As a pediatrician specializing in treating children with special needs, I tend to operate on the assumption that I have “seen it all” after practicing for the past 25 years.
But once again, the experience of volunteering with Sleeping Children Around the World (SCAW) — a Canadian-based global not-for-profit organization that supports the basic right of every child to have a comfortable night’s sleep — has given me a new perspective on the kinds of challenges that children and their families face on a daily basis. Especially in impoverished areas like rural India, where I recently spent 12 days as part of a volunteer team distributing bedkits (mattresses, pillows, bed nets) around Kolkata in West Bengal.
During one distribution alone, we saw children with highly treatable conditions that have gone untreated, such as hydrocephalus, club foot, cleft lip, strabismus and river blindness. Others were suffering debilitating conditions such as cerebral palsy or severe intellectual disability, for which only a bare minimum of physical and educational support appeared to be available.
But despite the lack of access to more technologically sophisticated treatments and intensive therapies, what ultimately resonated with my colleagues and me was the unfailing compassion, respect, dignity and love with which these children are treated by their communities, especially by their teachers and their caregivers. For a health care provider, there is no greater lesson (or humbling experience) in what is most important to giving the best possible patient care.
In my professional role as a pediatric sleep specialist, I am committed to monitoring and promoting sleep health in children worldwide, an umbrella concept that focuses on providing children with the opportunity to obtain both the quantity and quality of sleep that they need to grow, develop and thrive. SCAW’s core mission — to give children living in poverty “tools” that enable them to obtain the best possible sleep and realize a better and more productive day — is a huge step in achieving these goals. And the overwhelmingly positive response from the families we encountered on a daily basis in West Bengal was ample proof of parents’ recognition of the vital role that a good night’s sleep plays for their sons and daughters.
One of the highlights and privileges of every distribution mission an SCAW volunteer undertakes is the opportunity to visit the homes of families who received bed kits the previous year. Seeing first-hand the care and pride with which parents and grandparents treat our small contribution to their children’s health and well-being is an eloquent testimony to both the importance of sleep and the power of the ongoing partnerships that SCAW established in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Central America, Africa and the Philippines over the past half-century.
Judith Owens, MD, MPH, is the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Her most recent mission was her second with SCAW.
Learn more about Owens’s recent mission to West Bengal and others run by SCAW on the SCAW blog.