Deep in Zambia, outside of the capital of Lusaka, sits an old hotel, renovated to house an orphanage with more than 20 residents. Most of the children who reach the orphanage are in poor health, but all need help.
It’s a need that Belmont senior Meg McKechnie saw firsthand this summer, which she described on her blog, thedamascusroad.blogspot.com:
Kindergarten students, or “Kinders,” are outside for their morning lesson. The sweet smiles of the children learning the functions of their organs is enough to melt the stoniest of hearts.
A week-old, 5-pound baby named Jessie has just arrived. Scribbled on a piece of paper is a letter stating the unthinkable: HIV.
Every breath this “African princess” takes is a gift. Her intelligent brown eyes stare quizzically and accusingly at the medical officer and Belmont senior Meg McKechnie as they struggle to safely attach a feeding tube to her petite nose.
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McKechnie, a nursing student, returned to Belmont in August after spending three months at the Zambian orphanage.
“I’m not exactly a fan of malaria, but HIV/AIDS gained a new enemy when it chose to pick on this little girl,” McKechnie said. “It is a brutal, relentless, cruel virus. I hate it. It can’t have her. Not without a fight, anyway.”
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Her tiny fists would ball up on either side of the bottle as she ate. Warm baths were her favorite but as soon as she was taken from the water, Jessie would shriek like a banshee.
She was so tiny that newborn clothing swallowed her. Jessie’s favorite place to be was cuddled up on someone’s chest so she could listen to the soothing “duh duh” of the heartbeat.
After nearly six weeks of fighting, Jessie died despite the tender care and sleepless nights spent hoping to nurse her back to health.
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“If I could do it all over again, I would have loved her every bit as deeply. She deserved it. She was worth it,” McKechnie said.
McKechnie, a Belmont nursing student, spent her entire summer as a staff member for the orphanage run by Tom and Amy Morrow, a part of a nonprofit called Global Contributions.
With few resources and struggles with medical officers with little training, McKechnie took on the difficult job of being the only person on staff with any formal medical training.
“It was really difficult. … I learned a lot. It forced me to think on my feet and perform procedures I’d never done before,” McKechnie said.
When not running IVs and spending sleepless nights counting a baby’s breaths, McKechnie filled a variety of positions including kindergarten teacher and maintenance repairman. Her “catch-all” job position allowed McKechnie a chance to be involved with the children outside of nursing them back to health.
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My dad used to tell me that I wear my heart on my sleeve. He’s right. I cried when the alien got sick in ET. He tried to talk me out of pursing medicine because he said I would get too attached to my patients. He’s right. Especially if that patient is a child.
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During her time at the orphanage, McKechnie cared for three severely ill babies, one of them being 5-month-old Gladys. Compared to most of the other malnourished babies, Gladys was seemingly plump and healthy but wrinkled from dehydration.
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At first, she refused to take the bottle. The only way to get her to take milk was by a dropper, one painstaking drop at a time.
McKechnie spent many sleepless nights cuddling and caring for precious Gladys, developing a kind of possessive, nearly motherly bond with the sweet giggling babe. I hate it if I stop by the nursery and find a baby with a dirty diaper, but I almost take it personally if that baby is Gladys.
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This independent mission trip initially began as an attempt to gain experience in missionary medicine but has developed into a passion for Zambia and a drive to help the people. After graduation in May 2012, McKechnie plans to return to Zambia to work for the same orphanage.
“I’m in a unique position in my life, being a college student, don’t have kids and not married, not tied anywhere, I can be that liaison [between Zambia and the world],” McKechnie said.
Her visit enabled her to better identify needs, like medicine or teachers.
Eventually, McKechnie hopes to be able to build a stronger foundation of American college student volunteers to fill the needs.
Monetary restraints and a lack of resources would stop a less determined person, but McKechnie sees the limitations as part of the experience.
“It’s not about changing Africa, it’s about making the impact you can on who you can with what resources you have,” McKechnie said.