The community is built on reclaimed land from the sea from the days of President Marcos. The floods are daily when the tide comes in, crawling slowly over the cement barricades and covering the streets for hours. All the houses have an upper floor to escape the unstoppable waters. The drainage systems are always overflowing with thick bubbling black ooze. The stench is often unbearable.
The children are hungry, skinny, dirty, and left unsupervised almost without exception.
On a distress call from Social Services, my social worker Minet, and I planned the 2 hour trip to the area where a malnourished child was being referred to Gentle Hands.
The people crowded around the van and whispers of “DSWD” could be heard. The social worker took us to the little shack that was home to 8 children under 11, husband, wife and grandparents. I stood in the doorway, an ever-growing crowd behind me, wondering if I would meet an angry, defensive mother or a broken woman that poverty and life had beaten up.
She was poised, ready to fight but we couldn’t talk because of the crying. She picked the little one off the dirty floor and I could hear the whispers through the crowd. The community was very upset about this.
His entire backside, down to the back of his knees was raw flesh, burnt from laying in acidic diarrhea for who knows how long. He had a raging fever, his eyes sunken, from dehydration. As soon as the mother picked him up, his hot swollen legs and feet hung down. Kwashiokor Malnutrition. Oh, how much pain he must be in, I thought. The skin was peeling in strips off his feet.
I looked gently into the eyes of the mother and explained she could fight me and make this very ugly or she could make one good decision in her life and give me the child so he wouldn’t die. Tears rolled down her cheeks. I explained that God was having mercy on her and her son and she needed to take this chance to do something for her other children. I put my hands on her 8 year old. His shoulder bones and ribs were just about poking through the thin skin. All of your children are suffering. If you don’t do something, next time I will take them all. She nodded slowly.
Then I turned to the neighbors standing outside the door. Where are the twins, I asked. The mother squeaked. The case study had indicated 7 months old twin girls. I looked at my social worker and she knew. She was back in only minutes with both. We are taking them too, I said. Its only a matter of time and they will look just like this one. The DSWD social worker heaved a sigh of relief. Thank you, thank you, he whispered.
I would have probably given him a lecture too if I wasn’t so worried about the boy.
Several mothers explained the 10-year-old boy was in charge of the twins, who had one bottle between the two and who drank water more often that not because there was no money for milk.
On the way to the van, a lady walked by Minet and said “There’s an abandoned baby over in that house. You need to take it. All it does is cry." We didn’t need a second tip. We crossed the street and asked for directions from neighbors. The dark narrow alley, with piles of rotting garbage should have been an indication of what we would find. The room was dark, the stench vile, the filth, piles of dirty clothes, and garbage were everywhere inside the little cement house and in the midst of it all, there was a dirty sheet tied up to the ceiling and there she was. An old lady, probably in her 70’s, not even a relative, sort of a family friend, had been taking care of this little one since the mother left her 6 weeks ago.
A mireage of questions and we called for the maternal grandmother. 45 minutes later she arrived and Minet and I couldn’t believe it. It was the woman who had told us to take the abandoned baby. It was obvious, no one wanted this child. The relatives who were now in a crowd outside the little house were all in agreement. But the old lady wouldn’t let go of the baby. Knowing we had enough support from the relatives, I interrupted all the small talk and loudly.
Enough, already. We’re taking the baby. We’ve got to go and that’s enough of this emotional manipulation. Find the mother, send her to us, and you can have the baby back. No one moved. Minet, I said firmly, take the baby and lets go. Without hesitation, she did.
We walked back through the narrow, dark alley and into the scorching heat of the summer sun. We climbed into the back of our van. I took the baby and Minet, since she has twins of her own, took the twins. Little Earl sat beside me not so quietly and away we went.
Miraculously, the three babies were in pretty good shape and they will be fine in the nursery. Little Earl? About 3 years old and weighed 6 kilos.
I bathed him, his fever was raging. I smothered his wound covered body with protective cream. He whimpered every time I moved his legs. When I picked him up, he screamed “my feet, my feet” I quickly held them up. He whimpered “my lips, my lips”. I gently gave him water. They were swollen and raw on the inside. He had diarrhea. I changed him. He had it again. I changed him again. He didn’t want to eat. I forced him. I fed him bananas and rice mashed together. He liked them but he threw up all over me and him. We had another bath. Then we ate again. This time it stayed down.
Every cry, I attended to and soon, he laid his little head on my shoulder, exhausted and wrapped his arm around my neck. “My bones hurt. My bones hurt.” My heart was broken.
It’s worse when they can tell you where it hurts.