Friday, December 31, 2010

Our Christmas Gift

Our little Christmas package
   Christmas is always a very special day, but this Christmas will undoubtedly be my most memorable. This Christmas Brian and I received our much anticipated gift of our first son, Caleb Sama O'Neill. For those of you who would like more details about his birth here in Mali, here is the story...

   Caleb was in no hurry to come out and greet the world, and with me being 41 weeks pregnant, my Doctor, Dan, was beginning to have concerns about letting me go too far post term. There were some concerns regarding the baby's size as I've been on the borderline for having gestational diabetes, as well as added concerns about avoiding any post term complications since we live here in Mali and medical help is limited. Brian and I tried many natural induction methods including walking for hours around the villages here (which led to us being followed home by a herd of goats one day), but none were successful.

   I really wanted the labor and delivery to be as natural as possible, knowing that pain medications such as epidurals are not available here, and medical interventions such as inductions can make contractions stronger and more painful than natural ones. When it was finally decided that labor should be induced, Dan broke my waters and then let me and Brian walk around for about 3 hours hoping contractions would kick in on their own. We walked and walked the hospital compound, and I was having contractions, but no different from the ones I had been experiencing for weeks, and they were not progressing any further. Eventually I was induced with oxytocin and my contractions quickly became very powerful. I was monitored for about seven hours on oxytocin and was making progress, but the baby's head was not dropping down. After about seven and a half hours of hard labor my back began to give out on me. It became really difficult for me to stand or even move my legs and I wasn't able to push at all. On top of this, my IV came out and the nurses on duty were struggling to get a new one back in, which meant the oxytocin stopped, and unfortunately so did the contractions. My body and the baby seemed a bit stalled at this point and I was pretty exhausted.

   At this point I had a hard decision to make. I really wanted to continue on since I had come so far, but I also knew that the pain in my back was limiting my ability to do anything. My Doctor was not convinced that the baby was going to drop down, especially without me being able to push, so we decided to do a C-section.

   Thankfully the team of doctors that work at the hospital here quickly assembled (in the middle of their Christmas evening) to prep me and complete the C-section. Things are a little different here than in the States as I walked myself into the operating room and sat down on the OR table. Before beginning, Dan and all the other doctors stopped to say a prayer before operating, which helped to calm me and made me feel so much better. Even with the C-section, Caleb still fought coming out into the world. It seems he was quite stuck inside of me and had to be suctioned out – a rare occurrence according to my doctor. The surgery went quickly and smoothly and I was able to be awake for the whole thing and see Caleb as soon as he came out. He took his first breath at 7:38 PM on Christmas Day. Brian was a great support the whole time and gave me a play-by-play narrative of what was going on. Caleb was quickly toweled off and checked over by a pediatric nurse, and he weighed in at 9 lbs 5 oz. and was 22 inches long.

   After the surgery, we were taken to a recovery room that was shared with 3 other women, and Caleb was brought into the room with us. After a few hours of observation, I was walked down the hall to own room and we got to spend our first night together as a family. I was pretty sore and couldn't move much, but Brian helped me take care of Caleb, and really all three of us slept pretty soundly that first night as it had been a long day.

   Several of the hospital staff insisted that we name him Emmanuel because he was born on Christmas, but we had already chosen Caleb, and Sama seemed like the perfect middle name as it means “gift” in Bambara – the local language. It especially signifies a gift that is brought back after someone goes on a journey, so it is symbolic of our time here in Mali.

   We spent two nights at the hospital and were taken care of by a great staff. We are now enjoying our Christmas vacation at home adjusting to being a family of three and all the joys of new parenthood. Although the birth didn't go as we had originally hoped and planned, in the end we were simply thrilled to have a healthy, happy baby and mom.

Many more photos over here on facebook (public link; no need to sign in):

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An eventful weekend

   This weekend brought more activity than we're used to, a welcome change from sitting around wondering what to do with a Saturday.  It started off early when Julie woke me at 7:15 on Saturday morning.  Truthfully, I don't think we've slept past 8:30 any weekend because it's so bright and noisy outside in the mornings.  The guards start raking the gravel around 7:00 and the goats, dogs, cows, zebu (yes, like in the Silly Songs with Larry song only spelled differently), roosters, and/or other creatures outside the compound get going right away too.  The sun rises and sets early here, and it's often bright by 6:30 and dark by 6:00 in the evenings.

