2 Bay Area women train midwives in Sierra Leone
Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Retirement is anything but slow for two Episcopal deacons from San Francisco.
Each year, the Revs. Christie McManus, 60, and Patricia Ross, 57, journey to Sierra Leone to help deliver babies in remote villages with some of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
“Doing this fits in with my core values – I have the knowledge and money and if I don’t share it, that’s not doing what I was created to do,” said Ross, a certified midwife.
Both women, who worship at St. John’s Episcopal Parish in Clayton, wanted to do something useful with their golden years. So they became MOMS – Midwives on Missions of Service, which is a nonprofit helping West African women deliver healthy babies.
Together, the pair turned MOMS from an Oregon-based distance learning course for midwives into a traveling midwifery and maternal health education program. MOMS has a board of directors and a few volunteers, but it’s largely a nonprofit of two – McManus and Ross travel several times a year to Sierra Leone for six-week stints to lead the courses and meet with government officials. Their next trip is in January.
In the past two years, the San Francisco women have trained 97 women in 33 villages in basic prenatal care, birthing techniques and postpartum procedure. They rely on small individual and corporate donations and donated medical supplies, and they host baby showers in the Bay Area to collect baby blankets, clothes and toys.
MOMS was invited by the Sierra Leone government to work in the Kailahun District – the epicenter of the country’s civil war during the 1990s. Many of the women who survived the bloodshed tell stories of hiding in the rain forest while their husbands were killed by rebels wielding machetes. Many women were raped; others had their babies brutally cut from their bodies.
“So many of the buildings are still burned out – really, not much has come back,” McManus said. “There are no stores; people sell things out of little wooden kiosks.”
In a country of 5 million, there are fewer than 150 doctors, according to MOMS.
The lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth in Sierra Leone is 1 in 8, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Many women cannot afford a doctor visit or simply can’t get to a clinic when the pitted dirt roads wash out during the rainy season.
Cell phone reception is spotty, making it hard to arrange appointments with a doctor. Many women are too weak to make the two-day walk to a clinic, or can’t afford to leave their crops and risk the chance of their food sources withering.
For these reasons, more than a quarter of all Sierra Leone children die before age 5 – the majority in their first six months, according to the United Nations.
When Ross and McManus first arrived in West Africa in 2005, they found women giving birth in what amounted to an “old chicken coop.” There was no doctor, no ambulance, no emergency room. Instead, women were attended to by volunteer traditional birth attendants – a worldwide designation for community members with a month of government childbirth training.
During that visit, one woman bled to death on the floor and seven babies died during or shortly after birth due to malaria and malnourishment.
“It was gruesome,” Ross said.
Ross and McManus were shocked to see birth attendants pushing on women’s stomachs during birth – which can jam the baby into the pelvic bone or rip the placenta. Once delivered, babies were wrapped up in a blanket without an exam. Instead of waiting for the afterbirth, when women naturally release the rest of the placenta, birth attendants were pulling them out.
So on a return trip in 2006, Ross and McManus started holding classes in a village called Pellie, with translators who could repeat their words in the Mende language. More than 50 West African women showed up for the lessons, many of them walking for several hours from their homes. Through skits and plays and songs, the students learned about nutrition, sanitation, breast feeding, female anatomy and family planning.
On their June 2008 visit, Ross and McManus found that a female health network was starting to form. The birth attendants had begun routinely checking on new mothers. They helped one woman with an infection get to a clinic.
“That undoubtedly saved that woman’s life,” McManus said.
A few of the women had named their newborns after McManus and Ross.
In their assessment reports for the Sierra Leonean government, McManus and Ross recommend placing midwives with a team of traditional birth attendants in rural clinics so there’s at least some expertise and a place to go for minor pregnancy needs.
They are working on creating a second tier of “advanced traditional birth attendants” who could monitor women’s prenatal care and develop connections with urban clinics to help village women make the journey in emergencies.
Ultimately, they want to pass on their knowledge so there’s no need for MOMS in Sierra Leone anymore, McManus said.
“That’s what our faith is about – making the world better, not worse.”
For more information:
MOMS: Midwives on Missions of Service
215 10th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Please consider sending a thank you E-mail to Meredith May at email@example.com for sharing the gift of women working together globally!