At Hospital St. Therese, in Haiti, there are over 2,000 deliveries a year. Although maternal death rates have gone down, mothers still die, often because they live in rural areas and arrive at the hospital too late. Midwives For Haiti is looking to change that.
Among Haiti's heroes are the nurses and birth attendants, working in difficult conditions with limited resources, to bring life into the world. With a lack of skilled healthcare workers, Haiti's birth attendants share the responsibility of helping mothers deliver healthy babies.
Related: Study: Mama's Financial Strain May Lead to Low Birth Weight Baby
Midwives for Haiti (MFH) is a grassroots, non-profit organization that aims to increase maternity care and support, particularly in Haiti's rural communities by educating and empowering women.
I spoke to Summer Aronson, the Communications & Marketing Director of Midwives For Haiti, whose passion for the cause is as inspiring as the work her organization does. Here's what she had to say:
Q: What is Midwives for Haiti?
A: Midwives For Haiti is a grassroots non-profit organization working in Haiti to reduce maternal and infant mortality. Midwives for Haiti runs an education program that trains Haitian nurses to be skilled birth attendants and then empowers them to reach the rural moms that need their care.
Related: Something Magical Happens When You Witness A Birth
We also run a Mobile Prenatal Clinic that reaches women in 23 rural villages, support and staff the maternity center at the local public hospital, operate a freestanding birth center, run a Postpartum Home Visit Program, and work with traditional birth attendants to improve birth outcomes. All of our programs are led by and for Haitians.
Educating and empowering women is at the core of what we do.
Q: Who founded this organization, and why? What was their connection to Haiti?
A: In 2006, midwife Nadene Brunk traveled to Haiti and saw firsthand the lack of skilled care available to pregnant women. She realized that instead of providing the care herself, teaching Haitian midwives to do this important work was far more impactful. A community leader asked her to start a school.
When she got home, she emailed midwife friends from around the country and asked for help. Midwives For Haiti was born.
Eleven years - and a lot of blood, sweat and tears - later, 124 skilled birth attendants have been trained, over 1,000 volunteers have helped, tens of thousands of lives are touched with skilled care each year in Haiti, countless lives have been saved, and our education program continues. Thirty-three more students in our 9th class will graduate in Jan 2017.
Q: Why are midwives so important, specifically in Haiti?
A: The short answer is simply that midwives save lives.
Haiti has a severe lack of skilled health workers and, consequently, the highest rates of maternal, infant, and child under-5 mortality in the Western Hemisphere. Only 25% of births in rural Haiti are attended by a skilled birth attendant. For the poorest 1/5 of women, that number falls to 6%. (UNICEF) A Haitian woman has a 1 in 83 lifetime risk of maternal death (in the US, it's about 1 in 4,000).
Most of these deaths are rural, poor women-and nearly all are preventable. Midwives for Haiti focuses on ending this disparity by training more skilled birth attendants and increasing access to maternity care before, during, and after delivery for rural women.
I do a lot of interviews with our students, graduates, and patients in Haiti and one thing that always strikes me is that everyone knows someone - a sister, cousin, a friend, a neighbor - who died or nearly died because they didn't have the skilled care they needed. That is pretty profound motivation and our students and graduates work incredibly hard to be the change they wish to see for their communities and country.
Q: What is the current situation in Haiti in terms of birth experience and care for pregnant women and newborns?
A: Before we began working at Hospital St. Therese, the Central Plateau's public referral hospital, there was only one obstetrician and one midwife available. They only worked from 8am-4pm. At night, there was no one to care for patients and the janitor frequently delivered babies. With so much in short supply, many patients died and pregnant women did not feel safe here.
Over the past decade, however, things have changed. The maternity center has become the clinical training site of Midwives for Haiti's education program and we pay the salaries of 18 skilled birth attendants to ensure mothers receive quality care here 24/7. Though there is frequently no running water or electricity at night, medication shortages are infrequent.
Women still must bring their own sheets, a bucket for their waste, and a family member to provide food and care for them, but women now come from very far to reach the skilled birth attendants - and the safety and kindness - that they provide.
Q: How is Midwives for Haiti making a difference? What kind of progress have you seen?
A: In the area where we work - the Central Plateau - about 80% of women live rurally. They live long distances from any medical facility or provider and often cannot pay for transportation to reach the hospital. If a pregnant woman is having severe headaches and has just enough money to feed her family that day, or pay her child's school fees, or repair her roof before the rainy season, her decision to go to the hospital will probably become less of a priority.
These kinds of delays kill women. So, if women can't come to the hospital, we go to them. Our Mobile Prenatal Clinic travels to 23 remote villages each month to deliver maternity care to 500-800 women who would otherwise not have any. Sometimes the roads are so bad that the only way we can get the midwives to these areas is by motorcycle.
Last year, 307 high-risk women were identified in these villages and brought back to the hospital for specialized care. At a clinic last week, a baby was born safely and another mother had severe hypertension and was transported back to the hospital where she was induced and delivered a healthy baby. Without the mobile clinic, that mom and baby probably wouldn't have survived.
A: When I am in Haiti, I am always touched by the people. There was one woman I met at the hospital last fall - her name was Desilia. She had given birth to her seventh baby the previous night. Desilia is from Cerca Carvajal, one of the Mobile Prenatal Clinic sites. At these clinics, the midwives educated Desilia about her increased risk of postpartum hemorrhage, so she came to the hospital for a safe delivery.
She had just lost all of her crops from Hurricane Matthew and I can imagine how tough it was for her to make the two-hour journey. Desilia had a single outfit for the baby but that was all. Her sweet baby was wrapped in a disposable hospital sheet. The midwives ran around and got her more clothes and a few blankets, all donated from our volunteers. I think about Desilia a lot. She was doing her best with what she had.
I think we can all get behind Desilia and the women and midwives of Haiti - and the world - who keep going despite the odds being so stacked against them.
Q: How can our readers get involved?
A: Donate to our Mobile Prenatal Clinic, which will provide 7,000+ patient visits this year in rural Haiti and is entirely funded by donors like you. As little as $10 can help save the life of a mother and her baby in rural Haiti; $100 provides care to ten mothers.
Make a tax-deductible gift by May 15: www.midwivesforhaiti.org/mobile-clinic
Summer Aronson, Communications & Marketing Director of Midwives For Haiti, lives in London with her family. Contact her at [email protected]. Learn more at www.midwivesforhaiti.org
Photo Credits: Summer Aronson