Baby update
33 weeks

   We started the day with an early trip to the hospital to check Julie's fasting blood sugar.  It has to be tested before breakfast, so there's no waiting around.  Thanks to a family history of diabetes, the doctor wants to keep tabs on Julie's blood sugar - so far she's doing great and staying within the range the doctor wants.  Little Baby O'Neill is 34 weeks now, and growing fast!  He moves and responds to noises and likes to play jungle gym on Mom's ribs.  
   Julie has been healthy but is feeling the energy drain of the little guy.  We're thankful for a job situation that is very flexible and where she doesn't have to be on her feet the whole day.  
   The baby is yet unnamed, but we've gotten some pretty helpful suggestions from the students, including "Batman" or "Jedi."  

Hospital dedication

   After our quick morning run to the lab, we returned to the hospital at 10:30 to attend a dedication ceremony.  The brand new third building is nearing completion and there is a team visiting from Christ Community Church in Omaha, NE, which has nearly single-handedly financed the construction of the hospital from its inception.  The dedication was scheduled to allow those team members to participate, to the confusion of many Malians who only dedicate buildings after they're open.
Dignitaries in the front row
   It was quite a production, and many honored and distinguished guests made an appearance, including the Mayor of Koutiala and the Minister of Health of Mali.  A choir of women provided some lively music before the ceremony while we waited for all the dignitaries to arrive.  As word came of the Minister's arrival, we all lined up in a tunnel and he greeted down the line.  There were speeches and a ribbon-cutting, followed by a mass tour of the facilities and Malian-style lunch: a communal bowl of rice and meat shared amongst every five or six people.  After we'd eaten our fill people milled about and things slowed down.  We got home in time for a little rest before...

The soccer match

   Soccer is pretty big here in Mali and I have been playing with a team of staff members from the hospital.  Our local rivals -- the team from the other hospital, associated with Doctors Without Borders -- challenged us to a match.  It was scheduled to coincide with all the dedication festivities, and plenty of friends and coworkers came out to watch.  Unbelievably, there is an incredibly nice stadium with full stadium seating and a beautiful grass pitch!  Contrasted with the bumpy, weedy, anthill-covered field we play on at the hospital, this was sheer heaven.
   The guys on the team are incredible players, and it's my goal just not to screw up and embarrass myself.  It's hard not being able to communicate with them (French is the second language here, not English) but I'm glad they let me get involved and play, and they call me "Gerrard," which is half welcoming and half daunting.
Post-game team picture


   Sunday morning we went to church up the road at Bethel, an evangelical seminary.  The pastor visiting from Christ Community Church (aforementioned) was preaching, so we jumped at the opportunity to go hear a sermon that's not in French or Bambara.  Usually Julie and I have home church, which is always conducted in English.  The service was a great mix of Malian and American singing, and Pastor Mark gave a very powerful message that was challenging and encouraging.

A Pastor shows us one classroom.  The tin roofs were
not galvanized properly and leak after only a few years.
   After church, we were given a tour of the facilities at Bethel.  There are currently twenty-three students in the seminary.  I was amazed and humbled at the simplicity and the physical needs of so many of their facilities.  Due to a lightning strike in June, all electricity was out for three months.  Their internet access has not yet been  repaired.  The library consists of four standing book racks half-full of books, of which more than half are English.

   We saw the dormitories where students live during the school year (usually with their wife and children), the "chicken project," which is currently feeding 400+ chickens that will soon begin laying eggs.

   After the tour at Bethel, we returned home and everybody gathered at the Mission (the compound where we live: there are three staff houses and a large guest house) for a potluck lunch with the two visiting teams.  There are actually lots of visitors currently in Koutiala: A visiting team from Christ Community Church has come to help lead Field Forum next week (Field Forum is a retreat for all Mali CMA missionaries.); a team cryptically known as "Jack's team" has come to do construction at the hospital; and most of the CMA missionaries from the capital city of Bamako came down for the dedication and are traveling with us to Field Forum tomorrow.
Our friends Jake and Jason enjoying the potluck
and November sunshine (it was 95 or so)
   Tomorrow afternoon we'll head off to the city of Sikasso for our Field Forum.  We are looking forward to a change of scenery and the opportunity to get to interact with some of our friends and coworkers in a non-professional context.

