She stands in the doorway, shoulders slumped, hair in tangles from not being washed in a week, shirt stained with blood, tears streaming down her cheeks. One hand is in her lab coat pocket, the other fumbles with the keys that mysteriously no longer work in the door to her sleeping room. Four women walked in with dead babies today alone, with several mothers struggling in other beds; it’s been a difficult day.
She longs to quiet her mind, to place the images of death in perspective with the job at hand. She signed up for this, with full knowledge of the difficulties. A diversion please. Shower? There is no water. Chocolate? Gone. Music? Too much of a reminder of home. A nice note of encouragement via our CDMA internet connection? It’s 3:10am back home, so no news. Like many Ethiopians who are hungry, worn or troubled, she reaches for sleep. But in this place, on this day, it does not come. Tossing and turning, stomach in knots, a fever arises and she whispers: “This is hard.”
Death is a part of the fabric of life here in Ethiopia. The people have come full terms with the likelihood of its occurrence. According to World Health Organization figures, 10,000 babies and 1600 mothers die from childbirth complications every day. Here at Mota Hospital, the director responds to the question regarding what is the most difficult aspect of midwife retention with the words: “We see death of our mothers and sisters every day, on our doorstep, and we have little supplies to help them.”
The problem is quite complex, as many intertwined issues exist in Africa. When a girl or woman labors at home, she may not even be aware that there is a health center nearby. Hospitals have a desperate need for doctors, which are first priority, and they rarely have money for outreach and education. Even if she does know about the hospital, often a woman will suffer in silence and not want to bother her husband, father, brother who toil in the fields all day. By the time she musters the courage to say she thinks she is in trouble, it is often at such a late stage that the baby and mother are well headed toward death.
If she is lucky, the husband, father, brother may then rally several men to carry her over the rock strewn and rugged terrain to get her to the hospital, walking for hours, sometimes days to get her here. And then, once here, they see the costs that are associated with care (most often less than $100) and they quickly realize that they will have to sell all of their cows in order to pay the bill. The pivotal decision must be made: get the care their loved one needs and become destitute, or turn away and go back home. At times, treatment will be started only to have the family run out of money and leave mid-treatment. And perhaps the worse situation is when a woman is carried to the hospital only to find that it is not staffed.
We often long to pay for services when we see that they could save a life. We are told that this is not sustainable for the hospital, as many problems arise when the hospital cannot pay for other villagers after we have gone. Money is best donated toward equipment and occasional free services where they deem it to be appropriate. So, we assimilate to this way of life, and now, here in this tiny village, the problems of Ethiopia become our problems. No longer are we a simple bystander. We feel the loss. We see the complexity. We are saddened by the pain these women and their families suffer.
And, we hold hope, just as the doctors do.
A new road is being built that will connect Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar. Mota will become a stop mid-way, and many believe that this road will create a demand for better services in Mota, such as desperately needed water flow. This will enable the old rusted truck ambulance be to retrieve patients from outposts. It will bring better telecommunications services. The doctors tell us that they have seen immense progress already in the few years that they have been here. I ask them what support they have to mentally keep going when they see so much suffering and death every day. Their answer is said with quiet and passionate devotion: “These are our mothers and our sisters. Of course we will work for them.”
I have often reflected on the eye contact that is present in Ethiopians. I have traveled to many countries, witnessed many rituals and interactions, and never have I seen such an intense and long-holding gaze as here in Ethiopia. A few weeks ago, an Ethiopian man said something to me when I asked about courtship here that plays out in my mind today. His words: “Everything starts and ends with the eyes. It’s all within our eyes. Words are never needed.”
Ethiopians are creative, full of wonder, and tender. They know and experience many things that most of us will never endure, let alone fathom that these situations even exist. When I look into their eyes, I see more than the current situation at hand. I see belief, hope and an almost father-like twinkle that tells me they see me as a child: innocent, comfortable and maybe even if I am lucky, endearing to them. They see through me, because my life, my world, is transparent and thin compared to theirs. Their heart beats hard every day, while mine has long periods of rest, boredom even.
I look at Dr. Philippa as she finally finds sleep, and I admire her dedication to enter this world and exchange information with the midwives, and to also bring us all into the equation of moving toward the goal of creating healing environments for anyone who suffers here.
It is now morning, and Dr. Philippa rises with vigor and purpose. She picks up her stained lab coat, grabs a piece of bread, and pushes the door open to go round on the patients. Before she leaves, she hesitates, looks over at me and starts to say something. She searches my eyes, and then without words, closes the door behind her.