Maria Vitoria is eight months old, but her fragile frame has already seen so much suffering.
She was born with microcephaly, likely as a result of the Zika virus, and her family abandoned her at birth.
Now she is growing, but the development of her brain is stunted by the birth defect, and slowly, day by day, her adopted parents Kely and Josimar Oliveira are learning what this means: can she see, does she hear them?
Discoveries like these – heart-shredding moments – are happening every day at the Altino Ventura Foundation Clinic in Recife.
This port city in Brazil’s northeast was Ground Zero for the country’s Zika outbreak; months on, it is seeing the babies born under a global spotlight age quietly, their symptoms and burdens growing daily.
But for Kely Oliveira, the choice to bring Maria Vitoria into her home was a simple one: she had long hoped to adopt, and instinct took over the moment she met the baby.
“For me it was love really, you know, a mother’s love,” she explains. “When we saw her, we fell in love with her.”
“I didn’t want to know what she had, what she didn’t … to me that doesn’t matter. She’s my daughter.”
The adoption progressed quickly once Kely and Josimar had made their decision.
Much of what happens at the clinic also happens fast; as the youngest victims of the world’s newest pandemic are put through a barrage of tests.
The discoveries are painful and swift: Visual stimulation, to find out if they can see. Hearing tests, to learn if they will one day speak easily. It is a tough ride.
For Maria Vitoria and her adoptive mother Kely, this is a particularly special moment: today the eight-month-old will, for the first time, be given glasses to help her vision.
“She needs them,” Kely says. “She has a problem with her eyesight.” Microcephaly hampers a child’s development and the eyes are often one of the areas affected.
“I took her to the eye doctor and he said that at the moment she only needs glasses to stimulate her eyesight,” Kely explains, adding “these babies need to wear glasses to avoid harming their eyesight even further.”
Maria Vitoria’s difficulties don’t end there; she has been attending regular physical therapy sessions, and has medical appointments three days a week.
“It is a bit of a rush, her schedule is full,” Kely says, admitting that her life has been overtaken by the vast amount of medical assistance her child needs. “It is a lot of different doctors and it’s not just in one place, it’s several places.”
Josimar, a public servant with the Finance Ministry in Recife, has to take three days off work, every week, to drive Kely and Maria Vitoria to all the appointments.
And as if the medical expenses were not enough, the cost of gas is crippling.
For Lacie Santos, whose daughter Giovana was born with microcephaly seven months ago, the sheer scale of time she must spend caring for her daughter has caused problems. The day before we spoke, she was fired from her job.
“I missed so many days that my boss couldn’t keep me on,” she says. “I’m a full time mom now.”
The mothers here, already overwhelmed by the physical and practical challenges of caring for their children, also face another burden: The prejudice they fear society will show to their children, simply because they look different.
“Ours is a daily campaign, a daily fight against this disgusting prejudice,” says Veronica Santos, mother of seven-month-old Joao Guilherme.
Veronica found out she had Zika when she was three months pregnant; seven months into the pregnancy, she was told her son would be born with microcephaly.
Holding Joao affectionately, she explains why he had to be fitted with special boots to realign his lower limbs.
“They have ballerina feet, only stepping on the tips of their toes, and the boot is just to correct that, their posture,” she says.
Hope for the future
Veronica says the biggest difficulty Joao faces right now is stiffness in his torso. “He eats right, it’s just how fast he develops, nothing else. Everything is alright,” she reassures us, confidently.
But it wasn’t always like that. Veronica is quick to admit that she struggled when Joao was born, and not just because of the physical and developmental challenges.
“When we went into a room, to see people’s faces, the other people who were in the hospital, that for me was the hardest phase,” she says, recalling their expressions as they noticed that her son was different.
There is no guarantee that the hours and hours of therapy that the children undergo will make a significant difference in their development.
At times, the mothers take turns to care for each other’s children at the clinic – a moment of solidarity, a recognition that they share the same challenges.
There is sadness here, and a tacit agreement not to speak of how long or well the children may live and prosper. But there is also some optimism, hope for the future.
“When she grows up, I think I’d want her to be a doctor,” Maria Vitoria’s mother Kely says. “To discover more about the issue of microcephaly, to help other people who have microcephaly.”
“I would like her to have a career like that.”
CNN’s Jeffrey Kehl contributed to this report.