Picture a newborn baby: sweet faces, tiny fingers and toes, maybe a whisp of hair atop their heads. They can strike a joyful note in even the hardest of hearts. All babies deserve and need loving medical care to start their lives…especially if they’re born early. At Medical Teams, we care for people in places where access to health care is limited. For a premature baby, not getting extra support is often deadly. That’s why we established Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) in 2 refugee settlements in Uganda.

Today, we’re going “behind the curtain” to talk about how our NICUs came to be. Remarkably, they’re the only NICUs in refugee settlements in Uganda. But they’re also because our community-led model showed clearly what was needed. We’re proud of how our courageous providers heard the call for specialized care and put a plan into action.

Read on to find out more about our NICUs in Uganda and how you can help!

Why NICUs are necessary

A “premature” baby actually refers to a wide range of birth dates. For reference, a typical pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. A premature birth happens when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Most premature births happen between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, but it’s possible for a baby to be delivered and survive at 28 weeks. Of course, that’s with specialized care and the resources they need to grow. The reality is that babies who are born early in refugee settlements or without access to care have higher rates of mortality.

In fact, in 2022 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that for every 1,000 babies born alive in one of Uganda’s refugee settlements, an average of nearly 10 died in 2022. The primary cause of death is birth asphyxia, which affects about 57% of newborns. That means that when a baby is born, they have trouble breathing. Sadly, without an incubator or oxygen, many babies die.

Clearly, the statistics demonstrate how great the need is for advanced care in refugee settlements. But it’s the stories of mothers and babies who experience premature birth that drove home how necessary a NICU was to the people we serve.

Starting a NICU from scratch

Uganda, Dr. Raphael checks on baby in the NICU in Rwamwanja, 2022
A doctor checks on a baby in the now-operational NICU in Rwamwanja refugee settlement.

One of our providers and team leaders in Uganda, Dr. Janney Oyugi, shares a moving story about a woman who came to his clinic with a complicated pregnancy. She had lost her husband to war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and her children to illness while getting to safety in Uganda. Despite her grief and experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, she’d found the strength to carry on. Her pregnancy was a sign of hope.

But her baby came early, at just 33 weeks. Dr. Janney and the rest of her care team jumped into action accordingly. They performed a C-section. Then, they worked as hard as they could through the night to keep her baby alive.

“We actually improvised,” Dr. Janney says. “I didn’t sleep the whole night.”

An ambulance went to another hospital to get a feeding tube. They used cotton wool to keep the baby warm. The next day, they were able to transfer the baby to a specialized facility. But the experience got Dr. Janney thinking — what if they had a NICU there at the settlement?

“It would save the lives of very many babies,” Dr. Janney says. He found a table, a bed, and an oxygen machine and set them up in an unused room.

“I say, ‘We start from here,’” he recalls. “That’s how we got our NICU.”

Our NICUs in Uganda

a baby in a NICU
A premature baby is kept warm in one of our NICUs in Uganda.

Today, we’ve established NICUs in 2 refugee settlements in Uganda: Rwamwanja and Kyaka II. The increased capacity for caring for premature babies has made a dramatic difference. In Rwamwanja refugee settlement alone, for every 1,000 babies born alive, 18 would die. Now, only about 2 are lost each year. The same is true for Kyaka II. On average, in both settlements, there’s a 97% survival rate for prematurely born babies now that they have NICUs.

In 2023, there were 1,866 newborns admitted to our NICUs. Imagine the hope, fear, and prayers of the people waiting on the other side of a newborn’s incubator. Imagine how terrifying it would be if there was nothing there to help them. We’re hoping to add another NICU in a refugee settlement in Uganda in 2024 to help even more premature babies survive their first months of life. Our goal is to make sure every settlement in Uganda has a NICU to help mothers and babies during a very fragile time.

Natakunda’s twins and the NICU

A mother in a surgery gown holds a baby in a NICU
Natukunda gave birth to twins at 8 months of pregnancy who were cared for in our NICU.

When Natakunda tells the story of how she gave birth to her twins, her wide smile and calm demeanor never falter. Still, it’s hard to imagine how she did it. At just 8 months of her pregnancy, she delivered one baby at home. She was worried for her newborn’s health, though, and called an ambulance to take her to a Medical Teams clinic where she could be cared for without charge.

“If I had been asked to pay, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it and I don’t know what would have happened to my babies,” Natakunda says. “Thank you, Medical Teams, for being generous.”

Once there, providers examined her and realized she was actually pregnant with twins. This was a surprise to Natakunda! They also explained that her babies were premature and would need to spend time in the NICU.

Natakunda delivered her second twin safely, then both babies were put on oxygen to stabilize their breathing. Once stabilized, they began receiving an IV.

“The babies have now been in the NICU for three weeks and they’ve greatly improved,” Natakunda says.

“I’m very happy because the nurses here are supporting my babies well. If I hadn’t found these free services here, I don’t know what was going to happen to my twins.”

Today, Natakunda’s twins are gaining weight and getting healthier! Natakunda learned breastfeeding techniques and kangaroo mother care practices to help her children get stronger. Now, they’re out of the NICU and on their way to happy, healthy lives.

You and our NICUs

When it comes to saving the lives of premature babies, we can all play a part! You’ve seen behind the curtain here — our NICU had humble beginnings! But from that start, something incredible was born. Generous donors like you made it possible for the first NICUs in Ugandan refugee settlements to save thousands of little lives.

It’s the season of giving — will you donate now to help one of God’s precious children?

You can save the life of a premature baby today!

photo of Lauren Hobson


Lauren Hobson
Copywriter & Editor