Friday, April 15, 2011

Giving Birth in Haiti

Halfway through my trip to Haiti this week, my wife sent me an email saying that if our baby was born today, he would have a 90% chance of survival. I found that incredible given that Melissa literally just entered the third trimester last week. Obviously we hope that the baby will cook for the full 40 weeks and we won’t have to worry about an early delivery; but it is actually quite comforting to know that if he had to come out now for some reason, he’d probably be just fine.

The day she happened to send me that message I was visiting a hospital we’re supporting in a town called Marchand Dessalines, named after one of Haiti’s first leaders after independence, about two and a half hours north of Port au Prince in the mountains of the Artibonite. I learned from Dr. Fequirere, the young Haitian OB/GYN who works at the hospital, that if a child is born in Haiti at the start of the third trimester, there would be practically no chance of survival.

Haiti has the highest maternal and infant mortality rate in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Pregnancy and its complications have become the leading cause of death and disabilities among women of childbearing age. Out of every 100,000 births, 630 women die giving birth. Roughly 77% of Haitian mothers give birth at home and nearly 100 babies out of 1,000 (10%) die during the first year after birth. The thought of my wife giving birth inside what’s become the typical home in Haiti, a battered tent or tarp help up by 4 sticks without any running water or sanitation, makes me queasy.

In this year after the earthquake, Direct Relief has been focusing on addressing the immediate medical needs of the population. We’ve supplied wound dressings, sutures, and wheelchairs after the earthquake; IV solutions, oral rehydration, and antibiotics after the cholera outbreak; and bleach, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste to address the poor hygienic conditions in the camps. However, now 15 months after the earthquake and 7 months since the outbreak of cholera, we’re taking a step back to look at the ongoing and ever-present medical issues facing the country. And the one that jumps out and takes your breath away is the number of women and babies who die unnecessarily every year in Haiti due to complications with childbirth.

The doctor at the hospital in Marchand Dessalines told me that day that they deliver roughly 80 babies per month, 10 of whom will die. While this hospital has 5 well-trained doctors, 18 nurses, and an anesthesiologist, they lack the material resources to save these babies. There is no blood bank in the hospital. Often times they do not have the medications needed to treat the women. And they do not have any incubators, let alone a neo-natal intensive care unit, to deal with premature deliveries. In fact, the doctor told me that they have to refer these pre-term labor cases to a hospital over an hour away. The road between the hospitals is impossibly bumpy and winding, and the woman is transported in the back of a truck. Imagine your wife or mother or daughter or sister having to endure that journey.

Bringing life into the world should not be a death sentence in 2011. As I know now, we have the technology and knowhow to treat babies who are born three months (or more) early. The eight hospitals we’ve selected throughout the country (that all have trained doctors, nurses, and midwives), will ideally become “centers of excellence” in Haiti with new equipment and supplies we’ll provide them to save more lives and encourage more women to come in for pre-natal care. My wife Melissa has now had nearly a dozen hospital visits and will double that by the time this baby is born; yet over 50% of women in Haiti don’t ever see a doctor before they give birth—partially because of the state of the medical facilities.

Sometimes it takes a personal experience, or just the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, to relate to these issues that affect so many people on our planet. In fact, I think one of the biggest problems we face today is many people’s inability to walk a mile in another’s shoes. (Think healthcare for the poor and elderly, welfare for those who cannot find jobs, and the state we’re leaving our planet for our grandchildren. But that’s a topic for a totally different blog.) I remember when I broke my first major bone and couldn’t walk for over three months; I discovered a newfound respect for people with physical disabilities.

And now that I have a pregnant wife, a baby on the way, and know what we can do with complicated pregnancies in the United States, I’m shocked by what the majority of women in Haiti have to go through just to bring a new life into the world. But we’re doing what we can to help change that for the nearly 1 million women in Haiti who receive care at these facilities.

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