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Bigger Cheeks. Louder Laughs.

The first time I met Maya and her beautiful mother Janaki, I didn’t need to be a doctor to know that Maya was severely malnourished. At 6 months of age, her entire head fit into my palm. When I held her, I felt every bone beneath her skin.

This was not the first time that we had seen a malnourished child, but none of us had seen one as severely malnourished as Maya. She weighed less now, at age 6 months, than when she was born. Possible’s health assistant (trained in malnutrition) counseled Janaki. To treat Maya, she and her mother would need to stay at Bayalpata Hospital for 20 days so that the clinicians could closely monitor Maya while they nourished her back to health. However, Janaki and Maya had to leave immediately. Janaki had four other children and a husband who was too ill to care for them, waiting for her at home. She agreed to return with Maya later that week, but only after first returning home to find someone to care for her other children. As Janaki walked out of the hospital with Maya, I overheard other patients say, “She’s not coming back” and I worried that we would never see them again.

Later, I learned that Janaki was married at the age of 15, and a few years later, her husband’s mental health began to deteriorate. Before his health worsened, Janaki’s husband entreated her to leave him and marry someone else, but she stayed. He was, after all, the father of her children, and her fate may not have been better with someone else. A few days later, while she was fetching water, her husband stayed home with their two-year-old daughter. When the baby began to cry, he slapped the baby in his altered state of mind. From that day forward, Janaki could no longer entrust the care of their five children to her husband. This knowledge led us to believe that we would never see Maya and Janaki again.

But, three days later, to our surprise, after walking six hours in 100-degree weather, Janaki returned to the hospital with Maya. Neighbors had offered to keep an eye on her children, and Janaki’s 11-year-old daughter had assured her mother that she could manage the household while her mother remained at the hospital taking care of her younger sister. Maya was admitted to the hospital, where the nurses diligently prepared formula to feed her every two hours — a demanding task that any mother who has cared for a sick child can identify with. Janaki spoon-fed the formula to her daughter drop by drop, and soon Maya’s cheeks grew bigger and her laughs began to grow louder.

Maya’s growth over those two weeks is a testament to the true power of accompaniment. I believe that malnourished children will have better access to the care they require as a result of health assistants who spends hours counseling their families. I believe that malnourished children will receive quality care because nurses work tirelessly to nourish these children back to life. I believe that malnourished children will receive the care they need because ultimately a mother will walk hours in the blistering sun to save her child’s life, so long as our resources provide the hope she needs and deserves.

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