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Joining the fight against malaria

Claudine – Democratic Republic of Congo

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‘We were begging God to help us, we just wanted a chance for our babies to survive. We were praying that the Lord would send angels to save them. We don’t have wings – but God sent us wings.’

Claudine Mukhena

Claudine Mukhena, Muzombo, Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]

In 2017 Claudine gave birth naturally to conjoined twins Anick and Destin in a village so remote, most Congolese couldn’t plot it on a map. Given a five percent chance of survival, a MAF medevac flew them to the capital for separation surgery. It was the first successful operation of its kind ever recorded.

But before the twins’ first birthday, Destin contracted malaria and passed away in her mother’s arms. Claudine describes her incredible and heart-breaking story.

According to the WHO, the DRC has the second highest number of malaria cases globally, with more than 80,000 deaths estimated in 2021 although only 22,279 were actually recorded. Credit: Candice Lassey.

‘My name is Claudine, I am 36 years old. I was born in the village and my mother took care of me and my brothers and sisters. When I was young, I met a man who wanted to marry me, so I didn’t continue going to school. I was 18 when I had my first baby, and all together I have had seven pregnancies.

When I was expecting the twins, I didn’t know I was carrying two. But when I was two months pregnant, I had a dream about two black snakes – one tried to bite my leg, but I jumped over it. Apart from that dream, nothing disturbed me during that pregnancy.’

Claudine says MAF’s 2017 medevac flight was an answer to her prayers for an angel to save her conjoined babies. Credit: Candice Lassey.

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‘The twins came out together at the same time – it was God’s mercy that they arrived safely, and I was fine. It was a big surprise. My mother and my sister were with me, and they called for a midwife to help when I started bleeding.

I was feeling very tired, but I could hear people saying my babies were attached. I didn’t know it could be possible and no one in our village had ever seen anything like it. Everyone was shocked and people started to come to see them. Some asked if they were real children. Some thought they were magic, others thought they would die.’

Conjoined twins Anick and Destin were born naturally in 2017 and shared internal organs. Credit: Jaclyn Reierson.

 

‘At that time, we had nothing, and no money at all. We were begging God to help us, we just wanted a chance for our babies to survive. We were praying that the Lord would give us miracles and send angels to save them. We don’t have wings – but God sent us wings.

Dr Mudji called MAF to take us to the hospital, and we were so happy. It was the answer to our prayers.’

In September 2017, MAF pilot Brett Reierson flew the conjoined twins for the first successful separation surgery ever recorded in the DRC. Credit: Jaclyn Reierson.

 

It was my first flight. I was scared and excited. It was a strange feeling to go up and down and not be on the earth. The pilot turned and looked at me and told me not to be afraid. It was a great experience for me, but I held my husband’s hand

 

 

Anick [5] lost her conjoined twin sister Destin to malaria before their first birthday. MAF flew Anick and her mother Claudine to Vanga to be treated for malnutrition in October 2022 where they told their story. Credit: Candice Lassey.

Anick [5] lost her conjoined twin sister Destin to malaria before their first birthday. MAF flew Anick and her mother Claudine to Vanga to be treated for malnutrition in October 2022 where they told their story. Credit: Candice Lassey.

‘Every time a kid under five dies because of malaria, it is a tragedy – almost every day we have a child dying in my hospital.’

Dr Junior Mudji

 

‘I had heard so much about Kinshasa and when we finally landed, there was so much excitement. It was a big moment for me, but we had to go straight to the hospital, and I didn’t have any time to walk around.

Then, we had a lot of waiting. The surgery took a very long time, and it was very difficult. There were so many machines. It was quiet, then noisy. We were at peace, then we were scared. No one came to tell us if they were dead or alive. The doctors said all we should do was pray and beg God for help. It was 14 hours all together, that was very hard.

When they brought the babies back, we were so happy to hold one baby each. We were scared when they fell asleep – but the doctors said they were just resting after the operation. But everything went well, and we were so glad.

After we finally returned to our village, everyone was so happy to see the twins were alive – they ran to see them. But then it was about three months later that both twins caught malaria.’

MAF regularly transports medical supplies to Vanga Hospital, a 1.5-hour flight from the capital Kinshasa saves two days by treacherous road. Credit: Candice Lassey.

 

‘Other mothers in our village have lost their children to malaria but no one taught us about it or how to stop it happening. We turn to traditional medicines when our children catch a fever, but so many of them die. This makes me feel very, very sad.

Anick took medicine and became well. But Destin would not breastfeed. She died in my arms.

Sometimes I wonder if it was really malaria or was it something else that came to snatch my baby away? Sometimes I remember that black snake again.

Life became very difficult for my husband and me. We didn’t have any peace, and I was very mad that this should happen to Destin, and I could not accept that it could happen. Until today, I will never understand.

I know that death must come to everyone, and I give thanks to God that I still have one of the twins in my arms. Anick is always by my side, and sometimes she gets sick. But when Dr Mudji and MAF came to find us again after many years, I felt some hope.’

I want Anick to grow and become someone. I want her to have a chance.

I pray that God will bless MAF, and I want to thank them very, very much for all they have done for me.

According to the WHO 2022 Malaria Report, the DRC is the second-worst affected country in the world, accounting for 12.3% of global cases.

Dr Junior Mudji is working to both treat malaria at Vanga hospital and raise awareness about the ongoing needs to reach rural, isolated places where hundreds don’t access the care they need.  With the help of MAF, he is on a mission to save more lives, and reach the remotest places.

He was just seven years old when his best friend passed away in the night from malaria in their remote village, an experience which compelled him to become a doctor.

He told the BBC : ‘I couldn’t believe how [Destin] could die of an easily treatable condition. I was furious and angry. Every time a kid under five dies because of malaria, it is a tragedy – almost every day we have a child dying of malaria in my hospital.

‘We need to put energy, knowledge and skills together and find new solutions to innovate what we can do with the local communities.’

Dr Mudji and Claudine shared their story on the BBC World Service podcast Outlook in December 2022.

 

Dr Junior Mudji says that malaria is one of the biggest problems at his small hospital in Vanga, and mainly kills children under five years old. Credit: Candice Lassey.

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