When she joined Moi University back in 2013, it never crossed 24-year-old Vanessa Wambui Ochieng’s mind that she would end up pregnant while pursuing her studies.
But last year, the fourth-year student of communications and public relations discovered that she was expectant and that threw her life into a spin.
“When I enrolled at Moi University in 2013, the one thing I was sure I would leave with was a degree in communications and public relations. Pregnancy was not in the plans. I was not psychologically prepared to handle a baby, and neither was I ready for motherhood, ”she narrates.
“But last year I got pregnant, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. My relationship was on the rocks and ended soon after. We had dated for just eight months. I had to face my dilemma by myself,” she says.
She could not tell her parents, “because I did not know how they would react to the news.”
Her life was changing: She did not know how to take care of a baby and she was still not sure how to tell her parents.
So one weekend, she travelled home and broke the news to her mother — through a letter.
“My dad took the news well, but my mother didn’t speak to me for two months,” she recalls.
She carried the pregnancy without a hitch and, around mid-February this year, her friends organised a baby shower, with some even bringing her gifts.
Then exams were around the corner and she was hassling with preparations when she started experiencing abdominal pains akin to mild cramps. But they kept fading away and recurring.
“In the evening, the pain came back but this time it was more intense. I called my roommate, who accompanied me to the Kesses Sub-county Hospital, which is near our campus, at 3am,” she says.
At the hospital, they found a health worker whom they describe as rude. They could not stand how the medic was treating patients so they turned back, went to campus and decided wait for dawn to seek medical attention elsewhere.
When she woke up, the pain had faded away and so since there was a continuous assessment test that morning, she decided to sit it. She was only in the lecture hall for 10 minutes when the pain returned, but this time it was so intense that she had to leave, with her friend in tow.
This time they went to Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital and she was admitted. That evening at seven, she was booked in at the maternity ward, with two other women. She had problems dilating and medics had to induce labour pains.
“I couldn’t dilate beyond 3cm and the pain was so much that I almost fainted,” she recalls.
At around six the following morning, she dilated to 9cm and gave birth to a baby boy, whom she named Caeser Tawala.
Baby Caesar weighed two kilogrammes and the doctor told her that the weight was normal and he would gain more easily if she breastfed him well.
“It was magical… I could not just express the feeling that day. It was out of this world! I saw the wonders of God,” Vanessa says of the baby whom she initially did not even want.
She says she made a promise to work hard and make his life good. She had called her mother to convey the good news.
After another day at the hospital, mother and baby were discharged. Vanessa’s ever present friend escorted them back to the university, where there was joy and celebrations among her friends. She was showered with gifts and was very happy.
Her friend, who already had a baby, whom she had got while in second year, stayed with her to help with the newborn.
All was going well when, on Monday afternoon, the baby died in his sleep and her world crumbled.
“I was alone in the house that day, and at around 10am, I breastfed him then we slept. I woke up around 11am and he had not woken up,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
At around 1pm, the baby was still asleep and she started to get worried.
“I removed his clothes but he was not responding as he used to — by crying. I lifted him up and put him on my lap, allowing our bodies to come into contact to warm him, but his body was cold,” she recalls.
That is when it occurred to her that something was very wrong.
She called her friend and they rushed to the Kesses Sub-county Hospital. Medics at the health facility confirmed their worst fears: Her baby had died.
They said infants can die in their sleep. She did not understand how a baby who had seemed healthy a few hours ago had just died.
“I asked God why... Why did he allow it to happen? My baby had given me purpose in this life,” she says.
After the loss of her infant, she sank into depression. Sometimes she would lock herself in her room and not come out for three days.
She continued that way for long until a close friend and classmate, who underwent a similar tragedy, informed her of a group known as 'Still a Mum', which brings together young women who lost babies to share their experiences on WhatsApp and support one another to overcome the trauma that comes with it.
Although the group members do not meet physically, their chats have helped many heal. Vanessa is one of them.
“It has really helped in my healing process. The members made me feel that I was not alone,” she says.
She says she lost her beloved son, but she still feels like a mum. She has made it her calling to make others get over their loss, as infant deaths continue to present a challenge to healthcare providers.
World Health Organisation data shows that 47 per cent of deaths among children under the age five in 2017 were newborns.
In Kenya, according to the Demographic and Health Survey 2014, the infant mortality rate is 39 deaths per 1,000 live births, and under-five mortality is 52 deaths per 1,000 live births.
At these levels, about one in every 26 Kenyan children dies before reaching the age of one year, and about one in every 19 does not survive to his or her fifth birthday.
The report, however, shows that early childhood mortality rates declined between the 2003 and 2014 KDHS surveys.
