The Lifesaving Midwives of Tham Hin

Thank you to the International Rescue Committee for providing this guest post. Photos and text by Peter Biro/The IRC. Please find more information, and opportunities to help, here.

Nestled deep in the hills of Western Thailand, the Tham Hin refugee camp is a patchwork of bamboo huts housing nearly 8,000 people. Most of the camp’s residents are refugees from Myanmar who have fled war and upheaval in their homeland and have lived in the camp for years, or in some cases, decades. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is the camp’s sole provider of health care, including the vital service of training and providing midwives. After attending the IRC’s six-month training course, the midwives are equipped to provide pre and postnatal care, family planning, immunizations and supplementary feeding for malnourished children.

Nearly 8,000 people live in the Tham Hin refugee camp, including 3,000 children, and around 300 babies are born in the camp each year. 15 IRC-trained midwives examine and support hundreds of women and children in the camp annually. The examinations can detect potentially life-threatening conditions such as infections, severe anemia or an abnormal position of the fetus, in time for treatment and referral to hospitals outside the camp.

I recently spent a day with one of Tham Hin’s midwives, Tanaw, 27, who uses only one name. As I arrived in the camp’s thatched maternity ward, dozens of pregnant women were waiting in line; once a month, all the expectant moms in the camp gather in the maternity ward to be weighed, examined and receive supplemental food.

Most women and children’s faces were decorated with thanaka, a pale yellow paste derived from tree bark, and the ward’s air was permeated by the spicy smell of betel nut, widely chewed in Myanmar.

I watched as Tanaw calculated a patient’s estimated delivery date using a cardboard gestation calculator, also known as a pregnancy wheel. “Part of my job is to make sure that pregnant women know how to take care of their children, before and after birth,” she said. “I talk to them about the nutrients they need and how to avoid infections.”

She gently felt another patient’s belly and checked her blood pressure. She listened for the baby’s heart beat with a special stethoscope and measured the width of the stomach. “If we detect a serious problem either with mother or baby, we can immediately refer the patient to a hospital outside the camp,” Tanaw said.

One of those patients was Naw Mu, 23, who I saw being helped into an IRC ambulance for a four-hour drive to a hospital. The IRC’s Dr. Parueluk Kesorn suspected a premature separation of the placenta from the uterine wall. “She must receive treatment immediately,” Kesorn said.

During my visit I also met Lay Htoo, 20, who had given birth to her daughter Di Lay a few hours earlier in the camp’s maternity ward. The first-time mother is being treated for tuberculosis and is very weak. “I’m tired but very happy,” she smiled.

It’s not only mothers and babies who receive care in the maternity ward. Children in Tham Hin are regularly weighed and measured to determine if they are malnourished or suffer from disease. Respiratory tract infections are the most common ailment among children in the camp, but anemia and malnutrition are also problems, especially among refugees who recently arrived from Myanmar. Malnourished mothers and children receive extra food and iron tablets.

The midwives of Tham Hin are clearly offering valuable, often life-saving services. “I know I am doing something very important,” said Tanaw, who herself is a Burmese refugee. “My dream is to return to Myanmar and help mothers in the villages there too.”

Melanie Mayo-Laakso


Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the Content Manager for Mothering is the birthplace of natural family living and attachment parenting. We celebrate the experience of parenthood as worthy of one’s best efforts and are at once fierce advocates for children and gentle supporters of parents.

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