I never knew her name. At the time there were far more important things to worry about than what she was called. But over the years I’ve wondered who she was and what ever happened after I reluctantly left her at the hospital late that night.
I did hear several days later that she lost her baby and had to have an emergency hysterectomy. Other than those two facts her story has become a somewhat sad and very distant memory. My last image is of her sitting alone on that hospital bench in the darkened corridor softly moaning in pain as she clutched her swollen abdomen in her arms waiting for a doctor. That is what I remember and that memory haunts me even today.
Having a baby in a country where pre-natal maternal health care doesn’t exist is a scary situation. UN statistics from developing countries around the world estimate that at least one woman dies every minute of every day having a baby. The most dangerous place to get pregnant is in Sub-Saharan Africa where the number of women who die in childbirth each year is staggering. Many of them are just young girls who should be starting their lives and not ending them. To the young girl laboring that night alone in her world of pain waiting for something to happen for someone to come—those statistics were more than just numbers. They were about her and her life and the life of her baby.
Just down the road from our mission was a Catholic mission run by a dedicated group of Italian missionaries. There was Giovanni who (when he wasn’t wearing his vestments performing the mass) could be seen in a well worn and somewhat dirty pair of blue jeans and T-shirt. Equally at ease in his double role as priest and handyman Giovanni kept the mission running smoothly and expanding its work. Gianni, another priest, helped him with these things but he was more of a scholar and less of a handyman. Gianni was more politically motivated than Giovanni and the mastermind behind many of the things they did. For instance, take the co-operative to get better prices for the local produce the farmers grew or the furniture shop to teach skills to boys who never had the chance to go to school. It was Gianni who pioneered these things.
And then there was Conchetta. It was the work of Conchetta that brought them the most pride. Conchetta dedicated her life to the mission’s work and shared the simple home there with Giovanni and Gianni. In their efforts to improve health care in the area they started a dispensary and baby well clinic. It was Conchetta who passed out the medicines, cleaned their infected sores, and administered immunizations to the babies. And it was Conchetta who hovered over the poor ill souls who were carried on makeshift litters to her for help. But, too often their trips over the mountains to seek help came too late to do anything. Too often Conchetta’s tears were the only thing she had to give, the only comfort she could offer to ease their suffering. And too often it was the young mothers who after days of laboring in their remote villages who were hurriedly brought to her in the hopes Conchetta could do something.
There were no hospitals nearby so after they built the maternity the news there was a place that could help women struggling in labor spread quickly through the villages. The number of women brought to the maternity steadily increased over the years but not all who needed help came. Those who did come were sternly lectured before they left with their newborn babies. Conchetta told them if they got pregnant again they must come to her when it was time to have the baby so they wouldn’t have problems. Many came back. But there were still too many cases where the mothers waited too long and the babies were partially born or dead before they came to Conchetta. And that night for that mother enduring her agonizing trip over the mountains carried on the shoulders of the young men from her village—that night the only thing that mattered was that maybe Conchetta could perform a miracle.
When cases were really bad and Conchetta knew there was nothing she could do to help it was Giovanni or Gianni who made the difficult drive to the nearest hospital and doctor. It was always a race to save the life of the mother and her baby. It was a race they lost far too often. The hospital was over an hour away but it seemed like an eternity each time they made it. Sometimes when their ancient land rover wasn’t working or they were out of town or they were already in the race against death with somebody else—their night watchman hurried to our mission to seek out a car and a driver. More often than not these requests happened in the middle of the night.
On the nights when their messenger urgently pounded on our door to get help I seldom got back to sleep. I would stand at the window watching the lights of our car as it disappeared into the darkness. I’d watch the lights as they bobbed up and down as the car bounced over the badly rutted tracks connecting our mission to their mission and their mission to the distant hospital on the other side of the rain forest. I would pray that maybe this time the odds would be in our favor; that maybe this time the race would be won. Usually I returned to bed after my husband left to think about my own labors. I recalled the sterile hospital rooms and the nurses and the doctors. And I remembered the shots and epidurals that eased the pain and made the task a bit easier, more bearable.
