Did being confined to an icebox really save the life of a premature baby?
A couple in India say that they kept their son, who was born two months early and weighed just more than 3 pounds, in an icebox warmed by a light bulb for months because they couldn’t afford medical care.
A hospital in Mumbai had discharged the infant, named Mithilesh, after 20 days because his parents, Aruna and Ramesh Chauhan, ran out of money to pay their medical bills.
“We had to borrow from our relatives but in the end there was no one else left to ask. We even approached charitable trusts but there was nothing,” Aruna told Cover Asia Press.
“One doctor told us that if we couldn’t afford to keep our baby in hospital we should try a Thermocol icebox with holes for ventilation and a 60-watt bulb to provide the right amount of warmth,” Aruna said. “He advised it was better than nothing and might save our baby. My husband bought the box from a nearby fishmarket and cut holes in it.”
Believe it or not, Vinod Bhutani, a professor of pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California, told me that the use of an icebox as a makeshift incubator is not unprecedented.
“When there is no ice in the box, the heat from the bulb warms up the air in the box and keeps the baby warm, which is the whole engineering process behind an incubator,” he said. “This type of homemade or indigenous technology has been used for the past two centuries or more.”
Not that Bhutani actually recommends that parents of preemies go the icebox route.
“Housing a baby in this way can be dangerous, because a baby can potentially be burned by the bulb, have temperature fluctuations and could spend a lot of energy to attempt to maintain its body temperature. A baby kept this way could also have problems gaining weight,” he said.
So what are poor parents in developing countries to do? Bhutani praised a device I’ve written about previously — Embrace, a low-cost infant warmer that looks a lot like a mini-sleeping bag. In fact, thousands of Embrace infant warmers have been in use in India since 2010.
The Chauhans may not need an Embrace at this point. After a newspaper ran a story about their baby’s life in the ice box, a different Mumbai hospital offered to treat their son for free.
Though Mithilesh is severely underweight — he has yet to crack the 5-pound mark — doctors say they think they’ll be able to release him in about three weeks.
Here’s hoping that the doctors are right … and that the next time the Chauhans go to a fish market, they’ll only be there for the fish.
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