Laboring for Change
This story is part of a series exploring maternal health and reproductive rights across the world.
Click on the stories below to hear from other women on the front lines of calling for an end to a globalized war on women.
KENYA: Losing a Life to Give a Life
As a nurse, Okeny-Lucia has insider knowledge on the state of maternal health in her homeland. She has dedicated her life to rallying for increased access to health care for pregnant women and their children.
"I believe that governments must treat maternal health as they do readying a defense force for war or a nuclear launch."
Any woman who has been pregnant knows too well that those nine months are trying: Things you once loved to do or thing you once loved to eat are suddenly forbidden. Your life is suddenly a roller coaster, and everything can feel like it is changing, chameleon-like.
In my country of Kenya, a pregnant woman and her womb have great respect placed upon them. In public places, men and women spring from their seats to allow a pregnant woman to rest. ‘Mama, Keti hapa,” they say. “Have a seat, Mum!”
Growing up, I was fascinated with pregnant bellies and thought pregnancy was sacred. In my childish mind I wondered how these women felt: Was this Baby Jesus (that’s how adults described the unborn to me) heavy? Did he cry for milk? And as a woman’s tummy grew—what a wonder!
Now, it is clear to me that women face great challenges to give birth. In my community, the care, concern, and respect a woman experiences during pregnancy does not exist when it comes to labor and delivery.
There I was, some years ago, serving as Nurse Supervisor in a labor ward of a public hospital. With a capacity of 200 beds, we had plenty of patients and adequate equipment to save a mother and her baby. But being a public hospital, the number of patients would sometimes surpass capacity.
It was a busy night that promised only to get busier. As I hung up one phone, another would ring.
“I need an anesthetist fast, sister!”
“Matron, there is a child in respiratory distress!”
“We need an ambulance!”
Toward 11pm my energy was draining and pressure was mounting. A mother had been referred from another a city. She presented with complications of reduced fetal activity and breech presentation and required an emergency caesarean section. I called for the doctor to immediately attend to this woman, as it was important that we move hastily.
Moments later, the mother-to-be was in acute labor pains, kicking her hands high up and screaming. “God! Oh Lord!” she wailed. “Save me, save my baby!”
There were only two midwives on duty. There were seven women in early labor, three in active labor, and one waiting in the operating theater for the very doctor we needed. It was utter chaos. My patient was losing strength, and we could only wait and watch her torment.
I summoned the courage to examine her and found the infant’s foot confirming that she was breeching. I’d have to go skillfully around the foot to loosen it with an incoming contraction. I was able to draw the legs out and to free the forehead of the baby out of the birth canal. The hardest part of the delivery was over and we breathed sighs of relief.
Yet, the baby never cried! I felt butterflies in my stomach, and a thin streak of sweat on my forehead confirmed my worst fears. The mother raised her head. With a weak voice and tears flowing from her eyes she asked, “Is my baby dead?”
I couldn’t answer. The doctor had arrived and was attempting to resuscitate the newborn, but it was futile. The baby was lost.
And all this due to delayed access to the facility.
A second death that night dealt a hard blow. A fellow nurse lost consciousness following a delivery that was too much for her to handle. She was taken to the intensive care unit, but never woke up from the deep sleep. It was the last time I saw my colleague, a nurse and a diligent young mother with many dreams for her life. In this case, our healthcare system had provided life for one newborn but brought death for another mother. . . .