Mission Doctors Association

Born too Soon

Today is World Prematurity Day with it’s theme this year of “Born too Soon: Providing the right care, at the right time, in the right place.2”   Premature birth is the leading cause of death in children under the age of five worldwide and is a cause of multiple health problems in these infants.1 More than 90% of extremely preterm babies (less than 28 weeks) born in low-income countries die within the first few days of life; less than 10% of these babies die in high-income countries. Three-quarters of these deaths could be prevented with current, cost-effective interventions.3 The problems are the same, and the needed solutions are the same, but the solutions sometimes look a bit different in mission hospitals.

The temperature at St. Theresa’s Mission Hospital in Zimbabwe can get down into the 40s at night in the winter and there was no heat at the hospital when Sheila and I were there serving with Mission Doctor’s Association. Despite the use of skin-to-skin “kangaroo care” against the mother’s chest, it was hard to keep premature babies warm when it got that cold.

The answer?? The hospital built an incubator of wood and plexiglass warmed with four light bulbs controlled by four light switches. As the temperature dropped lower and lower at night, the staff would check the temperature in the incubator each time they walked by and flip switches on and off as needed. It worked great…..until the electricity went out.

When this happened, the nursing staff would go out into the night by the light of their cell phones, collect firewood, and start a fire to heat water. The water was put into hot water bottles which were wrapped in towels. Baby skin-to-skin against mother, wrapped hot water bottle on the other side. The right care at the right time in the right place. The solutions look different than they do in wealthy countries, but the happy babies look the same.


  1. World Prematurity Day, 2018

World Health Organization


  1. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants


  1. World Health Organization

Preterm Birth



Tim Cavanagh, MD


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