The World Tri founder and adventure athlete Charlie Wittmack is raising funds for Save the Children as part of his world’s toughest triathlon endeavor. Save the Children fights for children’s rights and has delivered immediate and lasting improvements to children’s lives in over 120 countries.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY BRIAN TRIPLETT
I knew that I was taking a one-hour flight southwest out of Kathmandu toward the Indian border, a one-hour drive further west into a district where the sight of foreigners disappeared, and yet another 40-minute drive into a village where the spotting of my white skin was enough to be the talk of the town for the afternoon all for the sake of finding a story. What I didn’t know is how many stories I would find, and how adorable they would be.
I was in search of babies. Sure, you can find babies all around the world and don’t need to go to middle-of-nowhere Nepal to find them. But to discover a certain kind of baby you do. The ones who had it not been for the care of certain people would never have spoken a first word, celebrated a birthday, or in some cases been named.
After the hours of bumpy travel, weaving into parts of the world I never knew existed two days prior in the giant outdoor sauna known as the district of Bardiya, I found them. They had not died like they would have had it not been for Save the Children and the community volunteers. They were alive in all their cooing, giggling, drooling glory, learning to speak, turning another year older with beautiful names I had to have repeated multiple times before I could attempt to spell them.
As I held a 13-month-old Nepalese girl in my lap, the gathering of villagers and volunteers and Ministry of Health and Population staff members silently observed with proud smiles. It was rare to see a foreigner in these parts, and even more unique to see one rocking one of their babies. But what was least likely of all is that I would be holding this particular gorgeous healthy girl who donned purple sandals with jingling bells, an alfalfa hairdo supported by a red rubber band matching her outfit and a curious face which said, “Who’s this white dude you handed me to?” while trying to eat a piece of candy through the wrapper. It was a sight to see because she had been declared dead at birth due to asphyxia.
Thanks to the community’s Skilled Birth Attendant and her two months of training, a set of volunteers who had encouraged the first-time mother to give birth at an institution, a bag-and-mask device to create artificial respiration in these emergency cases where the child lacks a sufficient oxygen supply, and the fact that all this had been set up by Save the Children, the little girl smiled at me, telling me without words why I had traveled to this place that no one where I come from knows exists. She was more than a story. She was life.
As I toured the village the one full day I will likely ever spend in Bardiya with Save the Children field staff member Resham, I visited homes and a pair of birthing centers, meeting mothers and babies every half hour who shared stories of the child they nearly lost. Some scares were due to asphyxia, others to low birth weight, which has been helped by the teaching of skin-to-skin contact from mother to child. A pair of twin toddlers ran amok. The mother pointed to the one who would have died had it not been for the people we were surrounded by. Instead the girl creates a mirror image of her sister.
When asked what is the most important element to ensuring the baby survives, Resham told me spreading the world to soon-to-be mothers that help was available - help in the form of counseling during pregnancy from trained volunteers and skilled staff at 15 birthing centers around Bardiya where much more could be done during birth than at home. In 2009 when Save the Children came to Bardiya, 12.5% of babies were delivered in an institution. Just two years later, than number has risen to 52%. This is happening all around Nepal thanks to the 48,000 volunteers and Save the Children’s presence in 59 of the country’s 75 districts.
In 2006, the statistic was that for every 1,000 births in Nepal, 33 resulted in death. The government’s goal by 2015 is to cut that number in half. The Bardiya district has that number down to 22 thanks to programs like Save the Children. In the two birthing centers I visited that day, out of the last 795 childbirths, every single baby has survived. Many were born with low birth weight and a couple dozen required artificial respiration, but thanks to the work of the people who care, the only tears the mothers shed were tears of happiness the day it was time to bring a child into this world.
Giving birth is not easy in these parts, especially compared to what we know in America. The rooms in the birthing centers look like storage closets. The tables the mothers lie on wouldn’t be at all comforting even on a normal day when you weren’t giving birth. One mother I met told the story through a translator of the day her time came, so like many people do in this area to get around, she boarded a carriage powered by a pair of buffalo to take her to the birthing center. She didn’t quite make it in time and ended up giving birth in the carriage under the scorching sun with the assistance of community volunteers. But the baby was not breathing. By the time they reached the institution, the woman’s mother-in-law informed the staff they had lost the baby, but could they please make sure the mother was healthy. After 20 minutes of using the artificial respirator, the child came to life.
When asked what the mother thought of this moment, hoping as any writer does for a gem of a quote about miracles and how precious life is, something profound, I waited several long moments for the translator’s response.
“She is happy,” he told me.
I didn’t need the words as it turned out. I knew just by looking at her and how she looked at her child. The baby couldn’t speak, but I knew it preferred life over death as it absorbed the world around it, including the sweaty American grasping the pen and paper he didn’t need to remember any of this.
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The World Tri founder Charlie Wittmack is raising funds for Save the Children as part of his world’s toughest triathlon endeavor. Save the Children fights for children’s rights and has delivered immediate and lasting improvements to children’s lives in over 120 countries.
Having a special place in his heart for the country of Nepal after a successful summit of Mt. Everest in 2003, Wittmack became interested in the Save the Children “EVERYONE” campaign in the country. The money Wittmack raises will go toward this specific program of Save the Children, which focuses on preventing newborn deaths and deaths for children under the age of five.
“We appreciate Charlie’s engagement in the campaign, believing and contributing to taking “EVERYONE” to a wider audience around the world through his adventurous events and public speaking,” said Sudarshan Shrestha, Director of Information and Advocacy for Save the Children in Nepal.
In Nepal, more than 150 children under the age of five, including many newborns, die every day. Many of these deaths are preventable and are caused by malnutrition, low birth weight, birth asphyxia and infections. Mothers are encouraged to give birth at institutions, but 80% still give birth in the home in Nepal.
“Charlie is taking these painful figures and information to the top of Everest with the hope that the world will see, hear and act to stop children dying needlessly from preventable and curable diseases,” Shrestha said. “The “EVERYONE” campaign reaching Everest is very symbolic, to get the attention of governments, politicians, donors and people with influence around the world to listen and act.”
Shrestha said that he hopes taking this story to the highest point on earth will help lead to doubling spending on basic health care to help newborn babies survive.
Wittmack is currently in Nepal where he is completing the final leg of The World Tri, which includes a 300-mile swim down the River Thames and across the English Channel, a 9,000-mile bicycle journey from France to Nepal, and a soon-to-be summit of Mt. Everest.
-by Brian Triplett
Photos thanks to Sanjana Shrestha and Save the Children