A baby born in wreckage clings to life

'Typhoon babies' fight for survival
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Story highlights

  • This baby was born premature after the storm
  • The baby's mother rush to a clinic that does not have electricity
  • "We're improvising," doctor says

The tiny, baby girl barely moves as she lies wrapped in a bundle of yellow plastic and green cloth on a peeling brown mattress made for a child far larger than she.

Her eyes are closed, her black hair slicked to her scalp. An intravenous drip runs into her covers, the only clear sign of medical treatment -- and far less than she needs in her fight to survive the coming days.

She was born prematurely Saturday morning, weighing 1.3 kilograms in a ramshackle hospital in Tacloban, the Philippines city that has suffered an enormous human toll from Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Outside the half-opened window by her bed lies debris from the storm. Doctors in the gloomy, humid pediatric ward say her prognosis is "unstable." The next 24 hours will be critical.

The hospital, the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center, has no incubator to offer her to help her breathe, they say. And even if it did, there is no electricity to power it.

Instead, she will have to try her luck in the intensive care unit, which in reality is the hospital's chapel, situated on the second floor of the building next to a large pool of dirty black water.

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In the repurposed chapel, newborn babies -- both healthy and sick -- live out their first few days with their mothers on and among the wooden pews.

World scrambles to deliver 'the basics'

Baby born from stress

The tiny girl's 16-year-old mother, Elivie Udtohan, went into labor after 32 weeks of pregnancy. The early birth was the result of the stress and strain of a grueling and unsuccessful attempt to escape this devastated, nonfunctional city, her family says.

How to help Typhoon Haiyan survivors

The family walked two hours from their storm-wrecked home to Tacloban airport, joining hundreds of others who are waiting desperately there for a place on a flight out of the chaos and decay.

Not wanting Elvie to give birth in such an unsafe and unsanitary setting, the family planned to go and stay with relatives in Manila. But after spending a night at the airport, they were refused spaces aboard a military cargo plane that they thought they had been promised.

Angry, disheartened and worried, they retraced their steps back into the city, past the stinking wreckage of countless houses that had been devoured by Haiyan's deadly storm surge.

When they arrived home, the scenario they so badly hoped to avoid began to unfold when Elvie went into labor.

After the birth Saturday morning, several of Elvie's family members sat keeping watch over the yet-to-be-named baby girl. Elvie rested up in the chapel, lying on a bare wooden pew in a black and red floral dress. Like her daughter, she was hooked up to a drip.

By the baby's bedside, Elvie's own mother, Elizada Udtohan, 41, listed her worries.

Faces of the storm

The family is concerned about the baby's ability to survive in this dirty, damaged hospital, she said. They are also fearful that the hospital authorities will ask for payment, a demand the family is too poor to meet.

Beyond that, they don't know where they will go or what they will do next, with a frighteningly fragile life to consider. The baby's father is separated from Elvie and no longer involved in her life, her mother said.

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Others share the same plight

The Udtohans' plight is similar to that faced by many others in and around Tacloban at the moment. Impoverished people who lost what little they had in the storm are left at the mercy of a crippled medical system that lacks basic elements needed to care for patients.

More than a week after the typhoon struck, authorities are making progress clearing mounds of debris from the streets. But in the hospitals, they are still struggling to fix problems that are proving deadly for some.

Six babies have died at the regional medical center during the typhoon's aftermath, doctors at the pediatric ward said. The doctors say they have been told that a big generator may be brought in to provide power for some vital services, but they have no idea when.

Two of the doctors working in the ward are volunteers from medical facilities in Manila. They came into Tacloban earlier this week to relieve the exhausted local staff, many of whom were also victims of the typhoon.

The Manila doctors were shocked by the conditions they found at the storm-ravaged, unsterile medical center.

"We're improvising," said Dr. Em-Em Pua, who delivered Elvie's baby on Saturday. The plastic and cloth wrapped around the baby is their best attempt with the materials they have to maintain the warm environment the infant needs, she said.

Not far from the regional medical center is the Divine Ward Hospital, a private clinic that is taking on some of the patients the public hospital can't handle.

But the clinic is also deprived of basic needs, and the situation is costing lives. On Friday, a 27-year-old man died from septic shock at Divine Ward resulting from an infection after he broke his leg.

The young man, Richard Pulga, suffered the treatable injured in Haro, an area outside Tacloban, but medical care came too late and underequipped to save him.

Survivors ask, 'Where was God?'

"The problem is we didn't have blood," said Dr. Mauro Bravo, who operated on Pulga, whose wound became infected after going three or four days untreated.

There is apparently no blood for transfusions available to hospitals in Tacloban. Like the regional medical center's generator, it has been promised but is yet to materialize.

In the meantime, the doctors battle on. Bravo and his colleague, Dr. Richie Sorilla, came to Tacloban in recent days from Davao, part of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao that was struck by a typhoon that killed more than 1,000 people barely a year ago.

Because of the lack of blood, the doctors are having to resort to amputations to deal with infections.

They had to remove the gangrenous fingertips of a 6-year-old boy who trapped his hand in a door, they said. In all, they've carried out six amputations out of the 17 operations they've undertaken since they arrived.

Back at the regional medical center, the baby girl clings to life.

During a brief moment of levity, her grandmother jokes that the family should name her "Yolanda," after the Filipino name for the devastating typhoon.

In the chapel, which at night is lit by candlelight and flashlights, the baby receives hydration, antibiotics and some oxygen.

Mustacisa was one of the 26 babies in the room. Her parents hand pumped oxygen into her frail two-day-old body because there was no electricity or an undamaged ventilator to hook her up to. On Sunday, she died.

Another family receives better news, though. Doctors tell Catherine Pindot, 20, that her son, who was born Monday, will be able to move out of the chapel.

It's too early to tell which of those two paths is more likely for Elvie's tiny daughter.

Until authorities start providing hospitals here with vital equipment and supplies, she will have to continue her struggle without the treatment she really needs.