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The Value of a New Mother's Smile? Priceless.

Posted by: Elsie James

I must admit that sometimes I feel overconfident even thinking that I can make a difference when the odds are so overwhelming.  I truly believe; however, that with many hands working together, including those hands of the people I'm trying to help, I can make a small impact. This was one of those success moments for me.

I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal in the spring of 1997. I was there as part of a Canadian team on a three-month training assignment at several schools, a health post and a hospital.  Our group included retired teachers and two registered nurses. I was and still am a retired bank manager.

One of the places we saw was a very basic district hospital in Eastern Nepal. This district hospital was in bad shape. Its one doctor was expected to do everything, including house calls.  The nursing staff wanted to do a good job but they had minimal skills and even fewer tools to work with. The hospital had been unsuccessful in attracting a second doctor because no one wanted to work under such terrible conditions.

Our budget was totally inadequate to meet the need and the expectations of the villagers. I was doubtful that we could even scratch the surface of the work that needed to be done. But one of my mother's favourite sayings was, "You have to cut your pattern according to your cloth!"  So following that adage we sat down to make a new "pattern" based on the limited resources we had.  

With the help of many local volunteers, our team got to work. We built an incinerator to dispose of contaminated materials; we taught sterile technique and the importance of those principles in controlling the spread of disease.  Wards and furnishings were cleaned and scrubbed.  The small operating and delivery rooms received special attention - walls and floors were cleaned and painted and the equipment scrubbed. In the labour room we added bright, cheerful curtains and hung pictures of smiling babies.

The work was hard.  The hours long. Every dollar of our meagre budget was stretched until it squeaked!  Finally the time came to leave.  Had we done enough to make a difference?  The answer wasn't obvious.  It was hard not to feel discouraged.

A year later my travels took me back to this village on a monitoring round. It was a brutal trip back. The bus from Kathmandu took more than 30 hours to get us there.  The last 100 km it crawled, averaging 10 km per hour on a rough, twisting, dirt track.  But it was worth it. The following morning I visited the hospital and received payback for everything.  Two doctors greeted me at the door. The hospital had managed to convince an obstetrician to work there after improving the conditions.

I was immediately ushered into the small maternity ward and introduced to a new mother and her 10-pound baby boy. The infant was delivered by caesarean section the previous night.  I was told that neither mother nor her infant son would have survived if that doctor hadn't been there. I'll never forget the smile on that new mother's face as she cradled her newborn babe.

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