There are so many appeals for help on the internet. Stories that pierce the heart. But after a while, it’s easy to stop caring. There’s so much suffering, after all, and we’re being bombarded with images of it constantly.
But recently, something really grabbed me. It was a photo of a girl in a hospital here in Belarus. She looked like the victim of a famine.
“This is Vika. She’s 19, and she weighs 31 pounds. At her age, and even in her condition, she should be at least 110 pounds.”
Alexei Momotov, the pediatrician taking care of Vika, carefully raised a blanket with Winnie the Pooh on it, showing what is barely a skeleton of a girl. She looks no older than 8 or 9. Alexei works in an unusual place—a government-run facility officially labeled an “orphanage for invalids with especially serious psychological and physical problems.”
No one even knew about this place near Minsk, Belarus, where fifty children can’t gain weight no matter what. Their bodies are twisted into a horrifying shape (and not because of any disease that they inherited!) I only found out about it after Dr. Momotov, risking his job security, reached out to a Belarussian publication with a simple request:
“I am a doctor who is organizing a charity soccer tournament to raise money for the invalid children under my care. All the money we raise will go to the purchase of enteral nutrition (i.e. feeding by tube) for children who cannot move and are slowly dying. We invite you all participate. I am sending you a file by email.”
But why was this doctor asking for money to feed the children? If this is a government organization, aren’t the invalids being fed?
The doctor wrote back and explained,
“Our children are being given the same kind of food that other orphans in government institutions are receiving, and plenty of it. The problem is that our children can’t digest normal food. They can swallow it, but it just sits there, and they continue losing weight.
“Our institution is officially no different from any other orphanage. So we receive the same food as all other orphanages.
“But what our children need is enteral nutrition, and the government is not sending us any.”
Is there no money for such food? What about the government?
They won’t send any. Dr. Momotov asked, and he was refused! Not enough money to go around.
Belarus is going through a very serious financial crisis right now. As was explained to me personally by another Belarussian doctor, even if government money were redirected to the orphans dying in this “orphanage,” that would mean that money would be taken away from patients with curable conditions. The children in this orphanage have fatal conditions, and will eventually die of them. And there’s simply not enough money to go around.
The Belarussian internet journal Imena sent a special correspondent with a camera to see this place.
Dr. Momotov explained to them: “How do I say this? They send us these kids to live out their time of life. Most of these children were rejected by their mothers at birth because of serious physical and psychological problems. They are sent here from all kinds of places. All of them have infant cerebral paralysis or other congenital diseases of the nervous system.
“Right now, we have 127 children, and by ‘children’ I mean all ages up to 33 years old. Some of them can move around on their own or with help. Some of them can eat normal food, and they do pretty well here (as much as you can say about kids that are dying). But 90 of them are kids who have been lying immovable for 5, 10, 15, even more than 20 years. Some of these grow up in bed, unable to move or even gain weight.”
When the correspondent entered the building, immediately all he could smell was fried meat. Dr. Momotov smiled sadly.
“You see, even though we’ve been trying to get the attention of the press to the problem of food, we’re still not getting enough enteral nutrition, and we have no choice but to feed these kids fried meat. But they can’t digest it.”
He opened a door into one of the rooms and led the correspondent from one bed to another, naming each of the children.
- Artem—18 years old, weighs 40 pounds
- Nikita—19 years old, weighs 30 pounds
- Vadim—13 years old, weighs 30 pounds
- Ilona—23 years old, weighs 45 pounds
- Artem—27 years old, weighs 38 pounds
“This is Yulia,” he continued, “She’s been here for fifteen years. Her parents were alcoholics. She’s twenty years old, and only 25 pounds, but she should be at least 125. She’s a vivid example of how useless normal food is in such cases. You feed her, you feed her, but she only vomits it out. The food just sits in her stomach.”
When they came into the kitchen, they saw that each children was going to be fed a salad with tomatoes, borsch with potatoes and sour cream, boiled beef, and mashed potatoes.
“This is Vadim,” he continued. “He has Down’s syndrome. He only weighs 55 pounds. Vadim’s been with us for 25 years, from a baby. He reacts to people. He even has a strong character. But every year, he gets thinner and thinner. As soon as we tried feeding him through a tube, he immediately started to gain weight. But now, we don’t have any enteral nutrition left for him. And he’s going to start losing weight again.”
Three years ago, a doctor came from Austria. He clearly explained what the children needed.
“That doctor,” said Dr. Momotov, “told us we should be feeding them through tubes. We then had a girl named Lena. She used to hit her head against the wall. She even had bruises. But no sooner did we give her enteral food than she calmed down. Turns out she was just hungry. She was seven or eight years old. Last year, she died from problems in her G-I tract. Those problems could have been prevented with enteral nutrition.”
“One of our kids was hospitalized once. After an ultrasound, the doctors saw that his stomach was in his pelvic cavity. Why? Because the heavy food he couldn’t digest was stretching his stomach. But we can’t not feed them! We have to give them what we have!”
What’s going on? Why can’t the government send them the right kind of food? Or at least the money to buy it!
They’re a statistical anomaly. There are about ten such places in all of Belarus, lost among all the other many orphanages. And all the children are going to die anyway…
“Yes,” said Dr. Momotov. “We’ll never cure these children. But they’re alive, aren’t they? And our orphanage isn’t an orphanage at all. It’s a children’s hospice. But we don’t have that official designation from the government. We don’t even have a doctor assigned for night duty. Can you imagine? Only a single nurse who’s here for 24 hours at a time. And she has no legal right to give the kids any medicine, even in extreme cases. So most of our deaths happen at night, when we doctors can’t be there…
“So food isn’t the only problem. A second issue is atrophy of the muscles. Our kids need physical therapists. But since our official designation is “orphanage,” we don’t have the legal right to a physical therapist on staff. We have 34 “caregivers” (basically, school teachers) but not a single physical therapist. And no one wants to work here. The pay is too pitiful. We have some nurses, but the rest are just caregivers and nannies who have absolutely no medical training.”
Why is this place not a hospice? If it were, it would automatically get far more medical personnel. Why are there so many nannies, when the children need doctors?
It turns out that the director of the “orphanage” did try to change its status to “hospice.” But the ministry of health’s answer? “Our job is to cure patients.” And these children can’t be cured. What about enteral nutrition?
It turns out that the orphanage has tried every year to include enteral nutrition into the year’s budget. It keeps getting shot down.
These children may be dying. They may have no hope of being cured. But it’s a basic human need to eat and to be warm and comfortable. These children are being abandoned only because of a bureaucratic glitch in a financially strapped country. And even if money were redirected to them, it might mean that children with curable diseases will lose money they need to survive.
Recently, I found out that Dr. Momotov is quietly being pushed out of his position by the government.
In this time of Advent, Christians are called by their Church and their Lord to give alms to those less fortunate than they. I ask you to consider donating to these children. I already have.
A non-profit fund based in Minsk, called Prosferontas, is actively collecting money for the orphanage. If you are moved at all by the suffering of these children, please visit my gofundme page here. Every dollar you send (minus go-fund-me’s administrative fees) will go directly to Prosferontas.
Thank you, and God bless your generosity.