Dear Friends of Midwives For Haiti-
My first trip to Haiti was in September 2006. I went out of curiosity. I am an obstetrician and I worked with Nadene Brunk, a midwife in our medical practice. Nadene had been going to Haiti for 3 years to provide medical care to women. She told me stories about her trips and I was intrigued. I think I was most intrigued by her joyful telling of these stories. The trips were physically demanding. The weather was hot. Clinics were remote and hard to get to. Accommodations were Spartan, sometimes nothing more than a thin mattress on a dirt floor. These hardships were taken on at her own expense in money and vacation time. Yet Nadene was obviously in love with Haiti and the Haitian people. I went to learn why.
In Haiti I found poverty that was wider and deeper than anything I could imagine. I won’t even try to describe the hardships that this level of poverty brings to everyday life. Poverty this extreme is a threat to life itself. Except for a tiny minority of the population everyone struggles to obtain the necessities of life. In Haiti self-worth is not defined by your material possessions. Self-worth and a meaningful life are found in personal relationships, faith in God and individual dignity. This is what I found endearing about Haiti, people who defined the meaning of life in the most basic terms. A meaning available to all but sometimes missed in the struggle for material possessions.
During my first trip to Haiti I participated in medical clinics. I was able to help a few people with health problems but I was unhappy with the work I was doing. It seemed so insignificant and transitory. I didn’t want to be part of medical clinics that came to Haiti once a year. I wanted to be part of the work that Nadene was doing with Midwives For Haiti. She and other volunteers were training Haitian women to be midwives. These midwives would have careers lasting 30 years and they would care for thousands of pregnant women.
Midwives For Haiti was a tiny organization and failure was a real possibility but its mission to bring skilled birth care to all Haitian women inspired me. The mission was audacious almost to the point of being arrogant. Who were these people who dared take on such a huge task? I knew them and they certainly weren’t arrogant. They were like most midwives I have met. They were passionate about their work and believed that all pregnant women deserved the help of a midwife. They saw a problem in Haiti and knew they had the ability to make a difference. Dr. Paul Farmer has said, “For me, an area of moral clarity is: you’re in front of someone who’s suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act.” Nadene put it in simpler terms, “If I don’t do it who will?”
Nadene and volunteers taught the first class outside under a mango tree, it was the only “classroom” space they had available.
One of the strengths of MFH is its base of volunteers. In the beginning all of the work was done by volunteers. 99% of the volunteers were midwives and I think they were passionate about MFH because of the pride they take in being midwives. I’ve met a lot of midwives and I have yet to find one who became a midwife for the money. They are answering a calling.
Our focus was teaching midwifery skills to Haitian nurses. But volunteers bring new ideas. It was a volunteer who recommended we start training traditional birth attendants and that has become one of our successful projects. Traditional birth attendants are still doing the majority of the deliveries in Haiti. Those who have been through our training program are better able to recognize pregnancy complications. We have seen this program save lives. In one case a TBA knew a woman was at risk of postpartum hemorrhage because she was having her fifth baby. She brought the woman to the hospital when she was in labor and the woman did have a severe hemorrhage after the baby was born. With the right treatment and a blood transfusion the woman survived. It is unlikely she would have survived if she delivered at home. This is a picture of the family and their very proud matwòn (standing) and it’s just one of hundreds of stories that we could tell you of lives saved.
Most of the volunteers who work with us in Hinche visit the Azil feeding center. Azil is run by Sisters of Charity, the order started by Mother Teresa. On Tuesdays families come to Azil. Some come with sick and malnourished children seeking food and medicine. Others come to pick up children who have been nursed back to health. I have been there to see a father accept the body of a child who had not survived their illness or starvation. The nuns who work at Azil do a magnificent job but they do not have enough hands to feed or arms to hold all of the children. They welcome volunteers who quickly learn that the children are starved for attention. The only language that is needed is a smile and a hug. The only gift they seek is a lap to sit on.
One of the most memorable things I have done in Haiti was help treat 87 children for scabies. Scabies is a parasite common in Haiti. It is a small insect that burrows under the skin. It causes intense itching and the affected areas can become secondarily infected with bacteria. In places like Azil if one child has scabies soon all of the children will be infected. There is only one way to attack the problem once it has taken hold. All children must be treated at the same time and all bed linens and clothing must be washed. For this task the nuns at Azil needed help. Ten MFH volunteers came to Azil late one afternoon to apply a skin medication on all of the children at Azil. The nuns washed all of the linen and clothing that night. The medication we had applied needed to be washed off the next morning and we returned to bathe all 87 kids. The photo below shows Nadene bathing a child as she is surrounded by others waiting their turn.
It is very low tech, simple and inexpensive to treat someone for scabies. So why is this so memorable? I think it means a lot to me because it took a personal touch. This wasn’t a pill you prescribed and the patient went home to get better. This was hands on treatment that would not have happened if MFH volunteers hadn’t been willing to help.
In the early days of MFH we had to make do with meager resources. We didn’t have enough money to buy our own vehicle. Instead we paid Ronel for the use of his 1974 Toyota truck, shown in the photo below. Parts of it were literally held together with wire and duct tape. This photo may have been taken on the day Ronel carried 19 passengers.
Ronel is the man at the back in a green shirt. Four students from Class 1 are riding in the bed of the truck. I am sitting on supplies and wearing a white shirt. Nadene is standing to the side talking with me as one of our translators, Theard, looks on. The man sitting on the cab of the truck is Mark Shreve, a pediatrician with many trips to Haiti. Next to Mark is Sherry Zauner, a nurse from Richmond. Below is a photo of Ronel and I, ten years later. Ronel is still our driver but now he has the Pink Jeep and a Land Cruiser to get our volunteers and the mobile clinic where it needs to be.
Early on it was a MFH vision to have birth centers in remote rural locations. Women need health care where they live. You can’t walk far when you are in labor. If you have a problem, it can take hours to find transportation and get you to a hospital. If you are bleeding after a delivery you don’t have hours to spare. Delay kills.
Our first attempt at opening a birth center was in Basin Zim. The photo below shows the house we rented for $100 per month where Marie Ange would give prenatal care and do deliveries. Marie Ange is standing in the doorway with her husband. Prenatal care took place there but there were never any deliveries. Politics and money were barriers we could not overcome.
Marie Ange has worked on our Mobile Prenatal Clinic ever since and we didn’t give up on the idea of having a birth center. If you don’t have perseverance you won’t accomplish much in Haiti. It took 4 more years but we finally had our birth center. It was quite an improvement over our first effort. We just weren’t ready in 2011.
This is the birth center we were able to open in 2015. Perseverance.
The final days of 2016 mark the end of our 10th anniversary and these are just a few of Midwives For Haiti’s accomplishments over the past decade.
All of our success has been possible because of our supporters. Your financial support and volunteer trips have grown a small, audacious volunteer run group into a formidable non-profit organization with 38 employees, a well-reputed school and five maternal and infant health projects, all led by and for Haitians. 124 skilled birth attendants have been educated and empowered and will collectively touch tens of thousands of lives each year with compassionate midwifery care in Haiti. Not only will these skilled birth attendants save countless lives throughout their careers, they are leaders of their communities and symbols of hope for a stronger Haiti. Another 32 students begin their training in Jan 2017. Thank you.
Please consider making a 100% tax-deductible gift to Midwives For Haiti before the tax year ends. Your support is needed and will continue to make a difference in the lives of many. Donations made by Dec 31 will receive a full tax deduction in the US.
Here’s to another decade of progress. Happy New Year.
Stephen Eads, MD
Midwives For Haiti