But my memories of having a baby were a world and centuries apart from the memories these women had. Most of them had their babies in small huts in their villages scattered across the surrounding mountains or low lying valleys. For the few women that did go to a hospital or see a doctor—even then there were no sterile rooms to lie in waiting for the baby to come. Seldom did they get shots or epidurals to ease their pain. And in most cases the care and encouragement they got came in the form of another woman waiting to have her own baby.
I had seen them during my visits to the hospital. They sat on the grass outside the buildings huddled together in small groups. The women who were farther along in their labor rocked in rhythm to their spasms of pain. They were focused on finishing up this job so they could get back to their families and the work they normally did day in and day out. Sometimes when the delivery of the baby was close you would see one woman sitting behind the other, their arms linked together, legs stretched out beside one another. The woman in the back braced her partner and gave her something to push against to help deliver the baby. I often saw the woman sitting in back of the laboring mother lean her head close to laboring woman’s ear. She softly whispered words of strength and encouragement. For this was the solitary world of women and together they shared in this labor that only a woman could do and only a woman could understand.
One night when all the men on the mission compound were gone to an overnight meeting the Catholic’s messenger showed up at my door with the dreaded request. It fell to me that night to make the journey none of us ever wanted to make. There was nothing I liked about this midnight death race over pot-filled muddy roads rushing through the shroud of darkness in a desperate attempt to save a mother’s life.
This time the mother had been in labor for three days when they brought her to Conchetta. One of the baby’s arms and a leg were partially delivered. The mother was delirious with pain and Conchetta cried as she held her close and mournfully told her in her beautiful mix of Italian, Kinandi and Swahili she had to go to the hospital her baby had died. Conchetta urged me to drive as quickly as I could that time was of essence. But her last words to me as she leaned into my car window and cautioned “her uterus could rupture if the bumps are too hard” played over in my mind as I drove increasing my fear that was my uninvited companion in the car with me that night.
An old lady they sent to help huddled next to her in the back seat. One of her arms stretched around the young girl’s shoulders and the other reached across her abdomen in an effort to hold her steady on the seat and keep her focused on making it to the hospital. I could hear the young mother moan in pain each time the car jarred over a bump or I braked to avoid a pothole. But mostly the three of us rode in silence reluctant allies on this loathsome journey together in a race no woman ever wants to make.
When we finally arrived at the hospital no one was there. I pounded on a locked door and eventually a nurse dressed in a blood splattered lab coat opened the door just a crack. She ordered the mother to take a seat on the bench and told us the doctor would get to her when he was finished taking care of another emergency. The wait was interminable. The only sounds of her moaning in pain and crying in grief echoed eerily in the empty space. Eventually I was forced to leave her so I could go home and relieve the neighbor who was watching my own children sleeping in their beds. Conchetta sent me a message a few days later thanking me for my help and telling me about the hysterectomy.
Every mother knows that losing a baby is heart wrenching. But in a place like this having children was one of the few ways a woman has any value. In a place like this having children to take care of you as you grow old is one of the few ways a woman can leverage any kind of long-term security in her life. In a place like this I knew the chances her husband would keep her after a hysterectomy were very unlikely and envisioned her plight if he rejected her. So, in a place like this losing her ability to have another baby was like a death sentence.
Three years later I made my own journey to the hospital with a baby on the way. Even though my journey wasn’t a race against death, I too moaned in pain as the car jerked and shuddered from the never-ending bumps and potholes in the road. And I too held myself tight as I struggled to stay on the seat and focused on making it to the hospital. But, unlike that young mother who lost her baby, when I held my beautiful son in my arms, when I marveled at his dimples and when I kissed his soft forehead—I thanked God that my journey ended with my miracle.