Christine, 2 years old,
operated in Guinea

"After a three-month-long ordeal seeking an end to the tunnel, we finally arrived there, my daughters and I"

Active in Guinea since 1987, Terre des hommes (Tdh) is in the front line combatting the harmful consequences of caustic soda on the health of children. The artisanal production of soaps, detergents, herbicides and dyes – without any of the essential safety measures – exposes children to the accidental absorption of chemical products.  The effects of absorbing caustic soda are dramatic for a child, with major lesions to the mouth, lips and tongue, and internal injury to the oesophagus can in time lead to partial or total stenosis. The child is unable to drink or eat normally, and ends up suffering from severe acute malnutrition that can be fatal after a period between several weeks up to five years after the ingestion. 

Christine was not spared from this scourge. When being looked after by her nine-year-old sister Fatou and a neighbouring soap maker, she mistook caustic soda for water. The hope of her 26-year-old mother of saving her daughter dwindled day by day, until their meeting with a surgeon supported by Terre des hommes who gave them new hope of being able to treat Christine in Guinea.

“When my husband abandoned us – because Christine was not a boy – I started to sell vegetables at the market in N’Nzérékoré. It was very hard being all alone with a small baby and Fatou, my other little girl who was only nine.” In the mornings, the mother of Christine had to go out at dawn to set up her stall as the places are not fixed and it’s first come, first served.

 

“Come quickly, your baby has drunk caustic soda!”

One day when the mother of Christine was selling aubergines at the market, she heard her neighbour’s voice shouting: “Come quickly, your baby has drunk caustic soda!” “Fatou had forgotten to put the water beaker near Christine’s meal, and whilst she was doing the washing-up, the baby had drunk the clear liquid in the bottle that looked like water. It was the liquid caustic soda that my neighbour used to make her soap.”

At the hospital in N’Nzérékoré, the doctors prescribed medicines for two weeks, but Christine’s health got worse and she couldn’t swallow anything. Four weeks later, the small child is taken in by a private clinic but without results. “After a few weeks more, the doctors at N’Nzérékoré told us that Christine’s case was beyond them,“ recounts her mother. “And so I went to Conakry with 700,000 francs (70 Euros) that my neighbour and the women of my neighbourhood had collected so I could take my baby to the hospital. I was so touched by this gesture, and my hope of saving Christine was revived.“

 

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Tdh and the surgeon who saved my baby’s life”

“We stayed with my uncle in Conakry and he went with us to the Ignace Denn Hospital. The first doctor we consulted that he would have to send Christine to Europe, and that I would have to find the money needed for the visa, the journey, accommodation, treatment, medicines and everything else. The hopes I’d had until then were blighted all at once.” The mother of Christine had already exhausted all her resources. She thought she wouldn’t be able to save her baby’s life.

She still wanted to stay a while in Conakry. Her uncle continued to enquire to heal Christine. One day he was told about a surgeon supported by Terre des hommes who could treat the baby in Guinea. “We hastened to see him and he told us that Christine was suffering from a partial stenosis of the oesophagus, where it had been burned by the caustic soda. He reassured us that we didn’t need the visa, journey and the rest, and he could do the operation then and there – and that Tdh could take over the costs of the treatment, the hospitalisation and medicines. For the first time we didn’t have to pay anything, and I could devote myself to Christine’s convalescence; and she profited from my complete attention. After a three-month-long ordeal seeking an end to the tunnel, we finally arrived there, my daughters and I. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Tdh and the surgeon who saved my baby’s life!” Today, Christine is four years old and completely healed. “Sometimes we look together at photos of her treatment. She sees herself with a stomach tube and a long tube in her nostril, and we know that we have come a long way.”