamics of suddenly adding a new member to your family, and you’ve got major stress. Not only do they add a new baby to their family, but he immediately got some kind of bug going around and was vomiting with diarrhea, unable to sleep at night, totally lethargic, clingy, etc. We’d been following their saga a bit on-line, and we knew that when they got here, they were going to need some serious rest and recuperation. When they arrived, they were as tired as we imagined and had fatigue and worry written all over their faces. Since Amsalu (meaning “in the image of” with a middle name for God) had been sick since they picked him up they didn’t really know what his personality was or what was normal. All they saw was a sick, clingy child. Was he always like this, or was he just reacting to a stressful readjustment coupled with the flu? He had just seen a doctor a few days ago and was already on an antibiotic (gastrointestinal), but we assured them if he did get any worse, we could take him to a clinic any time of day or night if he got any worse.

That night,

I went to sleep in the bedroom of Nathan, our one-year-old next door neighbor who had died just a little over a month ago. Those of you who know us, know that it’s been an extremely tragic year; there isn’t a day we don’t think about little Nathan and our other friends.  When Nathan’s mother had heard that we were looking for accommodations for our guests, she graciously offered their extra bedroom. “We don’t have the baby or his nanny any more, and there’s the bunkbed and double bed” (The standard furniture for kids’ rooms in student housing here). As I drifted off to sleep, I looked over at my own two little angels fast asleep, and I looked again at the empty crib pushed up into the corner – now filled with suitcases.

An hour later (just after midnight), I heard the front door of the apartment open (I’d locked the main grate downstairs and left both front doors unlocked – just in case), and there was a gentle knock on the bedroom door. “Ben, something’s wrong; the baby is not responding.” We jumped up quickly; the baby was lying listlessly on the couch. Eventually, he started to respond, and everything looked normal again. “Should we wait until morning?” Christi and I looked at each other and shook our heads; there was no doubt in our minds; we needed to be 100% sure that the baby was okay.

As I drove Kerry out the main gate (Fred stayed to take care of his other kids), we went over the possibilities of where to take him; there’s a wealth of choices. The closest (and newest) hospital has all the latest state of the art equipment, but there are other concerns about the level of staffing during off-hours. The really good children’s hospital is all the way across town, and I’ve never been there before; I’m not sure that I could find it in the middle of the night. The really good university hospital (where Liam was born and which also has pediatrician on-site 24hours) is also quite far. When in doubt, I often just go with what I know – our little clinic right next to The Nairobi Hospital. For just about every illness, you can see a doctor, get your lab tests and results immediately, get your drugs, and be on your way. If they find something more serious, Nairobi Hospital – with all the latest state-of-the-art equipment – is just around the corner (not even a block away). Little did I know how important that would be.

As we pulled into the clinic parking lot I had a slightly uneasy feeling. On the one hand, it seemed like any other routine clinic visit. I’ve been to this clinic so many times with so many different people, I can’t count any more – at all hours of the day and night. On the other hand, I though of the recent tragedies we had just experienced; “If anything happens to this baby!?!? . . . ” (I quickly put that thought out of my mind.)

As we waited for the lab results, I plied the on-duty nurse with questions. I found out that she had been a trauma nurse for seven years in the Emergency Room (Accident & Casualty they call it here) at the university hospital where Liam was born. We talked about the best places to take kids during emergencies. We even talked about some of the tragic circumstances that we had both experienced. I asked for her opinions on where to go in emergencies, and we discussed the different options.

The blood and stool tests all came back negative. Kerri commented on how quickly the whole process took. It was now nearly two in the morning, and although we still weren’t completely satisfied with the diagnosis, we felt like there wasn’t much more to do. I had asked the doctor every single question I could think of; he was already on an antibiotic . . . Finally and reluctantly we started to walk out. I stopped by to talk to the nurse one last time – as though stalling. While we discussed why all the tests came back negative, Amsalu started to jerk a little bit in my arms – as though his stomach was having mini spasms. “How can he be alright?” I asked, “He’s jerking.” The nurse asked to see him again. “Take him back into the doctor!” she said firmly. The doctor was seeing another little boy, but I barged in anyway. “Look at him!” I insisted, “He’s jerking.” “I’ll be with you in a minute – as soon as I’m done here.” She replied. Then I saw his eyes; they were flickering and rolling up into the top of his head. “Look at his eyes!” I pressed. At this point, she ushered me into the next room where the nurse was already preparing. By this point, he seemed like he was having full blown seizures. They gave him an emergency shot, then realized that he was also having trouble breathing.

They quickly put him on oxygen. The trauma nurse held the baby as we dashed down to our car, shoved the oxygen tank into the back seat, and rushed him around the corner to Nairobi Hospital. Everything was a blur. When we got there, the ER staff looked genuinely worried – like they thought we might lose him. But the doctor on duty made the right instant guess (pneumonia) suctioned out his lungs, gave him some stiff antibiotics, took a chest x-ray, and admitted him. In less than an hour, he was breathing again on his own. I made nurses leave the portable pulse and oxygen meter with us for a couple more hours. I told Kerri to sleep – if she could (in the bed next to his), so she could take care of him when he woke up. I pulled a chair up next to his bed and watched that machine like a hawk (This was the exact same ward where little Nathan had died just a little over a month ago). Amsalu’s oxygen levels were on the lower side (but fine) for about another hour, then suddenly shot back up – as if the antibiotics had finally cleared his lungs up. When the nurses, finally came to get the machine for rounds at about 5 am, his oxygen levels had been back up to 99-100% for about an hour, so I knew then he was okay. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him to make sure he was breathing till he woke up at six. (Reminded me of when Kiara was first born, and I learned to read all those #s in the NICU in Washington, DC).