There are gender, socio-economic and geographic factors associated with infant mortality. For instance, studies have shown that a child born in the Nyanza region is almost twice as likely to die before the age five as a child born in the Central region.
Nairobi has the second highest under-five mortality rate, following Nyanza (72 deaths per 1,000 live births).
Male children are more likely than female children to die during their first year of life (44 deaths versus 37 deaths per 1,000 live births).
Once past infancy, male and female children aged between one and four years experience the same level of mortality (16 deaths per 1,000 live births).
The highest under-five mortality rate by education is among those born to mothers with an incomplete primary education (63 deaths per 1,000 live births).
Children in these households experience both the highest post neonatal and child mortality (20 and 22 deaths per 1,000 live births).
While infants born into the wealthiest households experience the lowest levels of both post neonatal and child mortality, they, along with the second wealthiest households (fourth wealth quintile), experience the highest neonatal mortality.
The highest child mortality occurs in households in the second wealth quintile (63 deaths per 1,000 live births).
How to support a parent whose child has just died
Losing a baby is a devastating experience. No one ever anticipates the death of a child and when it happens it feels like someone punched you in the stomach – your sight is blurry and you can barely breathe.
Whether it was a miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death or even loss of an older child, the pain that comes with losing a baby is indescribable. Child loss has been called the “ultimate loss”.
It is the loss of dreams. And hopes. And faith. And sometimes, it leads to the loss of self. Sometimes, death takes away our children, leaving us with empty arms and empty hearts. And when this happens, things we do every day – taking a bath, eating, going to work – become exhausting.
When I lost my daughter about four years ago, I remember feeling that everything was meaningless. Things I would previously enjoy stopped being fun. Conversations with people became laborious.
Life lost its colour. I decided I did not want to go back to work. And I didn’t. I decided to support other parents like myself whose babies had died.
Like any death, when one loses a baby, they need a strong support system – friends and family members and even at the office.
Immediately after the death:
Rally around the person who is bereaved. Help with burial arrangements and hospital logistics.
It is always refreshing to see many friends/colleagues from the office running errands, helping with the programme and ensuring everything runs well. Nothing can replace the gift of presence.
Even if it was a miscarriage, there is always that one person the woman was close to and shared the news of loss with. If that person is you, visit her. Ask her permission to share it with some close co-workers. Send money –especially when there is a hospital bill that needs to be paid – but it should not replace standing with them physically.
When they resume work
Men (and some women) go back to work to avoid the loneliness of being home. Some are running away from their grief and others just want to focus on something else except their heartache.
I fell in the latter category and needed some hours in my life where I felt normal. Some people will ask to come back before their leave is over.
If you are in Human Resources, encourage them to seek counselling to handle the loss rather than use work to run away from it. You can also allow them to come back and then observe them closely.
Some with throw themselves at work and be in the office until late in the night. You may need to gently encourage them to go rest. Fatigue and grief are not a good combination.
There are those who need to stay home a little longer because they are not ready to face the world. See what your policy allows and what kind of wiggle room you have with regard to leave days.
When they eventually come back to the office, their line manager may need to reduce their duties until they are confident their energy and focus is back.
Don’t give huge projects to someone who is grieving unless you are sure of their status. This is why it important to be personally invested in your staff members.
People who work with machinery may need supervision – a bit of absentmindedness may cause fatal accidents.
When you have stared death in the face you feel the need to make some drastic changes – quit work, finally go back to school or change careers.
Now, grief is not good for making major decisions, so if a colleague starts to talk about leaving work tell them to take some time to think about it. You can reduce their duties if they are feeling overwhelmed. You can encourage them to take up a hobby. Or ask about something they’ve been wanting to do – like go back to school – and let them know they can still do this while working.
No staring and weird questions
When someone loses a baby, HR should find a way to communicate the loss with the office. It is hurtful to come back to work and have people say “Congratulations! How is the baby?” and have to explain that the baby didn’t make it.
As a co-worker do not stare at them when they come back to the office. Don’t ask them what happened. You can show empathy without pitying them. Be compassionate. Say, “I am very sorry for your loss. Do you need some help with work?” If they break down, hand them a tissue.
Employment Act and company policy
The Employment Act is clear about entitlement to maternity and paternity leave (three calendar months and two weeks respectively), but offers no guidance on what happens in the case of miscarriage or stillbirth.
I lost my baby at 20 weeks of pregnancy. I went through labour and delivered the baby. Should I get maternity leave or sick leave?
What about if it was a stillbirth or if the woman had not got round to applying for leave in the first few days after birth, then the baby dies?
Seeing as the law doesn’t address this, she is at the mercy of her employer. Very few companies have child loss support in their company policies. There are still compassionate HR managers who call and recommend counselling for their staff and ask how much leave they should give. - Wanjiru Kihusa