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An Aussie nurse’s story from the Myanmar Crisis

Against a backdrop of unspeakable violence and human endurance, a touching story of survival in a Red Cross field hospital.

It’s been 12 months since the outbreak of violence in Rakhine, Myanmar. Over a million people have been displaced and many are desperately trying to make a life for themselves in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. It’s a refugee crisis, but amongst chaos there are always stories of hope, like this one from aid worker Emily Holmes.

There are over one million people in Cox’s Bazar and all around are tents – as far as the eye can see, overwhelming the landscape.

The Red Cross field hospital is the only hospital in the area with the capacity to provide maternal surgery.

So many women here are pregnant with no one monitoring them – antenatal care is a luxury that few can access. There are no ultrasounds performed, no prenatal care, so the risk of something going wrong is incredibly high. Stillbirths are common. A lot of women lose children.

And then there is the trauma they’ve endured. Unspeakable violence, trekking through jungle for weeks on end in search of safety, becoming separated from family, then arriving here - the biggest and fastest growing refugee camp in the world; pregnant and alone.

But it is a place like this where you learn to focus on the positives. And despite the hardships and trauma, there are so many positives.

Like Amala. When she first came into the hospital her baby’s arm was protruding from her vagina and we could see, it had turned blue. She had been at home for days desperately trying to give birth and had managed somehow to get herself to us alive, which was incredible. A true testament to her sheer determination and resilience.

Myself and the other hospital staff jumped into action. We called the operating theatre for help – the anaesthetist was there in a matter of minutes. The incredible obstetrician, Dr Crys, was able push the baby’s arm back inside Amala, and we were able to deliver the baby breech - a risky delivery for any woman.

But when her little boy came out, he wasn’t breathing. I looked at Amala and I could see in her face that she had started to disassociate. I didn’t know this at the time but she had had a stillbirth previously. She was very quiet, very still, staring blankly at the roof, her eyes glazed over.

I raced off with the baby and started performing CPR. I don’t remember who was in the room with me, or how many people were there, I was only focused on that baby. Getting that baby to breathe again, no matter what it took.

The only thing I remember clearly is thinking 'God come on, just breathe' over and over and over again. Like a mantra.

Afterwards I noted that I had resuscitated for four minutes. It may as well have been four hours, time just seemed to suspend itself. Everything stopped, until I saw that little chest start to rise, and then the sound of the baby, letting out his first cry.

I brought him back to his mum who by this time having heard her son’s cries had begun crying out of sheer relief.

When I handed him to her this overwhelming sense of shock and pride came over me. Shock that this little baby wasn’t dead and proud that I was able to share this beautiful moment with Amala, watching her grasp him tightly to her chest, crying and hugging him closely, breastfeeding him for the first time.

When I looked up I saw my colleague, another Australian Red Cross nurse, Denise Moyle standing across from me. I hadn’t even registered that she had been in the room. We took the baby away to weigh him and in that quiet moment both of us burst into tears. Relief, happiness, adrenaline, fear, it all washed over us.

It was a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Emily is overjoyed to hold Amala’s baby after resuscitating him.

There are so many of these moments, and working in the Red Cross field hospital while you are a witness to heartbreak and despair, you also witness moments of sheer love and joy.

Amala ended up staying with us for 36 hours. Watching her leave that hospital with her baby alive and well in her arms was a truly joyous moment.

Even when we can’t save the baby - and there are too many times where this is the case, for me, watching women leave that hospital is something to celebrate. Because it means you’ve provided care for them, no matter how big or how small that care was, you’ve enabled a woman go home alive and safe, and that is worth everything.

I’m forever humbled at the opportunity to have walked alongside these women and their families. I am so grateful to the Red Cross for the service they are providing – it is truly lifesaving.

Emily Holmes is an Australian Red Cross aid worker. She has deployed to Timor-Leste, Fiji and South Sudan. She recently returned from Bangladesh where she was working as a midwife at the Red Cross field hospital in Cox’s Bazar.