Every 2 minutes, a woman somewhere in the world dies from complications of pregnancy or childbirth.
I serve as a board member for Every Mother Counts, a non-profit founded by Christy Turlington Burns to save women’s lives by providing women around the world with access to healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth. In honor of Mother’s Day and the moms in both our customer and our designer/artist communities, I thought I would share with you a trip I took with Christy and the rest of the Every Mother Counts board to Haiti.
Last November, we traveled to Haiti to witness first-hand the results of EMC’s work to save women’s lives. My reading material on the plane was Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book I’d highly recommend about Paul Farmer, the doctor known for his humanitarian work in developing countries, beginning in Haiti. Though I grew up in developing countries like Tanzania (1976-1978) and Egypt (1981-1984) because of my dad’s job in economic development, I was still hit hard in hearing the facts about Haiti: the life expectancy in Haiti for men is only 61, for women 64, and infectious diseases are leading causes of death. For women giving birth, the picture is frightening: the number of midwives per 1,000 live births is 1 and the lifetime risk of death for pregnant women 1 in 93. Basically, a lot of Haitian women give birth without anyone around who knows what to do if something goes wrong.
We landed in Port-au-Prince and began to get to know each other on the drive to Mirebalais; EMC is a young organization and our board had had only one meeting before we traveled to Haiti. Joining us from our board were Christiane Lemieux, the founder of Dwell Studio, and Heather Armstrong, the well-known mommy blogger behind Dooce. We were joined by Dr. Tomekia Strickland, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Los Angeles, Clancy McCarthy of Every Mother Counts and several others. We overnighted in Mirebalais, then the next morning immediately drove to rural Hinche, Haiti.
As we drove progressively deeper into rural Haiti, it became clear the challenges that rural women are up against. We saw many people traveling on donkeys or walking miles on foot. We had heard that rural women who run into problems during labor must walk miles to get to a clinic, as they have no access to transportation. As someone who has given birth to two children myself, it was hard to imagine the pain and fear these women must experience.
We were in Hinche to attend the Sunday graduation ceremony of 26 midwives whose training Every Mother Counts funded. We started with Sunday services at Father Jacques’ Rectory, where the graduates and their families were worshipping. I was struck by how music plays a large role in Haitian culture. For a country that is often described as having so little, it was clear it has a lot, too. The church ceremony was filled with warmth and with joyous, celebratory music. Practically everyone was singing. We then drove to a set of rooms above the Ebenezer Center in Hinche to attend the graduation.
With the money it has raised, Every Mother Counts has contributed funds to a local organization, Midwives for Haiti, whose goal is ensure that every Haitian woman can one day deliver with the assistance of a skilled birth attendant. Midwives for Haiti was founded by Nadene Brunk, a nurse from Virginia who saw the lack of skilled care for pregnant women and asked herself, “If we don’t do this, who will?” Nadene organizes American nurse volunteers to spend time in Haiti training midwives. Midwives receive housing, food, and training for one year, then graduate and are able to take on paid jobs that help them support their families.
EMC funded a class of 26 students and we had come to see them emerge as full-fledged midwives. To our great delight, the graduates had invited their husbands, children, and other family members, and had decided to organize a full-on set of musical, dance, and theatrical performances for us. Each of these women will be assigned an area of Haiti to cover, where they will each personally deliver an estimated 200 babies every year. All this impact (26 midwives x 200 babies = 5,200 babies per year) was achieved for about $50,000, which amounts to an astonishingly low $9.61 per baby if you count just one year, and just $3.20 per baby if you figure that each midwife will be productive for at least 3 years. This was probably the biggest surprise to me of the trip: the low cost by US standards of healthy mom/baby outcomes.
There is a lot of hope in Haiti, too. We went to see a beautiful new hospital in Mirebalais, albeit not as rural as Hinche, which had its very own CT scanner, one of just 3 in the country. One of memorable moments of the visit was when Dr. Strickland delivered a talk to hospital nurses on how to inexpensively make a tamponnade out of a condom filled with water, to stop uterine hemorrhaging, one of the leading causes of post-partum death.
This hospital was in deep contrast to St. Therese hospital in Hinche, which was much poorer and where several of the Midwives for Haiti volunteers and graduates work to save lives. Out of respect for the hospital, its dedicated staff, and the great work it does, I will just say that seeing the condition of the facilities of the hospital, the suffering of its patients, and the lack of equipment needed to save lives, was the emotionally hardest part of my visit.
After seeing St. Therese, we visited a nearby girls’ orphanage – a stark reminder of those left behind when a mother dies. I couldn’t help but think about my own children, Alex and Sabine, who are the same age as these orphans.
It would not be fair to end this post without mentioning that I found Haiti to be an incredibly beautiful country, both physically but also culturally. If the country’s economic problems could be gradually addressed, the true warmth of its people and richness of its culture could come to the fore and be what we all talk about when we think of Haiti.
If you are reading this post and interested in learning more or helping out, please take 2 minutes this Mother’s Day to visit https://www.everymothercounts.org/ to learn how you can help. Your help can be as simple as just raising awareness of how many women die in childbirth or pregnancy, and how preventable these deaths are. You can also buy Minted art, as we donate a portion of all of our art sales to Every Mother Counts.
Thanks, and Happy Mother’s Day!
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