By Harriet Onyalla
THE doctors had realised what was happening. Time of death 3:05am. But Sarah’s mother did not know. She kept touching her daughter’s feet.
They were cold. She tried to cover them, but they could not get warm. She kept feeling the feet several times and pulling the covers over Sarah.
The doctors stood back respectfully, perhaps leaving her to say her goodbyes. Sarah was not there anymore. She had already reached the end of her journey on earth.
The doctors asked her mother to step out. She waited for less than two minutes, but it seemed like forever. Her heart beat faster; she could feel anxiety choking her. Then one of the doctors came out of Sarah’s hospital room and broke the news: “Sarah has died.”
Sarah’s mother was speechless. She tried to speak, but the words could not come out. Her lips were moving, but she could not form the words. Suddenly, she wailed. The pain was instant. It was physical. She could feel it tearing through her, like someone was cutting through her heart with a sharp razor blade.
“I love you mom,” were Sarah’s last words. It is clear that the pain of Sarah’s death won’t let up.
Today, as her mother sits across the table during the interview, she looks composed and confident.
She is a pretty young woman with a beautiful head on her shoulders, a gleaming heart and the compassion of 1,000 women.
But something still looks amiss. As she speaks about Sarah, you can see the cracks in her armour. It is like the rug was pulled from under her feet too hard.
But this is not Sarah’s biological mother, and yet she is her mother.
Who is Sarah?
Sarah began living in a children’s home in 2008. She was six years old. Soon after her arrival at the home, the caretakers, whom the children refer to as aunties, noticed she ate everything that came her way, including balloons which the children loved to play with after a birthday of one of the 17 children in this home had been celebrated.
She chewed and swallowed plastic pen lids, rubber bands and paper, but most of all she ate pieces of her mattress.
“We spoke with her immediately and told her to ask for food whenever she felt hungry. But it continued.
She told the caretakers that she was not hungry. When they tried to press her to eat more food during meal time, she failed to finish her food,” one of the caretakers says.
Sarah was punished by sitting in a corner, but the habit persisted, especially at night. She would tear her mattress cover and eat the sponge while the rest of the children slept.
While the caretakers were concerned about Sarah’s habit, they also assumed she eventually excreted what she ate but this was not the case.
What led to Sarah’s death
Sarah developed a fever and lost appetite. When she was taken to a nearby clinic, where she was tested for malaria, the results were positive and she was treated.
One Wednesday she spent most of the morning in bed and woke up at 2:00pm.
The other children had already had their lunch, but Sarah’s caretaker had stopped them from waking her up because she had been restless the previous night.
She mashed Irish potatoes and beef stew, which Sarah ate before joining the rest of the children who were playing.
However, at dinner time, Sarah declined to eat. Her caretaker made her tea. “She drank the tea and a little water. At about 1:00am she came to my room and said she could not sleep.
In the morning, I requested the other children to let her sleep in, since she had spent most of the night awake.
“I woke her up at 11:00am and made her breakfast comprising tea and omelette.
“After about an hour, she began complaining of stomachache. I urged her to go to the toilet and try to pass stool because a few days ago she had suffered from constipation.
“Five minutes later, she came back from the toilet and said she was still constipated. At about 2:00pm, she complained of stomachache again and this time I went with her to the toilet. However, she still couldn’t pass stool.
“At around 5:00pm, another child called Margaret was not feeling well, so I decided to take Sarah along to the hospital.
Sarah explained to the doctor that her stomach was bloated,” the caretaker adds.
“The doctor did an enema (an injection of a liquid through the anus to stimulate evacuation of faecal matter). I was with her as the doctor performed the enema.
It was 3:45pm. I was given a bucket for her to pass stool, but she excreted mostly water.
“Sarah was given medication. On reaching home, she ate Irish potatoes mashed with beef stew and avocado and drank juice.
She bathed and joined the rest of the family for evening devotion prayers at 7:00pm.
“Dinner was served at 8:00pm, but Sarah said she would eat later. Given that she had a late lunch, I served her shortly before 9:30pm.
“Just before 10:00pm as the children got into bed, Sarah sat near me. She looked miserable. Her hands and face were swollen. I suspected her stomach had bloated again, but since she was about to take her medicine, I knew she would get relief right away.
“However, shortly after, I noticed her temperature was high. When she got up to take her medicine, she failed to stand. She was weak and felt joint pain. I knew we had to go to the hospital right away.
“I informed my husband and the caretakers about my decision. One hour later, when the taxi came to take us to hospital, I noticed Sarah’s condition was deteriorating fast.
“I carried Sarah to the car at 11:20pm and we left for hospital. I called Dr. Tom Ssebuliba, a surgeon at Mengo Hospital, Kampala, who usually treats our children at the home.
“He spoke to one of his colleagues and called back to tell me they would be waiting for us at the hospital. Indeed when we arrived, there was a wheelchair waiting for Sarah and she was quickly wheeled into the doctor’s office.
“The doctor suspected that Sarah’s kidney was failing. She was rushed to the intensive care unit. The doctor recommended some medical tests as the swelling was increasing and she was turning yellow. Everything was happening so fast.
“As the doctor washed his hands, he explained that he suspected Sarah had Hepatitis B (a disease that causes inflammation of the liver).
Sarah was struggling to breath
The nurse lay Sarah on the bed and placed an oxygen mask over her nose. However, the life support could not revive her life”
How Sarah got into the children’s home
When Sarah was taken to the home from her village in Luwero district, the administrators were told that both her mother and father had died.
According to the caretakers, the woman who brought her visited during the home’s visitation days. But suddenly, she stopped and for three years, the home did not know why.
During this time, Sarah’s mattress-eating habit got worse. Her new family took turns watching her to prevent her from eating her mattress. Then one day, Sarah was chatting with her caretaker when she opened up.
She said the woman who took her to the home was not her aunt, but her mother. And she had been instructed to, under no circumstance, reveal this and never to call her mother.
Sarah had been warned that if these facts came to light, she would be sent away from the home.
When Sarah opened up, her caretaker reassured her that she was not going anywhere.
“She needed to know that she was part of her new family and no matter what she or any other person did, she was part of this family,” she says.
A psychologist’s view
Dr. Harriet Birabwa, a psychologist, says: “It was wrong for Sarah’s mother to put her child through such an experience. Despite the fact that Sarah was taken to the home to get her help, she underwent terrible emotional stress.
At a tender age, not only had she been brought to a new environment away from her family and friends, but also her mother could not be a mother.
The child was also afraid. She had to earn acceptance at a tender age and behave well for fear of being sent away from the home; that was wrong.”
“Sarah suffered from pica, an eating disorder, characterised by persistent and compulsive craving of non-food items.
These cravings usually last for a month or longer.
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Girl dies from eating mattress