Saving babies in Kenya, one hospital at a time

By Moses Wasamu

VoiceBox Media

Laughter is medicine to the heart.

This is what one medical doctor has found out. And he makes people laugh while he raises money to save young lives.

It is not always one will find a doctor who is a comedian and a church minister but that is what Dr. David Wasambla is.

He uses his passion to save lives through his initiative, Cheka Mtoi Aishi! (Laugh and Save a Baby!) – a project that combines comedy and medicine.

Cheka Mtoi Aishi! is a unique Corporate Social Responsibility initiative whose main objective is to save babies who would otherwise die. According to the World Health Organization (2013), 8,000 newborns die daily around the world, and 20 of these deaths occur every day in Kenya (DHIS 2012).

Sadly, many of the deaths are preventable. For example, death from hypothermia or pneumonia caused by hypothermia. Hypothermia is low core body temperature (i.e. below 36.5 degrees centigrade or 97.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and many newborns are unable to generate adequate warmth after birth, especially those born prematurely.

WHO says that 1 out of 3 newborn deaths in Kenya are a result of complications caused by premature birth. According to WHO, nearly three million of all babies who die each year worldwide can be saved with simple, low cost and low-tech solutions, like what the Cheka Mtoi Aishi! initiative is offering.

Wasambla, 40, says the first five minutes after a baby is born are very crucial and may decide whether it will survive or die. However, Wasambla says this can be averted by providing heaters that create a warm environment in the delivery room, theatres, labour wards, maternity or New Born Unit (NBU) in hospitals.

Most health facilities in Kenya do not have adequate heaters and cannot afford to buy them due to inadequate funding, most of which goes to purchase of drugs and other essentials.  Wasambla experienced these challenges first-hand, having worked in public hospitals in the former Eastern province in Kenya. And it is in such needy situations that Cheka Mtoi Aishi! comes in through comedy. Wasambla performs at schools, churches, corporate and community events to create awareness  and raise funds which are used to buy and donate heaters to health facilities in Kenya.

Last year, Wasambla donated 10 heaters to Pumwani Maternity Hospital, the largest maternity hospital in Kenya, just when they were badly needed. According to Kezia Njau, the nurse in charge of the newborn unit at the hospital, they received the heaters at a time when most of the heaters in the hospital had broken down. The nurses were being forced to congest new born babies in a few rooms that had working heaters.

“The heaters made a big difference…we are now able to utilize all the rooms that we have for babies,” she said.

Njau says because Pumwani is a referral hospital, it has a big nursery, which attends to 80 to 90 babies at any one time.

“Since babies are nursed when they are naked, it is important to maintain room temperature,” she said.

The heaters Wasambla supplies are needed to provide warmth for babies as they adjust to the new environment, and before they can generate their own heat.

“We plan to have heaters in all public hospitals in Kenya, at least a minimum of five in 4,500 hospitals,” he said. “Complications that occur after birth may mean death to children.” 

Each heater costs a minimum of Ksh. 6,000 (U.S. $68). To be able to reach his ambitious goal, he will need to raise Ksh. 135 million (U.S. $1.5 million) in the next couple of years.

From the time the initiative started in May 2013 to present, 65 hospitals have benefitted from heaters which have been purchased by donations from groups and individuals who support this cause.

Dr. Priscillah Koech of Tigoni District Hospital in central Kenya understands this need too well. She said that because Tigoni is located in a low-lying area, the temperatures can be so cold, especially between June and October, which poses a health risk to newly born babies.

Last year, Wasambla donated five heaters to the hospital, which Koech says are used in the theatre, the new-born unit, the pediatric unit and the burn unit.

“The heaters help with newborn babies, who may be affected by hypothermia, low blood sugar or other infections. The (heaters) have helped to improve maternal health care,” she said.

Njau says it is important for society to make a difference in the lives of babies, since they are the future generation.

“It is necessary to do everything possible to support babies while they are young,” she said.

Last year, Wasambla donated five heaters to the hospital, which Koech says are used in the theatre, the new-born unit, the pediatric unit and the burn unit.

“The heaters help with newborn babies, who may be affected by hypothermia, low blood sugar or other infections. The (heaters) have helped to improve maternal health care,” she said.

Njau says it is important for society to make a difference in the lives of babies, since they are the future generation.

“It is necessary to do everything possible to support babies while they are young,” she said.

Where it all began

Wasambla says he began comedy mime while in class 6 in Toi Primary School, Nairobi, but his parents (now deceased) discouraged him from comedy because they wanted him to focus on education. Like many parents at that time, they did not think comedy was a serious career worth pursuing.

As fate would have it, he got the opportunity to pursue what his parents wanted him to pursue – medicine. An opportunity came in 1994 to go to Kuban State Medical Academy in Russia to study medicine. This was a god-send for him because he started doing professional stand-up comedy in his 3rd year of study.

“The Russians like it and thought that I was Russian, because I was fluent in the language and understood the nuances of Russian culture,” he said.

Wasambla traces his love for children to his upbringing. He says his mother worked for the Child Welfare Society and used to bring children home before they could be placed in children’s homes.

His long-term plan is to be able renovate some of the dilapidated hospitals in the country in the next six years; buy more equipment like incubators for babies, and other needed apparatus.

To support Wasambla and provide heaters for newborn babies, email davewasams@gmail.com  or visit http://www.wasambla.com/ for more information.

Moses Wasamu is a freelance journalist covering nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits in Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @moseswasamu. 

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