accessibility & help

Penny's story: treating malnourished babies

A Red Cross nurse holds a four-month-old baby© Info

Penny Connley, a Red Cross nurse, supervises a therapeutic feeding centre being run by the British/Australian Red Cross in a camp for over 100,000 people who have been displaced by fighting to the remote town of Gereida, in South Darfur.  Red Cross feeding programmes are treating over 700 children under 5 a week for malnutrition in the camp.

“I run a therapeutic feeding centre in the camp that provides special milk and biscuits to severely malnourished children.  They come to the centre every day with their mothers between 8am and 4pm.  We treat the medical complications that come with their malnourishment.  Some children may require nasal gastric feeding and some may need intravenous support if they’re dehydrated.

“A typical day is very busy.  I’m normally in office by 8am and out to the feeding centre by 9am.  With help from our local staff I assess every child in the day care centre.  At the moment we’re treating 12 children.  This number can rise to 60 at peak season.  Every child is checked to see if they have put on weight and if they are eating, and then we adjust their treatment depending on their progress. 

Saving Nazradeen

“Children are acutely malnourished for a number of reasons.  It could be the lack of variety of food to eat, or the fact that women often have to leave their children during the day for crop growing and field preparation, so children may not be fed during the day.  It can sometimes be caused by the fact that here women often stop breast-feeding early.

“One of our most amazing successes at the feeding centre is that of a 13-year-old boy called Nazradeen.  He’s unusual because most of the cases we see are children under five.  Nazradeen turned up at the centre at 9am one day.  He was lying on the floor.  His legs were tied at the ankles, knees and thighs - he couldn’t stand.  He was 160cm tall and weighed only 24 kg, so he was severely wasted. 

“Nazradeen had had a traumatic experience with the loss of his mother.  His skin was falling off his feet and off his lips; he was crying and infested with flies but was too weak to wipe them away. 

“I wasn’t feeling that confident about how I could help him, but we admitted him onto the programme.  We’ve had a huge success with Nazradeen.  He’s now walking with the aid of crutches.  He’s eating, drinking and smiling.  He actually danced on his crutches with me a few weeks ago!

Life for children in the camp

“Life for kids in the camp is very difficult indeed.  It’s quite hard to comprehend unless you can see it.  They have no toys and I’ve never seen the small children playing games.  The kids I see in the clinic never smile; they are lethargic and very difficult for them.  It is hard to comprehend.

“Every day I ask myself what would happen if we weren’t here.  What would happen to the children?  It would be disastrous for the severely malnourished children if we weren’t here.  And I guess that without the health promotion we do in the camp the malnourishment rate would probably increase – so we’re are definitely saving lives.  My job saves children’s lives.  It would be disastrous if we weren’t here.

A life-long dream

“This job is something that I have wanted to do since I was 17 years old.  I can remember watching the Ethiopian famine in the 80s on the news and just thinking that it was absolutely heart wrenching and that this is what I wanted to do in life.  So I went off and did my nursing training and then had a family and when my daughter was 18, I prepared myself for the mission – it was a life-long dream. 

“I did my nursing training in hospital and then at university.  I did a post grad in critical care and then also MA studies in public health.

“I have a home in Queensland but I grew up in Victoria so still refer to Vic as home.

“There’s no comparison between here and home.  All your creature comforts are gone, there is no choice of food and the day I leave here I will never look at another tomato or eggplant again! There’s definitely a loss of control and choices – all those little things that mean so much.  Putting petrol in your car, going to the supermarket, shopping, none of that, but you don’t feel so rewarded at home, so it outweighs the loss of those things.

“If there’s one thing I’d say to people back home it’s ‘Keep yourselves informed about what’s going on here.’”

Read survivors' stories

How we are helping in Darfur