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Achol Malek holds her son Chol Madhol at the St. Daniel Comboni Catholic Hospital in Wau, South Sudan. The boy was born almost three months prematurely in December 2014, yet survived because of the hospital’s incubators. His family has nicknamed him “Comboni.” Photo: Paul Jeffrey.

When Achol Malek’s first baby was born almost three months prematurely, she says she felt hopeless, convinced the baby boy would soon die. Yet thanks to a church-run hospital in Wau, South Sudan, the baby not only didn’t die, he survived to grow and thrive.

“As he slowly grew, I began to hope and then to become joyful,” Malek said.

Weighing only 1.2 kilos at birth, the baby spent 45 days in an incubator in the St. Daniel Comboni Hospital. Malek remained in the hospital the entire time, nurses feeding her breast milk to the child through a feeding tube. “They treated me like family,” she said.

When she finally took the baby home in late January, the family nicknamed him “Comboni,” after the 19th Century Italian missionary whose name the hospital bears. “We felt it was a fitting name, because they saved my baby’s life,” Malek said.

The entire stay in the hospital cost the mother just 50 South Sudanese Pounds, about $15.

The hospital has three incubators, perhaps the only such machines in the country outside of Juba, the capital. With support from Misean Cara, the hospital acquired them in 2014, and they’ve been in constant use, according to Sister Rosemary Oduol, a member of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa. She’s the hospital’s matron, or chief administrator.

“Before 2014, we used the ‘kangaroo method.’ If a baby was born prematurely, we placed it on the mother’s stomach for warmth,” she said, noting that the method often failed to keep the baby alive. Since acquiring the incubators, the survival rate of premature babies has risen sharply.

“We have a lot of malaria in this area, and that contributes to a high number of premature births. The mothers often arrive in very critical condition, with high fevers, and there’s very little we can do to stop the birth from taking place. Yet some of their babies can survive if they get good neonatal care, including warmth and good nutrition. We’re trying to make sure that those babies with a chance of survival will make it. For many women who’ve had multiple miscarriages, to have one baby survive is cause for great joy,” said Oduol.

A Kenyan, Oduol came to Wau in 2010, a year before the country declared its independence. The hospital was struggling to provide quality medical care in an environment where war had long precluded it.

One challenge was the staff.

“We didn’t have adequately trained professional personnel, so we had to import people from Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. And today we still rely on our neighbors and volunteers who come from Europe, especially religious sisters and brothers from Italy. We are trying to build the capacity of local people to take on that responsibility. Yet the wars took a heavy toll, and education has been poor or nonexistent in South Sudan, even basic primary education. So some of those who end up in nursing school or medical school have not gone through the full range of primary and secondary education,” she said.

The Comboni Hospital provides clinical placement opportunities for nurses being trained in Wau by the Catholic Health Training Institute, a project of Solidarity with South Sudan, an international Catholic network of congregations and orders supporting the world’s newest nation.

“We provide the environment for them to practice their skills and grow in competence. And we bring in people to mentor them,” Oduol said.

“At the same time, we work with the nurses who were trained during the war, mentoring them and giving short refresher courses, so that they can improve their skills. It’s a long struggle with many challenges, because forming true professionals takes a long time.”

Among a growing number of mothers of children born prematurely, Malek is thankful for the skill and care of the hospital staff that kept Baby Comboni alive. Although she never went to school, she says her son will get an education. “I’d like him to become a doctor,” she said.