An American Midwife in Haiti

I traveled to Haiti for the first time in 2003.  I left there a different woman than I came. Women in Haiti are 70 times more likely than women in the U.S. to suffer and die from preventable conditions during pregnancy and childbirth.

This post is one in a series of pieces Rewire is publishing to highlight National Midwifery Week 2010 (Oct 3- 9).

When I traveled to Haiti for the first time in 2003, I left there a different woman than I came. As a certified nurse midwife working for a well-appointed women’s medical practice in the United States, I regularly provided prenatal care and accompanied women during births that, by and large, went smoothly. (And when they didn’t go smoothly, a physician and back-up medical intervention were readily available.) It’s easy to take such services for granted in the comfort and wealth of the United States, where maternal and infant mortality are relatively low.

Women in Haiti don’t know this privilege, though. Haitian women are 70 times more likely than women in the U.S. to suffer and die from conditions that are largely preventable in developed countries: hemorrhage, infection, unsafe abortion, eclampsia and obstructed labor. This reality was unconscionable to me on my first trip to Haiti, and the feeling of injustice has never left me. Educated midwives have the very skills needed to prevent these morbidities!  And therein lay the purpose of Midwives For Haiti: to help Haitian women become educated midwives, themselves.

Midwives For Haiti formalized its work in 2006, developing a mission statement, curriculum and volunteer precepting schedule. Four years later, hundreds of midwives and numerous volunteers and other supporters along with the thousands of women we have met in Haiti have embraced this simple mission of teaching prenatal and birth-assistance skills – and been transformed by it.

The January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince changed the course of our work, adding a dimension and immediacy Midwives For Haiti could neither predict nor fathom. Today, instead of a handful of volunteer resources, networking contacts and supporters, we have a continent full.

Shortly after the quake, we received phone calls and emails from people familiar with our organization who wanted to help. In a matter of days, thanks to a very dedicated board and other volunteers, we had scheduled midwives from the United States and Canada (and eventually Europe) through spring to travel to Hinche, our home base just 60 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince.

The immediacy of the situation meant that the role of our volunteers needed to expand from preceptors to the current class of eight Haitian women to dispatchers of our graduates from the previous classes. Our former students traveled to disaster-affected areas, including Carrefour and Cite Soleil, to care for mothers and babies.

Midwives For Haiti has not achieved its mission and goals unless the midwives we have educated are employed. So far, our previous two graduating classes of 16 women are employed in Haiti. Our third class of 11 students is about to graduate, and we will begin enrollment for our fourth class shortly.

In French, the word “midwife” translates as “sage femme,” which literally means “wise woman.” Midwives For Haiti is humbled to be grooming wise women in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere to have a baby.

Our friend and volunteer, Cara Osborne, Ph.D, with the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing, captures the experience in a blog post following her trip to Haiti:

There’s a lot of life happening in Haiti. The everyday joys and heartbreaks of human existence are happening, quite literally, right there in the streets. As an action-oriented girl, I tend to participate. I jump in to the waves and try my best to ride the through the highs and lows as if I’ve been there all along. I focus intently on the specific child that I’m playing with or adult that I’m speaking to– but rarely take notice of the interactions and conversations happening around me. This time around it was different. In order to make sure that my charges were safe and had what they needed, I had to be acutely aware of my surroundings and was able to see the whole ocean. I watched each member of the group lifted and dropped by waves of emotion as they took in the realities of people who had been living in tents for months, young earthquake victims struggling to adapt to missing limbs, starving children being fed by nuns because they were too weak to hold their own cups, and a laboring woman enduring hours of seizures that would have been an “emergency” in the U.S.  It was immense, and frightening, and beautiful, and almost more than I could bear. Had I gone on doing my little bit, I might have missed the gift of seeing the change that happens when lots of little bits are being done all at once in one great big sea of humanity.