We arrive on the ward and there is anxiety in the air. The nurse calls me over, she looks quite flustered. There is a young woman, second trimester, gasping. She still has a pulse but clearly about to go into cardiac arrest. She needs to be ventilated so I ask for the usual bag-mask-valve combo we use to ventilate in the first instance. The nurse is frantically looking through a cardboard box and not winning so I go and help; a tangle of old tubes and oxygen masks, covered in dust, but not the one we need, and it’s not a great surprise. Back at the bedside, things have deteriorated and I ask the woman’s sister to step aside. I ask for a bag of fluids to get things going, but there is no stock. We have a look through the notes, not much is known yet, maybe meningitis, maybe malaria, maybe a blood clot to the lungs. No investigations back yet, the lab is not working and blood gets sent across town for analysis. Her breathing is worse, I consider mouth to mouth, but that’s for the movies, and this woman’s fate is sealed. The pulse weakens and stops. Another doctor has come and tries some chest compressions, and I ask him to stop. A moment for collection and the ward team start preparing the body. A bandage used to strap the mouth closed, the body covered in a sheet, and a cardboard tag with her details tied around her left big toe. Another maternal death, unknown cause. I offer my condolences to the sister who seems remarkably calm. She must be shocked. The death of her sibling won’t sink in until later. The patient in the adjacent bed looks terrified; they’re only a metre apart and there are no curtains. On with the ward round.
A few moments to settle the nerves of said terrified adjacent patient. She cries whilst I hold her hand, worried she’s in the same boat. Fortunately, she’s on a different journey. She suffered with severe pre-eclampsia, the high blood pressure disorder in pregnancy. Her baby was born early and died the previous day. She has three, but wants two more. Fluid has built up in all the wrong parts of her body from the inflammation of pre-eclampsia, but most importantly for her in the lungs. I can hear the two puddles of water in the base of her chest. The SHO (obstetrics and gynaecology trainee) has arrived now and says they have asked the cardiothoracic surgeons for an opinion. It’s a blessing that they won’t come anyway, the last thing she needs is a knife. Her body should pass the water naturally over the next few days. I counsel her that she may need blood pressure medication when she goes home, and her next pregnancy will be very high risk. She will need careful antenatal surveillance in case this happens again, a service she unfortunately will not get. She’s going to get stepped down to the general post-natal ward now, a room with 40 mothers and crying newborn babies, and she will feel her loss.
I notice the catheter bag of a lady in the corner is a brownish red and suggest we see her next. She’s not looking well. She presented yesterday from another health centre after a prolonged obstructed labour at term, her first pregnancy. The baby had already died, and the operation notes suggest a very difficult Caesarean section. She is now semi-conscious and breathing very quickly, heart rate too fast, oxygen sats low, blood pressure holding. She’s either bleeding, or there is infection. No investigations, the family can’t afford the blood tests. She’s on some nasal prongs with a futile amount of oxygen trickling through. We get her on a more appropriate mask, and get another cannula in her arm. She needs some fluids, then I realise we have none. The woman’s mother is buzzing around, so the nurse writes ‘normal saline’ on a scrappy piece of paper and sends her to the strip of private pharmacies that line the hospital fence. ‘Free healthcare for all women and children!’ the government announced some years ago… I ask if we can check her blood sugar, but there is no glucometer available. I have my own machine, and one last testing strip. It’s low at 2.1, we give her a push of IV glucose. I’m half hoping it really picks her up; she stirs a little, but not much more.
We need to see what’s happening down below, why there is blood in the urine. The specialist gynaecology consultant has arrived now, thank goodness, he knows exactly what to do. But it’s bad news for the woman; the wall between the vagina and the bladder has been completely destroyed, a large fistula. The end of the catheter has prolapsed into vagina, and is draining a mixture of urine and blood and infection. We clean the area and there is clearly rotting flesh. The woman is in septic shock. With some basic plumbing we manage to get the catheter to stay up in the bladder. Back to treating the whole patient. The woman’s mother has returned with the fluids and we are into the second bag. We get some stronger antibiotics into her. More cleaning down below. Then the gurgling that I recognise, some fluid in the chest, we need to slow down the fluids. Everyone is working well as a team, despite the difficulty of the case and the conditions. The oxygen levels have come up, the pulse reduced a little. It’s the basics of medical resuscitation, it’s exhilarating and shocking all at the same time. Then things change, the pulse suddenly races to 210 beats per minute, far too high, a sprint that the heart muscle will struggle to keep up with. The adrenaline from the pain of the internal examination has probably shocked the heart into a short circuit. We continue the resuscitation, I’m hoping the rate will revert spontaneously, but it’s not budging and the oxygen level is dipping a bit. It would really help to know what rhythm she is in, but there is no ECG machine in the hospital. I start weighing up the options – difficult without knowing the rhythm. Some beta blocker? Some amiodarone? Would it be safe without monitoring? First do no harm. No chance of a defibrillating shock if she crashes, no defibrillator! Her salts could be abnormal causing the rhythm, but no way of knowing as the lab is not working. Probably wise to give some potassium and magnesium in case, low potassium will kill quicker than high potassium. We manage to get an anaesthetist from downstairs. She agrees, chance of harm if we start giving other cardiac drugs blindly, let’s give her some time. On with the ward round. Another woman has had a stroke from the high pressure of pre-eclampsia, another is swollen with fluid as her kidneys have completely stopped working. She needs dialysis which the family can’t afford, and she too will die.
I drive out of the hospital with that familiar feeling, a bit disconnected, a little overwhelmed, but knowing it will pass soon. Everyone getting on with life as usual out here. Those women are out of sight and out of mind. Maybe it would be different if we were at the heart of a humanitarian crisis, but this is a capital city in 2018. 2018! Do you remember how futuristic 2018 sounded? Hover boards? A meal in a pill? In 2018 a pregnant woman teetering on that fine line between life and death can’t get a bag of fluids and a basic blood test, whilst all the world carries on. One assumes that the health system they are working in is on an upward trajectory but a longitudinal view over some years makes me wonder otherwise. The funding and systems in place are deficient, creating a demoralising environment for the doctors and nurses that work tirelessly to make things better, indeed they are the strongest cog in the wheel. Families are not shocked, because this stagnation is an accepted part of life. The problems are systematic, and they come from the top. Whilst I stand by the philosophy of singing the good news stories, sometimes one feels the need to lay out the truth of what is really happening on the ground. It can’t be right. What on earth are you meant to do about it? Who does one shout at when we all know that method doesn’t work? Surely it’s wrong that we let pregnant women die of preventable causes well into the 21st century. Frustration and anger, probably not constructive, but important emotions, to write down and perhaps to share.
The woman in the photo is a generic image pulled from the internet.