Monkton nurse returns from Zambia

While her family feasted on turkey, Monkton resident Karen Starr spent Thanksgiving day stranded in an airport at Ndola, Zambia. After 11 days of African food and water, she was very sick and she was dead tired.

Even so, Starr, who is now back home, said she'd return to Zambia in a heartbeat.

She is a neonatal nurse practitioner who traveled to Zambia with Tiny People Matter, a nonprofit medical relief team. Their mission was to teach local health care providers and expectant mothers basic care during a baby's first minute of life.

The program is called Helping Babies Breathe. The World Health Organization estimates that one million babies a year die from inability to breathe immediately after delivery.

"It's an attempt to decrease infant mortality in low-resource countries," Starr said. "It's low-tech, low-cost actions done in the first minute of life, what we call the golden minute, that can save so many babies."

She said the instructions are basic: Clear a baby's airway; start breathing for a baby who doesn't breathe on its own; keep a baby warm; and start a baby feeding right way.

"It may seem instinctive to us, but there are women who look to their tribal leader or their witch doctor for help when their baby is having problems," she said.

Her group awarded certificates to health care providers who received Helping Babies Breathe training.

"They treated the certificates like they were made of gold," Starr said. "But the best part is that many of them were already teaching the program to others by the time we left."

Starr was on a nine-person team that traveled to hospitals, orphanages and set up mobile clinics to dispense basic medical care. Whenever she saw children, she handed out "Messages of Hope," postcards with pictures, poems or notes from students at Hereford Middle School. Each came with a piece of candy that Starr had brought.

Starr's daughter, Lauren, is an eighth-grader at Hereford Middle School who asked seventh-grade teacher social students teacher Kathy Surenda if her students would make inspirational notes.

"I knew they are studying Africa, so I figured they'd be the best ones to send notes," said Lauren, who gave Surenda hundreds of index cards.

Surenda said the kids took them home to create their personal messages.

"Every single student completed the cards," she said. "That doesn't usually happen with homework assignments."

Starr, who works full time at GE Healthcare and twice a month at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said the children were enthralled with the notes and many of them memorized the poems or sayings within minutes of receiving them.

"There are no pictures or words to describe the homelessness there," she said. "But people received us so warmly and the children even gave me notes and bracelets to bring back home."

Starr plans on going back to Zambia next year.

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