Someone terribly important died yesterday.

28 10 2011

By Jon Higgins, Medical Student. From 6 Oct 2011.

Someone terribly important died yesterday.

He had incredible potential, and everyone who knew him knew it. His family sat by his side, wishing and hoping for just a few more hours, a few more minutes to say their goodbyes. After the doctors’ pronouncement, all that could be heard was the beeping of the heart rate monitor and the sobs of loved ones. The doctors knew it was coming. They had hoped and fought otherwise, but he was just too sick, the disease too strong.

No, this person not build a business empire, inspire millions, invent and innovate in a way that may never be matched, or deliver that famous address at Stanford University’s commencement in 2005.

His name was Amir. Amir was 16 days old.

I rounded on Amir with the team in the ICU early yesterday morning. One look and I knew he was very sick. I didn’t need the chest x-ray, electrolytes, serial arterial blood gases, heart monitor, Z-score calculations, and dopamine infusion to tell me that. Amir had developed very severe pneumonia, and it was only getting worse. His blood was two-and-half times more acidic than what it should be. He couldn’t get the carbon dioxide out, and we couldn’t get the oxygen in. He had aspirated too much meconium at birth (the first stool a baby passes), obstructing his airways and providing a niche for bacteria to grow inside his fragile newborn lungs. Dying from meconium aspiration syndrome is largely preventable, by simply intubating and suctioning below the vocal chords immediately after delivery. It is no mere conjecture to think that Amir was never offered that simple life-saving procedure (only 23% of births in Bangladesh occur in a facility; a mere 9% of those in the lowest wealth quintile).

I actually learned of Amir’s death from my roommate, who was in the ICU during the code. Sometimes a wall-punch and uttered curse word are too hard to contain. Amir died and we could do nothing.

I also opened up my laptop today to learn that Steve Jobs died yesterday. Truly a remarkable man, an innovator and creative mind who built a business empire and changed not only technology, but popular culture, politics, and business. The internet and tech world are abuzz with deserving tributes and memorials to his life.

But no one will be writing about Amir. This blog post is likely his only tribute, the 70 or so hits on this post his only audience.

Same goes for the other 382 infants who died in Bangladesh yesterday. Perhaps the most stinging fact is that if they were all born in the US, that number would have been 63. In other words, 319 babies died in Bangladesh yesterday merely because of where they were born.*

Fortunately that number decreases every day, but for Amir it was not fast enough. I am saddened to see that the American government spends less than one percent on foreign aid; even that small figure is in danger of being chopped. Fortunately, private donations to NGO’s have not necessarily lessened despite the economic downturn and, in many respects, these funds and the efforts of NGO’s are keeping hopes of health, development, and human rights afloat.

I really do lament Steve Jobs’ death. I am glad that he was given the opportunity to succeed, and he did well (though, many have criticized him for neglecting his “responsibility” to participate in philanthropy – pending some yet-to-be-revealed posthumous gift – but that is not something to tackle here).

Yet I am saddened that Amir never had that same chance. Even if he had survived, Amir’s situation as a Bangladeshi born into a destitute family would likely not have afforded him that chance either. Trust me, I mean not to cheapen Steve Jobs’ legacy or the weight of his passing. But I simply cannot sit silently while we cheapen Amir’s.

Perhaps Amir could have been the one to invent a breakthrough technology, to bring development and eliminate poverty in Bangladesh, to create music that would enthrall the masses, or to love his family and friends unfailingly. Perhaps not. But who are we – through our greed, our ravenous materialism, our insatiable appetite for power and control, our ignorance and deliberate detachment from the realities of poverty, injustice, and suffering – who are we to have denied him that chance? I stand convicted alongside you. What matters now is how we respond. I think Steve Jobs would agree.

I wonder what Steve looked like when he was 16 days old. Vulnerable, naked, nearly blind, and probably pretty darn cute when he was all swaddled up in a powder-blue blanket.

Their skin color and circumstances aside, I would have had a terrible time telling Steve and Amir apart.

RIP Steve Jobs, 24 February 1955 – 5 October 2011

RIP Amir, 20 September 2011 – 5 October 2011

*Calculated using World Bank Data and UNICEF Data (2009): annual births, 3,401,000 (BD); infant mortality rates, 41 (BD) and 6.8 (USA) per 1,000 live births

**Obviously, Amir’s name has been changed for confidentiality.

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