We left the boy with tetanus, and make our way through the regular women’s ward, and then to the maternity section. We file though in single file, like nuns in a procession, our hands folded, careful not to touch anything. Our guide, Dr. Agaba, runs this place. A shortish, roundish man in his early 50′s, Dr. Agaba has the patient resignation of one who has worked in healthcare for a long time, doing his best to do what he can, and knowing with all his being that it will never ever be enough.We actually met him yesterday, when he came out to visit Shanti, and was very interested on our doula training. He smiles easily, and jokes with Sadie, Shanti’s project manager. They seem to have a lovely relationship, built on respect and common purpose.
However, he is not smiling now, as we enter the maternity ward. Softly, he points out the postpartum women sitting on the naked beds, explaining that sometimes they are two and three to a bed, sometimes they are sleeping on the floor. Agaba explains the culture of rape, the lack of access to safe and legal abortion. Abortion is illegal in Uganda, although, of course, it still occurs. Forget the coat hangers and back alleys of North American history; here we are talking about dirty sticks and poisonous herbs, sometimes self administered, sometimes not. But Agaba does not judge or flinch from reality. “If a woman comes to me, it is my duty to treat her, not judge her. I am only here to help.And that does not help.” Wise words. What if we only did what helped, forgetting judgement and bias and acting only with love and acceptance?
There is a woman in labor and the hospital midwife takes us into the delivery room to see her. She is sitting on the vinyl table, naked from the waist up. She is crying and moaning, and we are just staring at her. This is clearly silly. We are birth professionals, for goodness sake. I move to her side, smile, and murmur some words of encouragement. I don’t expect her to speak English, so I just use the Birth Voice, telling her that she is so strong, that she is doing a great job. Surprisingly, she answers me. “I don’t feel like I am doing a good job. I feel like I’m going to die.”
“It this your first baby?”
“Yes, my first.” A contraction hits hard and fast. She slumps over, moaning, her breath hitting me in the face. The world over, a laboring woman’s breath is slightly sweet, but sharp. She probably hasn’t eaten today. I wish that a Cliff Bar would suddenly appear in front of me, or lacking that, at least some drinkable water.
I help her off the bed, and show her how to lean forward onto it, feet wide apart. We work together for a few more contractions, easing her breath out, rather than holding it, or screaming it out. She is a strong woman, and has a lot of reserves left. And she is close. Her body is beginning to tremble, and she is burping a lot. The contractions are right on top of each other, pulling apart her resolve.
“First babies are hard. But you can do this.” I keep my words simple, but try to infuse them with all my belief, not only in her, but in all women. I glance behind, and my team has moved on. Everything in me wants to stay, to support, to help. I know I probably could. Shanti volunteers have doula-ed here before, but I don’t want to miss our afternoon training session, so I give her one last smile and a hug, and catch up with my people.
Throughout the day, my thoughts keep returning to that woman. I feel guilty. I should have stayed, should have helped. It killed me to walk away from her. She was scared and in pain, and I left her. I hope she had a beautiful baby, and that she can forget the pain and the fear, and concentrate on her little one. I hope she has a man who loves her, and a family that will welcome this baby, and respect her hard work in bring him or her into this world.I hope she does not bleed too much after, or come down with an infection. I hope her baby lives. It is the most I can hope for in a place like this. Dr. Agaba said that “if you come to this place, you have come to Hell.” I hope she finds some bit of Heaven here instead.