We'll post links to facebook photos anytime there's a new album.  For the time being, if you want to see some pictures of the baby bump, check out our most recent album:

Brian and Julie

Monday, October 25, 2010

Temporary Permanence

Our apartment on the second floor

Ten months is not a long time. Depending on what you are doing for those ten months.  Before we decided to move to Mali, Brian and I both thought that ten months was really quite a short time to live somewhere, especially considering we'd already lived overseas for five years.  We considered this move a temporary living situation and told ourselves "We can do anything for ten months."
     But ten months is a long time.  Not in a "this is hard to live here" kind of long time, but in a "life changes a lot in ten months" sort of way.  We've been in Koutiala for two months now, and we are realizing how much impact can and should be made in ten short months.

     We first noticed it in our students. Working with a kindergarten student has to be one of the most rewarding positions in teaching, because not only do kindergartens make huge strides each month, but you can see the cognitive development daily.  Ten months in the life of a kindergartener is the difference between being illiterate and having your world opened up by the ability to read.  It's the difference between not being able to count past ten and being able to do computation problems involving addition and subtraction. The first ten months of school can shape how a child feels about school for the rest of his or her life.
Our seven wonderful students!
    The growth was not just limited to our kindergarten student either.  We've seen progress and development in all of our students and their ability to think critically, express themselves, and be problem solvers.  As we only have seven students, we get to spend a lot of one on one time with each kid, and it is awesome to see the progress that is being made.  It has given us a renewed sense of responsibility in our professions as teachers.  While ten months may not seem like a long time in the grand scheme of life, the events that happen can have lasting and very permanent effects on your life.

Out in the village
   But the realization that ten months can change you a lot really dawned on us in just one short afternoon experience here in Mali.  Shortly after we arrived, we were invited by Brett and Sheri, who work at the hospital here, to go out to a place called "The Pig Farm" with their family to play around in the waters that flow during rainy season.  (Despite the name, there are no pigs there, or a farm for that matter - just some lovely streams and small waterfalls).

At the Pig Farm

The little boy with malaria
    On the way home Sheri wanted to stop by a village to say hi to a friend she had made at the hospital. She assured us that it would only take ten or fifteen minutes.  Two hours later we were still sitting in that small village, surrounded by gawking children, roaming chickens, and goats that were climbing on all the farm equipment.  As it turned out, there just happened to be a sick little boy that had been brought to the village that day to see the local medicine man. Brett took one look at him and knew right away that the boy had malaria and probably had just a few days to live if he wasn't treated immediately.  We learned that this was the family's third child, and their first two had already died of malaria.  After much negotiation and convincing, Brett was able to persuade the father to let him take the little boy and the father to the hospital for a blood transfusion and other treatment.

Typical scene at a Malian housing compound

Silas (Brett & Sheri's youngest) looks a gift chicken in the mouth.
So the villagers tied two live roosters to the top of Brett and Sheri's SUV to say thank you for visiting, all ten of us piled into the car and we started our drive back across the rain decimated roads to the hospital.  The boy and his father were dropped off and a team of doctors were there waiting to treat him.  I asked Sheri about this little boy a few days later and she said he received treatment and was doing great.  Brian and I couldn't help but be amazed at the very permanent effects of such a short, temporary visit to a village - literally the difference between life and death.  Brett and Sheri commented casually that it was clear that God had brought them to the village on that particular day, at that particular time, while at the same time bringing this father and son to the same village seeking help. Two hours of our afternoon; a life changing day for this little boy.

The heart of the matter
The wing of the hospital where Julie has her prenatal check-ups.
    And so it is that we've come to see our ten months in Mali as not a temporary stay, but as a time to make a permanent impact on the lives of the people we serve here... and certainly to be permanently impacted by the people here who have generously opened their homes and lives to us and made us feel so welcome, and to witness the amazing work they do daily. We know the work that the missionaries are doing here in Koutiala, not matter how long each one serves here, and no matter what results they see daily, is reaping very lasting and permanent rewards for God's kingdom, and we feel honored to be able to serve them.  2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us, "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

Brian and Julie