Here is how Kerri recounts the night: The Worst Moment of My Life

It was about one week ago to this very moment when Amsalu went into convulsions at an all night clinic in Nairobi. The worst moment of my life, seeing my son struggling to breathe. But looking back, I can see clearly that it was a moment of mercy; it was the moment that saved his life.

We began to care for Amsalu on a Monday in Ethiopia. After our first feeding he began to vomit and have chronic diarrhea. The doctor at the care center prescribed an antibiotic for a gastrointestinal infection. As the week progressed, diarrhea and vomiting persisted and he seemed to grow more lifeless and listless. When we arrived in Nairobi on Saturday, I intended to get him to a clinic as soon as possible. Thankfully our friends Christi and Ben mentioned that there were 24 hour clinics open all weekend. That night, Cheney and I slept in the same bed with Amsalu. We were all in and out of sleep. Around midnight,Cheney noticed that he was awake, staring blankly. I could not get him to respond to me. His lips would not suck when given a bottle. Filled with panic, I woke our friends, and Ben drove Amsalu and me to the clinic.

At the clinic, we waited while they tested his stool and blood. Amsalu, sitting up in my sling, was a bit more responsive now, but still not his healthy, happy self. When all the test results came back normal, the doctor wrote us a prescription for vitamins and sent us on our way. Ben and I hesitated to leave, confused by the test results and what we knew to be an abnormal baby. At this moment, Amsalu began to seize. His eyes rolled back into his head and his whole body shook. Ben took him back to the doctor, interrupting her exam of another child. She told him to wait his turn, but he insisted she look up. When she saw the seizure, she ushered us into another exam room. This is when the trauma nurse saw that he was not breathing. She grabbed the oxygen. Within minutes, the nurse was climbing into the back of Ben’s car holding Amsalu and the oxygen tank. I was sobbing and trying not to hyperventilate. Someone told me to get in the front seat.

A few blocks away was Nairobi Hospital, one of the best in Africa. Instructed by the nurse to do so, I jumped out of the car at the hospital and rang the bell as hard as I could. Amsalu was rushed into a room where nurses and doctors began to stabilize him with drugs and oxygen. No one contested my presence in the room. I was able to cry and pray as I watched my little boy vomit and struggle to breathe. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to be present to.

amsalu-april-2009Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he was settled, and the diagnosis of pneumonia was given. The doctor was patient to explain that the convulsions came because he was not getting oxygen. This is when we understood that the convulsions were a severe mercy. Had we left the clinic that night without the doctor seeing this, he very well may have died in the night, unable to get the oxygen he needed. We have since learned that this, the rainy season, is a dangerous season for babies in Kenyan and Ethiopia because so many children die from it. As with Amsalu, it can present with vomiting and diarrhea. The difficulty breathing is imperceptible, and the child is too young to communicate.

Amsalu was admitted to the hospital that night. When I asked if I could stay with him, the doctor gave me a confused look and said, “You MUST stay with him; you are the mother.” Over the next two nights and two days, life and health creeped back into Amsalu’s body. We were fed delicious and healthy meals, able to choose from a menu. In addition to the meals, I was brought tea two times a day. The nurses and doctor cared for us with such kindness and gentleness, that I was rejuvenated as much as my son. For example, when a nurse came into the room to bathe Amsalu but found him sleeping, she said, “They get so irritable when you wake them. Let’s let him sleep and bathe him later.” Another time, a nurse insisted that I sleep with Amsalu and not in the separate bed “because he is cold and needs to be close to you.”

Amsalu and I spent our time in the hospital resting, healing, getting to know each other, and even playing together as he got stronger. The entire ordeal, the worst of my life, was transformed into one of the sweetest memories of my new son.


When a baby crawls near the precipice in the valley of the shadow of death, these relatively insignificant details become part of how God snatches a little life back from the jaws of death!

  • What if they hadn’t come directly here and had been on a jet half-way across the Atlantic?
  • What if Kerri hadn’t noticed that was wrong and sprung into action?
  • What if I had locked the front door between the two apartments, and Kerri hadn’t been able to wake us up?
  • What if after he perked up and looked fine, we had decided to wait until morning to have him checked?
  • What if the nurse on duty hadn’t been an experience trauma nurse and recognized the signs of distress immediately?
  • What if his little convulsions hadn’t happened until 15 minutes later when we were on our way home?
  • What if the ER hadn’t been just around the corner?
  • What if the ER doctor hadn’t made the correct on-the-spot diagnosis.

Today, little Amsalu is totally fine, but that night, he passed through the valley of the shadow of death. Not everyone makes it, and we can’t change the past, but I thank God that this one did.

3 thoughts on “In the valley of the shadow of death, a baby crawls near the precipice

  1. SImon says:

    so beautiful.

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