I lived for five months in Hinche, Haiti, working with Midwives For Haiti. I was co-teaching with a Haitian nurse midwife in their small school that trains Skilled Birth Attendants in a 12 month course of midwifery study. I am not an instructor; I am a clinical nurse midwife with a homebirth practice. I have done volunteer work for Midwives For Haiti during the past four years and I admire and believe in the organization, so, when I learned there was a need for an American teacher who spoke French, I decided to take on the challenge for the first semester. As always in Haiti, I was going to be the one who was so blessed by this endeavor.

Seventeen women, from 20 to mid 40s, sat around long tables in front of me. Some of them looked alert and interested, some maybe bored, and at least one looked tired.  Some of their names were unusual to me. Would I learn who they were? Would I learn their personalities?  Would they accept me, a foreigner? I am an animated speaker, using my hands, and facial expressions are part of my communication style. I haven’t observed this in Haiti, so would I be well understood?

It was a bit of a surprise the first day to discover that fewer than half of the students spoke French; the classes would have to be taught in Haitian Creole. I have poor conversational Creole language skills and no language skills for higher education classroom instructing. But I did have an excellent Haitian translator who is fluent in French and English and we became a dynamic duo in the classroom, shooting all three languages around. The large dry erase board got covered daily in notes and diagrams for the students, initially spelled in French, but gradually changed to Creole as the weeks went on and my language, and spelling, improved dramatically. I prepared every night, pulling research off the internet, outlining my notes, deciding on audiovisual classroom aids. I thrived, I grew, I was happy every day in the classroom because, wonderful discovery that it was, we have the BEST students!

These women have big hearts and big spirits! Some of them have uprooted themselves from their families, including husbands and children, to come to the Central Plateau and live in single rooms or crowd in with relatives, to learn the theory and skills of caring for women through their childbearing years. They are unable to return home for months; roads are poor, transportation to rural areas is difficult, and money for travel is nonexistent for most. One local student feeds her nursing baby all night long since she is unable to be with her all day. She still manages to study her best and get to class and clinical rotations each day. There is no one for whom coming to school here is not a hardship, and there is no one who is not prepared to give us everything she has to make it through a demanding, rigorous year.

And it is demanding.  They have learned the hormonal control of the menstrual cycle and fertility, when there is not even a Creole word for hormone. I pull medical French from my brain and they learn every foreign concept. They come to understand internal and external anatomy and the physiology behind conception and fetal development, without ever having heard most of the words or concepts before in their lives. They learn it, they understand it, they give it back to me.

They discover what it means to “give care”; they learn how to observe, ask, listen, formulate ideas using critical thinking, develop and act on plans. They learn hand skills, community change agent skills, health care educator skills, professional role skills. They learn to communicate with male physicians in a culture still revering the doctor, right or wrong, and still placing men above women in importance. They learn basic science and details; they learn virus, bacteria, fungus, protozoans, when all they had before were microbes at best, and germs at least. They learn medicine, the difficult details of eclampsia, hemorrhage, infection. They learn pharmacy, the drugs they will use in their practice. We demand this rigor; they study hours on end.

They make me feel proud to teach them. I am in awe of each one.

And the result?  Our graduated students run mobile prenatal clinics in 20 remote, rural locations. They skillfully deliver thousands of babies a year in Haiti. They provide thousands of prenatal, postpartum, and newborn exams. They provide family planning services. They attend monthly continuing education as best they can manage. They feed their families, they elevate the status of women, they keep their sisters alive and well through pregnancy and childbirth in the country with the worst statistics for maternal mortality in the western hemisphere.

But first, they were our students.

– Patti Lee, CNM