Just a day after picking up her newly adopted daughter in Ethiopia, Angelina Jolie began to worry something was wrong. Six-month-old Zahara Marley Jolie, already underweight at just 9 lbs., wasn’t drinking enough formula. Jolie took Zahara for a checkup – and wound up spending a week by her daughter’s side in a New York City hospital as the baby battled a bacterial infection that, left untreated, could have been life-threatening. “Like anybody else,” Jolie “was a mom who was very concerned and afraid,” says Dr. Jane Aronson, the pediatrician and expert in international adoption medicine who treated Zahara. “She didn’t know what the answers were going to be. She was really afraid that the baby wouldn’t get better.”
Fortunately, after being treated with fluids for dehydration and antibiotics to combat what Aronson eventually diagnosed as a salmonella infection, Zahara left the hospital “happy and gurgling” July 15 with a clean bill of health, says Aronson. “She’s a fighter.” A friend of Jolie’s says the ordeal was”an extremely emotional time” for the actress. “She was there 24 hours a day, keeping watch,” says Aronson. “She kept saying how much she admired her baby. She had so much admiration and respect for Zahara’s strength.”
Jolie, 30, took Zahara to be examined by Aronson in Manhattan on July 8, just hours after arriving in the U.S. with her son Maddox, 4, and a nanny. Aronson says Zahara was dehydrated, had a low-grade fever and showed signs of a fungal infection in her mouth, a possible symptom of malnutrition. Zahara was clearly “pretty poorly nourished,” though her height is in line with other infants her age, Aronson says. (Zahara’s mother is believed to have died of AIDS a month after giving birth and her father is unknown.) Mom wasn’t feeling great either: Aronson treated Jolie and the nanny for gastroenteritis (it was unclear whether it was related to Zahara’s illness). They were better by the next day, but Zahara wasn’t. On July 9 the baby was admitted to the emergency room at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. After testing for numerous infectious diseases, Aronson zeroed in on the culprit: salmonella, a bacteria that causes diarrhea and fever and is common in the developing world. Once put on the appropriate antibiotics, Zahara “started feeling better as soon as we were able to provide her with the proper medical care,” says Aronson. By the time she was discharged, a smiling and alert Zahara had gained over a pound.
Jolie – who only left Zahara’s bedside for a few hours during the entire week – wasn’t the only one relieved. Maddox carefully observed his new sister’s treatment. Jolie “did all the things that you would expect a smart mother to do,” says Aronson. “She included him in everything, so he wouldn’t be afraid, and made him feel a part of it.” The trio flew to L.A. July 16 to reunite with another recuperating friend: They stayed at the Malibu estate of Brad Pitt, who had spent the week recovering from a bout of viral meningitis. Pitt had been with Jolie in Ethiopia when she adopted her daughter. (His malady likely has “nothing to do” with salmonella, says Aronson, who adds that Jolie never mentioned Pitt to her.) Mother and daughter both appeared to be feeling much better July 19, when they were spotted in Malibu at a supermarket and toy store and stopping in a Starbucks (Jolie “seemed very normal,” says an onlooker).
Zahara’s recovery also had positive repercussions back in Ethiopia, where a few other children in her Addis Ababa orphanage had been experiencing similar symptoms. After receiving a call from Wide Horizons for Children, the agency responsible for Zahara’s adoption, Aronson linked the cases and suggested the sick kids be given the antibiotic Cipro, known for its effectiveness in fighting salmonella. “We had our answer for Zahara’s illness,” says Aronson. “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to make the conclusion. Even though we were thousands of miles away, we were working in a sense at the same kind of thing. It was like CSI. It was exciting.” While Vicki Peterson, Wide Horizons’ executive director, says that “measures are being taken to make sure that the children get the best medical care possible,” such outbreaks can often be deadly in developing countries, due to the lack of medical care. “Salmonella kills literally hordes of babies and children,” says Aronson. “Not every baby will be as fortunate as Zahara.”