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By: Niki Kapsambelis
November 16, 2023
One of the happiest days of Portia Seshibedi’s life – the day she gave birth to her fourth child and only daughter – began with a five-hour journey to reach a hospital while she was in labor.
The pains began the night before, but she tried to ignore them. Going outside after dark was not safe in Diepsloot, the section of Johannesburg where Portia lives with her mother and two of her older children. The taxi was more expensive at night, and she couldn’t afford it. She told herself the pains were just the baby moving.
But by 7:30, at her mother’s insistence, Portia boarded a taxi -- by herself, to save money -- and began the long trip to Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital. Though only 23 miles away, she had to wait: first for the taxi that would take her closer to the center of the city, then for a second taxi that would take her the rest of the way to the hospital.
In South Africa, gas prices are rising rapidly, so taxis will wait until they are full before they begin their trips. If they knew Portia was in labor, they wouldn’t let her in the vehicle. So she shut her eyes against the pain, disguising her condition until she finally arrived at the hospital at 12:15.
Her daughter was born, impossibly beautiful and tiny, weighing just under 4 pounds. Portia named her Unarine: “God is with us.”
“See, at long last, I’ve got a friend,” Portia said. “I will share everything with Una.”
At 42, her pregnancy had been difficult. Portia is HIV positive, and she also developed tuberculosis. Unable to keep food down, she dropped weight. Medication gradually helped her improve, and by the time she gave birth to little Una, she felt stronger.
Her daughter spent the first 11 days of her life in the hospital, and Portia made the journey to see her each day. It was hard to fully comprehend what the nurses were telling her: Una had Down syndrome. She could not breathe by herself. She had jaundice. She could not digest milk, so she needed a feeding tube. She had a hole in her heart.
“She’s my only daughter,” said Portia, who never had any difficulties giving birth to her three sons, who are now 18, 10 and 7. “Only with Unarine, that’s why I am saying she’s my special one. The one I really take care of … I told myself: I need to be strong for her.”
When she was finally able to bring her baby home, she brought her to the nearby Rhiza Babuyile Clinic in Diepsloot, where she had taken her other children for immunizations. The clinic, which was built by the Rhiza Babuyile non-governmental organization in partnership with Viatris, offered Portia the support she needed to care for her daughter.
By then, Una’s weight had dropped to just over 3 lbs. The clinic’s nurses explained that she needed to wake the baby up to give her formula instead of allowing her to sleep, something Portia hadn’t realized because she had never experienced those problems with her sons. They put Una on an antibiotic in addition to an antiretroviral that she was already taking. And they promised to help her, explaining every step of the way in detail.
Hear Portia talk about the clinic’s support.
To maintain her own health, Portia plans to continue getting her medication from the Rhiza Babuyile clinic also, because she will be going there for her baby’s care as well as medicine and immunizations. She also appreciates how the nurses treat her; Sister Thandi, the clinic’s manager, is like a grandmother to her. They treat her with respect and kindness.
“They know how to communicate,” Portia said. “’Cause I go there knowing nothing; the only thing that I know [is] I’m sick. So I need help. So they give you help, and they do explain exactly what is happening.”
As she sat in her home, her mother rocking the baby, her sons playing outside, Portia’s face filled with joy as she spoke about her daughter. She makes a note to ask Sister Thandi for suggestions about schools for Una.
“This one, I really need to take care of her,” she said. “I’ll take good care of her, and I’ll make sure that she is the special one.”
Hear Portia talk about Una.
Photos by Finbarr O’Reilly