I was surprised to be greeted at MamaBaby by a small bedroom filled with Americans. I’d been told I’d be the only foreign volunteer through my first week in Haiti, but there they were – Patricia and Darren Couch, and Emily Stevenson – and they proved a pure delight.
Patricia is one of the gorgeous souls who founded MamaBaby and who serves as one of its board members. Darren is her hardworking, multi-faceted husband.
Emily is a sweet spirited, tender-hearted new midwife who’s preparing to launch into independent practice in Michigan’s Detroit area.
The three ushered me to my bunk and helped me unpack my bags – one hundred fifty pounds of mostly the supplies YOU so generously sent along with me – and then Emily took me on a tour of MamaBaby, introducing me bit by bit to its unique ways from birthing room to bathroom to the two giant silver bowls stacked in the backyard for scrubbing clothes.
Thanks to my long summertimes spent sleeping outdoors at Camp Tuhsmeheta in my late teens, the many short missionary trips I took to the slums of Mexico in my twenties and thirties, my two decades worth of work among the Amish, and the myriad wilderness adventures of my later years, conditions at MamaBaby felt comfortable to me, and even familiar. The screenless windows lined with wrought iron bars, the cinderblock walls topped with barbed wire, the thick-leaved trees heavy with ripening mangos and coconuts, the bunkbeds shrouded with mosquito netting, the cold water bucket baths and toilets unable to tolerate toilet paper, the sporadic electricity, the carefully purified drinking water and strict diet warnings, and the ebbs and flows of an indecipherable tongue – yes, indeed, I felt as though I’d been there before. It almost felt like a homecoming.
The first thing I learned at MamaBaby was that birth and birth work is truly universal. I was there to do what I love to do with women I found I was able to understand and connect with beyond language. Rapidly, a sense of sisterhood budded and blossomed among us.
And, still, there were challenges.
The five midwives of MamaBaby – Rose, Carmelle, Alourde, Alide, and Sophonie – have the place well-ordered and running smoothly. In a country where one in 263 mothers expire in childbirth or the immediate postpartum period and one in fourteen little ones perish before they reach the age of five, these supremely skilled, brave, tireless, truly inimitable women provide cost-free care to hundreds upon hundreds of at-risk families. Each woman lives at MamaBaby for fully three out of four weeks around the calendar – apart from her own family – caring for moms and babies through most of each week day and through a good many nighttimes.
Last year alone they conducted 6,766 prenatal appointments, 1006 postpartum visits, and 108 family planning appointments – besides catching 587 babies.
I understood from the moment I decided to apply to visit that what MamaBaby needed most from me were my funds and my suitcases stuffed with gear. If I could bring a heart minus agenda and expectation along with those suitcases – a heart prepared to serve those outstanding souls as they’d deem necessary – my presence there might be a blessing besides.
So it was for me to learn both the way MamaBaby functions as a whole, as well as how each midwife likes to practice – while working with all my might to get a toe-hold on the fascinating language of Haiti.
Through my first week, if I wasn’t tending to a mom or a baby, or scrubbing the birth and bathrooms, or dashing up and down the stairs for gloves or gauze or doppler gel, I was studying Kreyol like my life depended upon it.
And the midwives, now my beloved new friends, my sisters, with boundless grace and patience – and, yes, with bursts of mirth as I stumbled along in their mother tongue – opened their arms and their hearts and their very special world to me.
As I wrote last week, the first birth I attended was unlike any I’ve ever been part of.
Patricia and Emily and Darren and I were having a breakfast of eggs and plantain when a man bounded into the room to say we were needed at the far end of the road.
Patricia was off and away with a pair of gloves on her hands before I could blink my eyes – guys, guess what? Patricia’s a CrossFitter, too!!! Emily and I scrambled down to the birth room where Emily snatched up a blanket and reached for a vial of Pitocin. I handed her a cord clamp and scissors and told her just to go. I drew up the Pit, grabbed a placenta sack and pair of gloves, and followed.
By the time I arrived, Emily was holding the tiny baby boy whom Patricia had found wrapped in his cord and lying stunned on the cement step his mother had squatted down upon when she realized she’d not get one step closer to MamaBaby. Patricia received the placenta into the sack I handed her, and I knelt next to the shell-shocked mama to plunge my syringe filled with medication into the muscle of her left thigh. Alex, our driver, had the truck at the curb, and we soon had mother and child stowed upon the mattress and underpad that lined its bed, ready to make the trip back to MamaBaby.
And just as we’d gotten the poor soul settled comfortably upon a bed in the birthing room, we were told she wasn’t a client of the clinic since she’d tested positive for both HIV and syphilis, and she would in no way be allowed to recuperate there. MamaBaby has a very strict policy regarding HIV and syphilis, and I understand it completely, but that understanding did nothing to soothe the ache that sprang up into my heart for the slight woman and her little one spread out upon the bed beside me.
I turned from the confusion of voices to look at her.
She made no sound as she clutched her child to her breast and stared past the black bars on the window over her head. I realized she understood the policy, as well as I did – realized she knew she would never have been allowed to give birth at MamaBaby. Every woman in the community understands the rules.
And, yet, she’d tried to come anyway. She’d walked to us from who knows how far, at the mercy of her labor pains and through unbearably hot and dusty streets. Is that why she’d birthed on the roadside? Had she waited at home as long as she dared? Had she hoped to arrive too late to be turned away? I couldn’t blame her for trying. Her alternatives were to birth at home unattended, or to birth at astronomical cost in one of the local hospitals.
I helped her to a drink of water and stroked her painfully thin arm as the folks in charge tried to decide what to do with her – tried to decide whether to send her home or on to a hospital. In the end, she was bundled back into the truck and returned to her home.
Patricia and Emily left to scrub away the blood stains from the distant doorstep, and I stayed behind to clean the birthing room. I cleaned and I cleaned, and I prayed for the stoic soul we’d cared for through so very few heartbeats and breaths.
I’d never even learned her name.
*The photographs of the mother and child in this post are not of the mother and child described within it.