On Mother’s Day we celebrate our own mothers, and honor mothers around the world who often risk their health and survival to bring forth life in difficult or even dangerous conditions. On my recent trip to Haiti, I saw firsthand the importance of reaching further, of pushing ourselves to re-imagine what’s possible in providing dignified, quality health care to women throughout motherhood and beyond.
Haiti has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the Western Hemisphere—one of every 93 women dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Haitian women have long faced obstacles to receiving quality health care during pregnancy and delivery. Some live far away from hospitals and often can’t afford transportation. Others may be reluctant to return to a hospital or clinic because their previous encounters were negative.
To overcome these obstacles—in Haiti and around the world—Partners In Health works to strengthen entire health systems. We focus on implementing sustainable systems that provide hospitals with proper equipment, supplies, medicines, and staff training. It’s not enough to provide safe birth kits, for example; those kits must be a part of a system that values health, safe pregnancy, and childbirth as human rights.
I spent a week in St. Marc, Haiti, where I visited Hôpital San Nicolas (HSN), which is run by PIH in close partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Health. Erin George, a Boston-based nurse midwife with PIH, showed me around the maternity ward and together we took stock of the supplies. While it was equipped with the basics, our quick survey made clear the disparity between what we provide laboring women at hospitals in the U.S. and what women in low-resource settings have access to.
I also had the opportunity to witness my first birth during the visit. As the woman labored, the nurses and doctor continued to check her progress and noticed that she was quickly becoming exhausted. I watched a nurse carry over a bottle of juice, open it, and hand it to the panting mother. She took a sip—a brief moment of reprieve—and gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. The nurse’s compassion, humility, and respect for the mother were inspiring.
About 90 kilometers east of HSN is Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais (University Hospital), a shining example of what we can build when we push ourselves to re-imagine what’s possible in low-resource settings. The recently opened hospital is a state-of-the-art facility where women can access not only pregnancy and birth care, but comprehensive health services throughout their lives.
University Hospital complements the commitment and compassion of Haitian health care workers. It’s designed so that women can discreetly access services at one location. The maternity ward is spacious and full of natural light, with curtains separating each bed. A private courtyard with a fountain is a calming space for women in labor. In the recovery ward, a bassinet sits proudly next to each recovery bed—a safe place for mother and newborn.
The ward was silent in the days leading up to the hospital’s opening. But when I closed my eyes, I could imagine every bassinet occupied by a new generation of boys and girls, a generation that will be raised by mothers who have access to a health system that offers dignified care and truly celebrates the accomplishment of motherhood.
While we all take great pride in what University Hospital will offer the women of rural Haiti, we know that not all women will be able to give birth in this hospital. That’s why we continue to work toward improving services at hospitals and clinics in Haiti and around the world.
On this Mother’s Day, we invite you to join PIH in celebrating the mothers of Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, Lesotho, and beyond. Working together, let us re-imagine what is possible when we commit to a high standard of health care for every woman throughout her life.
Katie Temes works on the Training Team at Partners In Health and coordinates the efforts of the Women's Health Working Group. She is an aspiring nurse-midwife and hopes to practice nurse midwifery in resource-poor settings, both domestically and globally.