MAF South Sudan Maintenance Manager James Mollenhauer was asked to repair some vital equipment for the In Deed and Truth Hospital in Tonj. The four oxygen concentrators were flown to and from Tonj on MAF flights.

breathing for babies

In a hospital ward in Tonj, South Sudan, two fragile little lives are hooked up to one oxygen concentrator in the inpatient ward. A nurse, Rebekah, walks past, and straightens the oxygen line. This piece of medical equipment extracts oxygen from the air so patients with breathing difficulties can receive concentrated oxygen. Across the developing world, in the absence of ventilators or a reliable supply of bottled oxygen, an oxygen concentrator is the next best thing.

A few hundred miles away, in MAF’s compound in Juba, Maintenance Manager James tinkers with a broken compressor from an oxygen concentrator that has been gathering dust in the corner of the In Deed and Truth (IDAT) hospital. Phil Butler studies technical drawings from a website, and assists as they troubleshoot and test. The pair are surrounded by pieces in an office that is the opposite of the orderly hospital ward. In this environment, surrounded by old electronics, they too are saving lives by fixing medical equipment that mission partners can’t afford to replace.

A casual conversation

It started with a conversation between James and IDAT staff. Rebekah had asked if he knew of anyone who could fix their broken equipment. James’ eyes lit up at the prospect.

“Before coming to South Sudan, I used to fix a lot of appliances. I did electronic repairs and radio installations. My favourite thing is fixing things! This is my happy place,” he smiles.

James continues to explain, “Both Phil and I are electricians by trade. We have people here with skills, and this is another way we can serve our partners.”

breathing for babies

24/7 supply

The air we breathe is mostly made up of oxygen and nitrogen. The oxygen concentrator has a special filter that removes nitrogen from the air, so what passes through the mask which the patient wears is highly concentrated oxygen. It will continually produce it as long as there is a power supply, which thankfully the IDAT hospital has, thanks to 96 solar panels installed on the roof in 2019. “We’re one of the only places in Tonj that has power 24/7,” explains Charge Nurse Rebekah Soper.

Fragile lives

“Kids die from pneumonia,” Rebekah says seriously. “It is one of the most common causes of death, particularly in infants. So for us to have oxygen is really critical. We also have a CPAP machine, a device that pushes air into the lungs to support their breathing if they are working really hard.”

1 in 10

At the opposite end of the ward, in another private room, another small baby is hooked up to an oxygen concentrator. The baby is the size of a new-born but is actually nine months old. “This is what severe acute malnutrition looks like when you have tuberculosis as well,” Rebekah says with tears in her eyes.

“This breaks my heart,” she says honestly. “Seeing kids like this, I find this the most difficult, I get upset talking about it,” she says, taking a minute to regain composure and offer the mother a warm reassuring smile. The soft-hearted compassion that makes her good at her job takes a personal toll.

Maintaining a lifeline

“Recently, someone made a simple error plugging one of our machines in 240 v instead of 110v supply. Without any technical support, life-saving equipment like these oxygen concentrators can quickly become nothing more than expensive paperweights as the result of even minor faults,” Rebekah notes.

Thankfully, this error was quickly remedied by James! Less than a week after it was sent to Juba for repairs, the concentrator was loaded back on a MAF plane for the flight to Tonj, where it was received at the airstrip and taken straight to the hospital.

The oxygen concentrators are not the only freight that MAF brings for the hospital. All kinds of medicine and medical supplies, including nutritional supplements for malnourished children are loaded on MAF flights for our weekly shuttle flights. The IDAT medical missionary staff are frequent passengers on MAF shuttle flights, as they travel out for rest and breaks. “IDAT is a hard place to work- it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve worked in emergency departments and ICU’s in all sorts of places,” Rebekah finishes.

breathing for babies

Facts and figures

South Sudan has some of the worst health outcome indicators globally. Maternal mortality ratio stands at 789 per 100,000 live births, and almost 1 in 10 children in South Sudan won’t survive until their 5th birthday.

Communicable diseases remain a major public health problem and are the leading causes of deaths. Malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia constitute about 77% of the total diagnoses for children under five.

“We can help people with any medical or mission work they’re doing in the bush, and we want to do this for people who can’t get help any other way,” concludes, James. “We want to spend as much time as possible helping people in remote communities. It’s what MAF is here to do.”

STORY and PHOTOS by Jenny Davies