Yesterday as we were driving along a desert highway, a speeding, heavily loaded car overtook us. “At least they have the baby in a capsule,” Claudia said and immediately we both remembered another day, ten years ago. We were travelling in a mini-bus with a group health workers, visiting remote communities. It was August and the desert wind was chill. As the stony plains stretched infinitely under a hard blue sky, we encountered a scene of utter desolation. A tourist bus had stopped in the middle of a long straight stretch of desert road. The drivers conferred. There had been a fatality.
There was another doctor on our bus, Jean. The driver asked if we could help. We got out feeling helpless. We had to get closer to see the car, a small crumpled vehicle lying upside down about fifty metres into the stony roadside brush. Nearby were a group of four people, one of them holding a bundle of blankets close to her chest. Two of them were the survivors and the other two were nurses who had gotten off the tourist bus to assist them. One of the nurses came forward to explain.
“Thanks for stopping. It’s been terrible,” she said. “I’m Sue, my friend there with the baby is Cathy. We’re remote nurses, both with emergency experience.” Her face was pale and drawn. “Young couple, she fell asleep at the wheel. Car rolled over many times. The baby was unsecured and went through the windscreen. She’s dead. We did about an hour of CPR on her but she’s had no signs of life at any time.”
“We’ve got no equipment. We’ve got nothing, no airway, not even a bag and mask,” said Jean.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sue replied. “The parents are physically okay, although I suspect Mum has a bit of whiplash. Both have tenderness over the lower abdomen where their seat belts were. Dad has some bruising on his chest where he hit the passenger door, probably some broken ribs, I think. Of course, either of them could have internal bleeding.”
We approached the small family. Nurse Cathy still held the bundle of blankets. The mother’s tear-stained face held a wild hope as we approached and introduced ourselves as doctors. “Won’t you look at her? Please take a look at her!” she said. The child’s young father hung behind Cathy, his entire posture one of despair. I had no stethoscope. I was afraid to look at the little body under the blanket.
The mother stood by Cathy and opened the useless blanket to show us her daughter’s serene, uninjured face. The baby’s soft brown skin looked drab. “What’s her name?” I asked softly. “This is our daughter Saha.” Saha was probably about five or six months old. She was a plump, pretty girl. She still had a ribbon in her hair. Her eyes were closed and her face lax. “Can’t you do some resuscitation on her? Isn’t there anything?” Saha’s mum broke off and reached for her husband’s hand.
Inside the blanket, Saha’s skin was cool to touch but I put my ear against her chest and listened. The wind whistled across the plain, blowing loose strands of my hair over the child’s face. I put my fingertips against the arteries in the baby’s neck. “She’s got a bad head injury on the back of her head,” Cathy murmured. I didn’t look, but touched the child’s forehead and cheeks as if to read something there. I lifted a lid of her lifeless eye, acting like a doctor. All was flat and quiet as the stony plain around us. The child’s spirit was further away than the voices of the stones. Jean was talking quietly to the child’s father, tenderly examining his hands, neck and ribs.
“She’s not here at all,” I said gently to Saha’s mum and I felt her husband focus on my words, too. “She’s far away from here. It’s no use trying to bring her back. The nurses here have worked as hard as we would in the hospital. Harder I think.” Searching for something to offer her, I said, “Sometimes these beautiful souls only come for a short time," then, "Perhaps you’d like to hold her.”
“Yes,” she said, tears flowing down her cheeks, and took the bundle, a huge, thick blanket around a tiny form that had no warmth. “She’s been starting to talk, already. She's a happy baby, smiled and played all the time. You should have seen her.”
“A bright girl,” I said.
“Bright as a star,” said her father.
Sue took Jean and me aside. “The ambulance is coming from Fartown — should be here soon. They were called about two hours ago. Do you think they’ll get the Royal Flying Doctor Service?” I remembered that we’d crossed a landing strip painted on the road about seventy kilometres up the road. “Surely they will. I’m sure they will,” said Jean. “We can wait here with them for the ambulance, if you like,” she continued. “Do you think so?” asked Sue. “Our coach people have been very patient...”
“Young couple, originally from Singapore,” Sue started to pass on what she knew. “They’ve been living and working in Tennant Creek for six months. He works in IT. His contract ran out. Got a new job in Perth and they’ve been driving about ten hours. They worked all day, packed and cleaned most of the night and then started driving before sunrise. Looks like Mum fell asleep at the wheel. Said she woke up with a big bang and the car rolling.”
“The baby went through the windscreen. They had a baby seat for her but they had the back of the car all packed up with their stuff. She was on Dad’s lap.” The back window of the upturned car was full of boxes and cases. The detritus of domestic life was scattered over the stony ground: cups and cutlery, a tumbled rice cooker, toys. Clothes and papers that were probably important were blowing away in the wind. “They thought it would be alright to have the baby on their laps just this one time,” continued Sue. She stopped, at a loss for words. In a terrible flash, I imagined the bruised and disoriented parents climbing out of the car windows and searching for their girl.
Saha’s parents were rocking their dead baby, looking into her face, their sorrow renewing itself each time. They were crying quietly now. Cathy talked to them about the need to go to the hospital. “Can we take her with us to the hospital?” Mum asked. “Of course you can,” said Cathy, looking hopefully at us. “Of course you can,” said Jean. “You can keep her with you until you get there.”
When the ambulance arrived an hour later, Jean and I used our best doctoral authority to impress upon the drivers that Saha’s parents must be allowed to hold her during their evacuation to the hospital. We didn’t need to do so. Compassion was all any of us had to offer these two.
Climbing back into our vehicle, Claudia held me a few moments. “We’ll always remember Saha,” I said, as our driver started the engine up and we drove away.
Names and other details changed.