‘The mother left them like this. Our 3-year-old Lily looks up at me longingly. ‘Mommy, can baby stay?’: Family founds children’s hospital to help orphans

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Malnourished baby lays on back on someones lap reaching hand into the air
Amy Hehre

“Time stood still as I studied every expression on his tiny face. ‘You are already a miracle,’ I whispered. This baby boy had waited over four years for someone to find and rescue him from this horrible condition. As I stroked his soft, thinning hair, the reality of the impact we can choose to have or overlook each day haunted me. I looked up at my husband Rob in disbelief and whispered, ‘There is no way we could have left him there.’

This week had been the week of all weeks. It started by administering the sixth and final round of chemotherapy to my 6-year-old patient Winnie. Admittedly, it’s not a typical healthcare provider/patient dynamic, Winnie has lived with us in our apartment for the last eight months. My daughter Lily is her best friend and loyal sidekick, and Winnie has grown to love me as a mother. Let me tell you, as heroic as it might sound to play the role of oncology PA and mommy, these roles are far from glamorous when combined. Here I am, administering chemotherapy to a child who absolutely hates injections. So much that she would thrash, kick, and scream ‘Mommy!’ for seven hours straight. I’d imagine this would be heartbreaking for any healthcare provider but when you are ‘Mommy,’ the experience is truly devastating.

Woman lays on couch holding head of young girl that lays asleep on top of her
Amy Hehre

For the first few days after chemo, it’s normal for Winnie to want me to hold her all day while she sleeps. When I let go, she knows it. So here I am, laying on the couch selling skincare online with my one free arm to raise money for the remaining costs of her treatment. While doing so, I have six children running circles around the couch and strategically making mass piles of household objects in all suitable pathways. To top it off, Winnie decides she will not swallow her medication. She is so frustrated with her reality and continues to spit out the drug as soon as it’s administered. So, what does this mean? Back to the IV injections we go. Which is fantastic in theory, until your child refuses to eat as an act of rebellion. ‘I’m not eating till it’s gone,’ she’d say. While this might seem odd, it was actually brilliant as her refusal was indeed punishing to me. Not only are we sleeping a maximum of two hours a night, but my little hero of a cancer survivor is choosing to wither away before my eyes.

While this life is my absolute dream and passion, I will be the first to tell you it is not easy. We must consistently walk through tremendous trials, losses, and judgement. On this particular morning, I  felt that I simply could not do it. My body felt like it had been hit by a bus from pure exhaustion and from lying on the tile floor with Winnie for nights on end. But in this ministry, I operate on conviction. In my heart, I knew that these field visits we’d scheduled for three vulnerable children in the remote areas of our villages could not wait. So, I got up and off we went. First, we stopped at a roadside mill to see two children. The first child was a toddler battling microcephaly and epilepsy and the other was a school girl needing treatment for a painful skin condition. Next, we found an 8-year-old girl battling multiple diseases, motor-speech ailments, and a facial disfiguration that had left her with many emotional burdens.

Woman sits on ground of orphanage writing notes beside mother and daughter with facial disfiguration
Amy Hehre

After completing their medical exams and hospital admission forms, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I quickly began dreaming of dousing myself with ice cold water and falling back into my bed. This dream that was interrupted by a phone call reporting two more cases of school-age children who were ‘physically weak.’ ‘PLEASE, let’s see them tomorrow,’ I mumbled, mostly to myself, as we got into the vehicle. These could be simple cases of common colds or minor ailments that could wait another day. My head was impossibly heavy as our little Toyota jerked and bobbed, seeming to find every hole along the winding, red dirt road. Minutes passed unreasonably slowly as we attempted to find these children cornered away on the far side of our village. Until finally, we met some familiar faces along the road. ‘This way!’ they said. Their motions directed us through the rocks and thistle of the winding path. And at the end, stood the rugged clay shamba where the twins Sally and Selena lived.

Woman sits on ground of orphanage beside sick little girl holding bread
Amy Hehre

As I approached the mud home, my eyes fell on 4-year-old Sally, sitting alone at the front of the home. He was covered in ants, dust, and weighed only nine pounds. He was clenching an ash covered corn cob in his too-small fist and wearing a ragged pink dress that was barely holding together enough to stay on his tiny body. When I gazed into his longing eyes, I saw the most perfect little boy in the world. Energy pulsed through my veins when I cradled him in my arms. He clasped his hand around my finger and rested his head on my chest, completely at ease. In that moment, I knew our forever was changing and even more, I knew how easily we could have missed it.

Malnourished little girl lays on her back in woman's lap holding her hand
Amy Hehre

‘How old is he?’ I asked. ‘More than 4,’ the relative said quietly. ‘Months?’ I asked. ‘No, 4 years,’ he clarified. ‘This is his twin sister,’ he said pointing to Selena. My eyes moved to the girl. She appeared much younger than 4-years-old but was still almost four times larger than Sally. While we help children that are in critical condition numerous times a week, it never gets easier. Each story and situation is unique and heartbreaking. ‘The mother just left them like this,’ the relative said. ‘I didn’t know what I could do.’ I nodded with empathy. ‘I’m so glad we found you,’ I replied. At this point we all agreed, we had to take them with us today. Quickly, they approached me to remove Sally’s rags and placed him in an oversized brown jacket that appeared to be the only other clothing item he owned. There were no shoes, socks, or undergarments. I pressed him against my body, attempting to cover him as best I could as we passed the crowds of school children on the street.

Woman holds baby orphan in her arms
Amy Hehre

Among our team of 50 Kenyan staff, each person was perplexed by what they witnessed. This gift of a child had somehow survived. Despite pneumonia and severe malnourishment, he would still give a big smile when you stroked his cheek and would affectionately reach for you as you spoke to him. It would be months of tubes, injections, intensive therapies, and renourishment, but his spirit radiated bravery. This will to fight and the devoted affection of his twin sister Selena is what gives us hope for his full recovery. Now, I watch the twins as they lay side by side. Selena is holding Sally’s hand, seemingly promising protection and safety. Just as they had made it through all the years together, they would grow stronger and overcome every hardship hand in hand.

SIck Kenyan orphan lays on her back smiling
Amy Hehre

Like Sally, there are countless other children who are abandoned, shut in by embarrassed parents, lost within overcrowded institutions, or too impoverished to access the life-saving treatment they so desperately need. It is for this reason that we founded the OVI Children’s Hospital, a place where any orphaned or vulnerable child can access free advanced medical care and accommodations. But our most important job is always to show the love of Christ to every child who comes through this 60 bed hospital. So tonight, we smile as we watch him in our little hospital apartment. We love the way he holds his cup of ice cold water and stares with wonder at the ceiling fan. My heart melts as he reclines along my legs, so at home, as we listen to ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ Our 3-year-old Lily looks up at me longingly and says, ‘Mommy, can baby stay?’ I just nod as I close my eyes and praise God that this is our reality. That this wild, messy life might exhaust me, it will certainly bring many tears and frustration. But somehow, every day that passes I will not only make it, but I will fall more and more in love with this life and family that is bigger than ourselves.”

Husband and wife sits outside with four Kenyan orphans in their lap
Amy Hehre

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amy Hehre. Follow their journey on Instagram here and their website here. Submit your story here. For our best stories, subscribe to our free email newsletter.

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