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The Luna Fund
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Caption BulletLuna, a one-year-and-a-half-year-old in Eritrea, has been "adopted" by the College of Health and Human Services; photo courtesy of Adhamon Asgede

The Luna Fund: College of Health and Human Services Reaches Out to Eritrean Family

Last August, Angela Albright, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) at California State University, Dominguez Hills, returned from Asmara, Eritrea, with more than a memory card full of photos. The most notable memento of her time in Northeast African country was the bridge she built between CHHS and a family in the village of Wikidiba.

Albright has facilitated over the past year CHHS’s sponsorship of the family’s now 1-year-old child named Luna and her three older brothers, children who otherwise would have been destined for an orphanage.

The Luna FundAlbright, who through a sponsorship from the non-governmental organization One Tribe Foundation was visiting Eritrea to work within the country’s Ministry of Health on building and strengthening nursing education, first encountered Luna through three students from a German medical school who were near the end of a three- month assignment in Eritrea. The mother had died two weeks after Luna’s birth, and the father was being hospitalized for acute psychiatric care, and relatives were without the resources to care for them. In a country of impossibly high infant mortality rates, Luna was on her way to becoming one of those statistics at just four weeks old and four pounds.

“Basically, they were delivering about 30 babies every day,” Albright recalls. “One evening they knocked on my door saying, ‘We don’t know what to do. There is a baby in the nursery who no one comes to see. She weighs about four pounds, and it looks like she is losing weight. We’re not sure what’s going on with her.’ We immediately walked back to the hospital to see her. There was just something about this child. You took one look at her, even when she was in this scrawny state, and her eyes would just grab you, you couldn’t forget her. It was as if she was telling us she was not going to give up.”

The baby, who was three-and-a-half weeks old when Albright met her, was born with a cleft lip and palate. She could not be nourished through breastfeeding after her mother’s death and her cleft lip and palate made feedings difficult, causing her to lose what little weight she had. Albright was concerned about what would become of the infant, who would be going to either an orphanage or an impoverished home, reducing her chances of survival.

“After the elderly grandfather finally arrived to take Luna home to Wikidiba, the chair of the School of Nursing [at Orota Health Sciences University] and I went on a home visit because I had a lot of anxiety, wondering what situation this baby was going to,” says Albright. “I knew the village had no running water and her grandparents’ home had no electricity. She was so little and we found her febrile and dehydrated. She was already undernourished and in a very fragile state. We took her to the hospital in Asmara where she was immediately admitted and started on IV fluids and antibiotics.”

The Luna FundThrough Albright’s intervention, Luna was placed in her own room to reduce the chances of catching a disease or infection. The pediatric facilities had six to seven beds per room, with two or three children in each bed, and with limited hand-washing facilities, close contact often produced hospital-acquired diarrhea. Albright also scoured the town for a little jump seat that would allow little Luna to sleep with her head elevated, which was much better for her, since milk and secretions could back up into her nose, making it difficult to breathe and making the infant vulnerable to more infection. A tiny tube was finally placed into her stomach to deliver formula, which Albright and her fellow rescuers purchased.

Albright and Sylvia For, a colleague from the Samuel Merritt School of Nursing in Oakland, Ca., also made sure that Luna’s aunt, who stayed in the hospital with her tiny niece and her own 1-year-old daughter, was able to take breaks.

“We would go by as often as we could to give her a break so she could go get laundry or do whatever she needed to do,” Albright says. “The head nurse, Sister Saba, helped us make arrangements with a competent and caring young woman, one of the hospital cleaners, to stay with her at night a few times so that the aunt could go home and see to the rest of her four children. We also enjoyed the opportunity to engage nursing students assigned to the unit in her care, using the time as ‘teaching moments’ for them.”

Albright also states that, “This also provided us with an opportunity to experience the health care delivery system up close and personal. We gained insights that enhanced our ability to address some of the [country’s] nursing education needs.”

After three weeks, which Albright describes as “touch and go,” Luna was stabilized enough to be sent home. A family decision was made that a second aunt, with four children, would take Luna and her three young brothers in.

“It was clear that they couldn’t do this unless they had help,” says Albright. “When I came back and told the college about her, [CHHS] decided to ‘adopt’ her and her family. Since then, we’ve been collecting donations and have been able to send a small monthly amount of money so they could buy [baby] formula, which would be too expensive for them to obtain. We’ve been calling it ‘The Luna Fund.’

“One medical student, Dalena de Lange, called her ‘Luna,’ at first because she didn’t seem to have an official name yet. We were thinking that if she had an uncommon name, it would be easy find her again, if we lost track of her. It’s not a name that they use in that country, but the family took it and it stuck.”

When Luna was four months old, she received corrective surgery to repair her cleft lip from a resident German surgeon and a German pediatric cardiology surgery team that visits Eritrea quarterly to administer to the local children. Albright states that since she left, even the surgeon has made a home visit to see how Luna was doing. A second surgery is planned in two months to correct the cleft palate.

Funds from CHHS pay for a pediatrician to care for Luna, as well as dietary supplements for her growing brothers, who are four and five years old. Albright also regularly sends clothing, and other other personal hygiene items to the family, paid for from donations collected on campus and from other supporters.

While Albright was in Eritrea, she was able to turn to numerous sources for help. Adhamon, a local taxi driver served as her translator, and drove her to Luna’s village. He now brings Luna and her siblings into Asmara to doctor’s appointments, and continues to be the point person Albright depends on to handle the financial support for the child’s family. A senior pediatric resident from the University of California, San Diego, on a six-week assignment with Physicians for Peace, also visited the village with Albright several times to examine Luna and her siblings as well as to prescribe antibiotics and fungus medicine. An Italian pediatric neurologist working with the World Health Organization voluntarily accompanied Albright to Wikidiba to assess Luna and her siblings. Toni Christopherson, a lecturer from the CSUDH School of Nursing, sent a special bottle designed for children with feeding problems, and Michele Linden Shaw, an assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, who was sent for four weeks by One Tribe to explore mental health issues and to conduct seminars for nursing and other mental health professionals, also participated in assessing the family. She particularly focused on the youngest of Luna’s brother, who clearly was impacted by his mother’s death and the changes in his environment.

Albright is proud of how her colleagues on- and off- campus have taken the child to their hearts, engaging the university in a seemingly small global effort with great beneficial results for all.

“The college has really stepped up to the plate in helping this family,” notes Albright. “People have dropped by my office with donations from $5 to $600. This has really made a difference for this family. As one donor stated, ‘It is like saving the world, one baby at a time.’”

For more information about The Luna Fund, contact Dr. Albright at (310) 243-2046.

- Joanie Harmon

Photos above: At five weeks, Luna was rehospitalized with a systemic infection. Her aunt, Angela Albright and others collaborated to give her hands-on care. Photo by Angela Albright

Adhamon Asgede, a taxi driver, was one of the Eritrean locals that Albright was able to depend on to help her help Luna. In this current photo, Luna is now one-and-a-half years old. Photo courtesy of Adhamon Asgede

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Last updated Thursday, September 4, 2008, 1:21 p.m., by Joanie Harmon