By Shannon Trilli*
We can’t forget her. We can’t forget any of them: the expectant mothers in still-developing nations who hope against long odds to make it through their pregnancies and safely deliver healthy babies. Despite global strides in improving maternal health, the journey of these women remains treacherous. Last July, I got an up-close look.
I was on a site visit at Nyadire Hospital, one of our United Methodist mission hospitals in Zimbabwe; Dr. Tshiani Kasongo is the lead doctor and surgeon there. My colleagues and I had arrived dusty and weary after a long drive from the capital and were welcomed at the Nyadire Mission guest house by some excited United Methodist volunteers from the United States.
Ahead of us, a pregnant woman also had arrived at the hospital, and Dr. Kasongo had invited one of the teenaged volunteers, who aspired to become a doctor, to observe the emergency C-section. The young volunteer returned later that night, elated to have seen twins delivered.
The next day, during a routine tour of the hospital, I congratulated Dr. Kasongo on the successful delivery. But he shook his head and quietly reported that the mother did not survive. His solemnity was in stark contrast to the exuberance of the volunteer who had witnessed the surgery. Clearly, she had not understood that the twins had come into this world as orphans.
Dr. Kasongo explained that he had received an emergency call that morning: a woman in an outlying area had been in labor for two days. Her family belonged to a Christian denomination that doesn’t believe in the use of modern medicine or doctors. Although her labor clearly was abnormal, she was not permitted to seek help.
She grew weaker and weaker. Finally, over the objections of the men in the home, the woman’s mother called for an ambulance. But the local vehicle had no fuel. The family scrambled to find or borrow money to gas up the ambulance. It took them all day to unite enough cash to buy the fuel and then make the long journey over rough roads to Nyadire Hospital.
By the time they reached Dr. Kasongo, he knew it was probably too late for the mother—and he suspected the distress of prolonged labor may also have been too traumatic for the babies inside her womb. He told me later that when he made the initial incision, the mother’s blood was so thin from fighting the labor for three days she just bled and bled. There were no nutrients left in her exhausted body.
But the twins were alive, and Dr. Kasongo delivered two healthy baby girls. The grandmother, who would likely now become a mother again and raise them, had just left the hospital before our morning tour began.
How unneccessary this young mother’s death was! And yet her case is not unique; she represents hundreds of thousands of women around the world who die every year—one every two minutes—from complications during pregnancy or childbirth.
Improving maternal health is one of the Millennium Development Goals that continue to lag behind expectations, according to the latest United Nations report. Our understanding of the correct interventions, targets, and messages to prevent maternal mortality has grown in recent decades, and maternal deaths have declined by 47 percent since the MDGs were announced. So, why have we as a global community not crossed the finish line of reducing maternal deaths by 75 percent?
There is no single reason for this—only the sum of many preventable reasons: incomprehension, especially among men, of family planning and of the ante-natal and delivery needs of pregnant women; societal biases that affect women; a dearth of surgeons in hospitals and of midwives in local clinics; inadequate roads and transport from remote rural settings to medical facilities; and the lack of financial resources—poverty—to name a few.
At Nyadire Hospital, Dr. Kasongo is confronting these issues by promoting community health education, sending general nurses for midwifery training, recruiting qualified staff to strengthen the hospital’s mother-and-child health program, encouraging in-hospital deliveries, and improving the availability of resources such as medicine, transportation, and medical equipment, among other steps. United Methodists, as communities of faith in Zimbabwe and around the globe, are using the pulpit to talk about and change attitudes and behaviors that contribute to maternal mortality.
These measures are helping to dramatically reduce maternal deaths in Nyadire. Surely, with a concerted effort and adequate funding, they and other steps can be promoted and replicated around the globe to improve the fate of mothers and their children, and we can reach our goal by 2015.
“We can end preventable child and maternal deaths,” UNICEF head, Anthony Lake, said recently, “and if we don’t, shame on us. History will judge us harshly—as well it should.”
*Shannon Trilli is the director of the Global Health unit of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post as part of a series with NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013).