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Amazing moment volunteer brings a baby back to life

Newborn deaths and infection rates have plummeted since VSO opened this intensive care unit in northern Uganda three months ago for babies born too soon or too poorly. 

Warning: This article contains images of a newborn baby being resuscitated, which some readers may find upsetting.

This is the incredible moment a newborn baby fought for life. Thanks to VSO volunteers and supporters who helped set up a new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), she survived.


Newborn resuscitation in Uganda


Amazing moment baby breathes on its own for the first time after its life was saved by Ugandan volunteer Deborah and midwife Phoebe.

This little girl was born on the crowded and chaotic maternity ward of Moroto Regional Referral Hospital in northern Uganda.

But there were complications during a long and difficult labour, which ended in every mother's worst nightmare. The baby wasn't breathing.

The 35-year-old mother may have feared the worst: in Uganda 27 in of every 1000 newborns don't make it. While she was resting on her way to a full recovery, the ward medical officer explained the situation:

Her womb had ruptured during a prolonged labour. The baby was in distress, then stopped breathing. The mother was praying very hard for her baby to be well.

Dennis Esayu, Ward Medical Officer, Moroto Regional Referral Hospital


Mothers on the maternity ward pray for their babies to be born healthy ©VSO/Peter Caton

Mothers on the maternity ward pray for their babies to be born healthy. Before VSO's support, up to 7% of newborns at this hospital did not survive their first week of life.

Thankfully, the hospital has a new specialist unit, set up by VSO, to cope with exactly such a situation. Within a minute, the newborn was under the specialist care of Ugandan volunteer Deborah and midwife Phoebe.

The baby was born not breathing ©VSO/Peter Caton

After a stressful birth, the baby was born not breathing. It was rushed to the intensive care unit set up by VSO and rescued by volunteer Deborah and midwife Phoebe.

The two used a special newborn resuscitator to bring the baby back to life. This simple resuscitator technology costs just £50 per unit - but it is rare for most hospitals to have even one. Through VSO support, the NICU here has two.

Within just a few minutes the baby was opening her eyes, as Deborah and Phoebe completed their newborn health checklist, cleaned and wrapped her to put her down for a well-earned rest.

Newborn baby in Uganda ©VSO/Peter Caton

The little girl takes a big gulp of air on her own

"You see, she has decided to stay with us. Maybe this one will become our president one day," laughs Deborah.

Volunteers creating change that lasts

Technology alone is not enough to save lives. Ugandan VSO volunteer Deborah has been at Moroto Regional Referral Hospital since well before the unit opened, offering training to the two midwives here in vital skills like newborn resuscitation.

Volunteer Deborah holds a newborn baby ©VSO/Peter Caton

VSO volunteer Deborah has been supporting local staff to establish the NICU by sharing her skills

Deborah, who has a lifetime's experience working as a paediatric nurse, has also shared with local colleagues how to spot danger signs, which when missed lead to unneccessary deaths of babies. Her trainees have learned how to safely insert IVs, isolate babies with infections and maintain a high standard of hygiene across the unit.

The skills Deborah is sharing will remain with local staff long after the end of her volunteer placement, as she explains:

I hope and believe that through my mentorship, the nurses will be happy to continue the work we’ve been doing here with one heart, with love, even when I’m not there.

Deborah Nangomah, Ugandan volunteer paediatric nurse

Three months on: Signs of success

The NICU at Moroto Regional Referral Hospital opened just three months ago. In that time, 39 babies with complications have been admitted, with infection and birth asphyxia being the most common reasons.

Baby in Uganda ©VSO/Peter Caton

One of the happy, healthy babies supported by the new unit and ready to go home with mum

Staff and volunteers are proud to report that 38 babies went home healthy, having received specialist care by health workers trained by VSO, using equipment provided by VSO. Sadly one baby, born prematurely at seven months with birth asphyxia and haemorrhage, did not respond to resuscitation and so could not be saved.

Before, seven out of every hundred babies born at this hospital died within their first week of life. Now the new unit is up and running the survival rate is over 99%.

While it is still early days for the NICU, these early results show promising signs of improved chances for mothers and babies born at the hospital.

"I have never received care like this before"

Mother Dominica and her baby girl at the NICU in Moroto, Uganda ©VSO/Peter Caton

Dominica gave birth on the roadside before she could reach the hospital. At the NICU her new daughter Ilukol can be monitored for infection in a special isolation room.

Of course, the new intensive care unit means the most to the mothers whose premature and sick babies are cared for here.  

The nurses are kind. I feel very happy they are helping me watch over my daughter. This care is better than that for my first two children.

Dominica Lomongin, whose baby girl was monitored for infection, having been born on the roadside before her mother could reach the hospital on foot from her village 5km away

Mums who deliver early receive instruction in kangaroo mother care - the skin-to-skin contact that can double a premature baby's chances of survival. New parents also learn about the importance of hygiene in their children's first days back at home.

Historically, newborn mortality has been so common here that many mothers are superstitious: They believe that to prepare for their new arrival in any way might jinx the baby's survival. Now, they could begin to dare to hope.

Happy mothers and midwives

Midwife Phoebe and volunteer Deborah practice newborn resuscitation ©VSO/Peter Caton

Even when there are no babies in the NICU, volunteer Deborah encourages midwife Phoebe to practice her newborn resuscitation technique using a training doll 

For midwife Phoebe Kobusige, the new unit is a game-changer in a remote hospital that has long suffered acute staff shortages and a paucity of resources.

Since VSO came on board, I personally have saved three lives using the training I have received in neonatal resuscitation alone.

Phoebe Kobusige, Midwife, Moroto Regional Referral Hospital

Phoebe explains: "We midwives have been crying for this unit to open. Before, we had nowhere to isolate our babies with infections. We were forced to keep sick and healthy babies together on the same congested ward, and our babies ended up getting infections because of this. We felt very bad.

"Now there is a very great improvement. On behalf of all the midwives, all of us, I want to thank VSO and those who helped us to open this unit."

Providing skilled volunteers, and low-cost high-impact equipment is a cheap way of saving lives. To all of you who have helped us support hospitals like this to provide new mums and babies with the quality care they deserve, thank you.

We always need more health professionals to volunteer. Please see our current opportunities for healthcare professionals

Medical and health volunteering

There are many more people who need our support. Can you help?


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