Here is Jennifer, one of the babies I have been looking after. She is 5 months old, but smaller than a newborn. Except for the time the volunteers spend with these babies get very little stimulation and human attention. The nurses have little time for one on one.
Casa Jackson is on the outskirts of Antigua in Guatemala. Antigua itself is a beautiful place, UNESCO world heritage site surrounded by 3 volcanos. However the outskirts and surrounding villages are all pretty much at the poverty line. To get to the house where the babies were we always have to walk with a local Guatemalan guard, previous volunteers had been attacked. David one of the other volunteers was held up this week at gunpoint at midday. So not a place to mess around; the house itself is behind huge steel doors with an entry phone camera and high walls. The nurses do not open the door unless you are expected.
When I arrived here I thought I would volunteer few shifts each week at Casa Jackson in-between all the tourist stuff. I would be looking after malnourished babies – basically feeding, nappy changing, feeding, bathing, feeding, playing and putting to sleep.
But within a very short time I could not stay away and am now doing double shifts into the evening when the one nurse on duty needs help the most. There are 11 babies and that’s a lot for one nurse through the night! The thought of all those babies just crying out for attention and being left to fend for themselves was too much for me. Leaving each night is hard enough and any day that I am not there I just feel guilty.
I have the bedtime routine down to pat though – 6 babies: the littlest ones Jennifer, Suzana and Henry down first, nappies changed, into pyjamas, bottle-fed in quick succession then back
around each one again for a burp and rock to sleep (often rocking one whilst finishing feeding another). Then onto Denis change and into bed with a bottle, then Jose and Julio who usually go down quite quickly, at which point one of the littlest ones, usually Jennifer starts crying for attention and needs rocking to sleep. If I am lucky I can then do a quick clear up of bottles and dirty nappies before Denis who wakes up about half an hour after going to sleep, screaming. I pick him up before he wakes the others and sit in a rocking chair until he eventually calmed down, fallen asleep on my shoulder and then back to bed. Placing him down, lifting and shutting the iron cot railings without waking him again is an art.
We also have to wear face masks most of the time to keep the babies safe from breathing any potential germs on them. They are very susceptible to infection.
When I first arrived Denis (pictured), about 18 months old, just lay in his cot with a vacant empty stare, no reaction whatsoever, I was quite sure he mentally impaired. But within a few days of playing and hugging he totally turned around, always a cheeky engaging smile, immediately watching me to get my attention amongst the other babies in the room.
This morning I arrived to find a new baby boy had been taken in, He was tiny, tiny, tiny and red in face crying so hard no sound came out. I looked after him for the next few hours and then someone came to take him away, I still have no idea why he was there, who had left him, or who has taken him. I think the hardest thing was that he had no name and I totally cracked up when they took him away. It is clear why the nurses have to be so hard to work here.
Now i have left. Back on a plane to the UK. I feel like my heart has been wrenched out and i have deserted them. Cannot keep myself from crying. Utterly hopeless.