Every year, hundreds of thousands of infants around the world die in the first moments of life because they are choking to death. What makes this tragedy worse, says Richard Bell, MD, neonatologist and medical director of NorthBay Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, is that these deaths are so easily preventable.
Many of these babies die because their birth attendant or caregiver did not know a simple technique – called neonatal resuscitation – that could have saved that infant’s life.
“As many as 5 million infants die around the world every year, and more than 90 percent of them are in developing countries,” Dr. Bell says. Easily a third of those deaths can be attributed to asphyxia, and yet it takes less than a minute to save that life. “Neonatal resuscitation is simple, low-tech and you only need a bag, a mask, and room air – not even oxygen.”
About 20 years ago, the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics developed a technique for teaching neonatal resuscitation similar to the method for teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). They then teamed with several organizations to teach the technique – dubbed NPR – first in the United States, and then around the world, Dr. Bell explains.
Dr. Bell and Dr. Randy Berkheimer, also a neonatologist at NorthBay Medical Center, are among many doctors who volunteer their time to go overseas and teach NPR, through a collaboration between LDS Charities and sponsoring organizations in the developing countries, such as UNICEF. LDS Charities organizes as many as 25 missions a year, Dr. Bell explains, and sends volunteers to several underdeveloped countries, where they fan out into the countryside to “train the trainers.” Their students? Midwives, doctors, public health officials and other health care providers, who will then go further out into the field to pass on the infant-saving technique.
Dr. Bell has traveled overseas once or twice a year for the past 17 years. He has been to China 10 times, and multiple times to India, Cambodia, Mongolia, Ghana and Laos. Dr. Berkheimer has been to Brazil and Nigeria. Working and living conditions in many of these countries are in stark contrast to what we have in the United States, he explains. In one state in India, for example, “more than 400 infants die every day – the equivalent of a 747 passenger jet crashing.” While a majority of births there occur at home, he says, many patients also come to the hospital and no one is turned away. Maternity wards are so overcrowded, nurses must place two, three or more infants in a single bassinet. “Even the area’s finest hospital goes hours each day without electricity and will at times have no running water.” If parents need an antibiotic for their child, “they have to go across the street to a pharmacy and buy it; if they can’t afford it, the child may die.”
Dr. Bell can’t begin to estimate the number of people he has taught, but sees a common denominator, no matter who he works with or where
he travels. “These are committed, dedicated health care providers who want every child in their country to be healthy. There is no lack of desire for this in the developing world. There is so much poverty, it gives me gratitude for what we have here. It’s a global world and we’re all interconnected.”