A heart-wrenching wailing filled the ward.  Screams were followed by soothing words, deep breaths and wails anew. It filled every corner in a stifling fog of sorrow.

I was at a large government hospital for the past week enrolling patients in my gastroenteritis study. I recently expanded my access from Emergency Pediatric Services (EPS), which deals with acute gastroenteritis patients, to the Children’s Ward, which deals with more severe diarrhea patients. There is a world of difference between the two wards, and I like the upbeat, somewhat chaotic nature of the Children’s Ward.

The past week was filled with incidents. A doctor was robbed and killed, and doctors all over Peshawar went on strike. They appealed to the government to arrange for greater safety measures for doctors. For the past three days, I have watched patient after patient turned away at the hospital door. I was torn between wanting to make the government recognize the horror of the doctor’s murder and the helpless faces of the poor. They crowded the outdoor gravel entry to the EPS waiting to be seen, while within an eerie silence settled over the EPS unit. The usually crowded beds, two and sometimes three to one, now held but a few patients. Nurses held light conversations behind the registration desk, and the lone doctor fluttered in and out, refusing to see patients and sending them to the already crowded Children’s Ward.

I was interviewing a 15-year-old mother on the last bed of the four-bed ward about hygiene practices, breastfeeding, water sanitation and various other diarrhea causal factors in Children’s B ward. I had seen a few doctors run in and out of our room and what appeared to be an attempt at CPR from the corner of my eye, but I stayed focused on my patient until the crying began.

The mother I had interviewed the day before was crying and attempting to comfort a sobbing woman in her arms. Some mothers wept along with the now childless mother, while others stared ahead dry-eyed, devoid of emotion, rejecting their fears that their child could be next. Tears filled my eyes and began to blur my vision as I leaned over to ask Mariam what the wailing mother was saying.  She stared ahead and in a barely audible whisper said: “God help me, God help me – what will I tell my family?”

While we worry about our children going to college and making the right friends, these mothers worry about their children surviving to their first birthday and then each one after that. It doesn’t seem fair.