CBC In Depth
Mothers are dying
Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese, Save the Mothers International | February 13, 2004

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese (Photo by Thomas Froese)
Mothers dying. Often with their babies. Most of them in developing countries.

When I learned more about this tragic fate of so many women, I could no longer sit in my comfortable university hospital office at McMaster University in Hamilton.

And so, as an obstetrician from one of the world's richest countries, I looked into how I could help. Now my travels have taken me to women among the poorest on Earth, in Yemen, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Pakistan, working to make childbirth safer.

The needs are daunting. From the time you had your morning coffee until the same time tomorrow, 1,600 women will have died from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

Most of these women live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. To put that in perspective, in Hamilton, fewer than one in 4,000 women will die from pregnancy complications, while in a country like Yemen, one woman will die for every 90 births.

My first experience with mothers in need was in Uganda in 1997, with a project of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and the Association of Obstetricians of Uganda.

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese examines a premature newborn boy in Kiboga, Uganda. The boy and his mother lived, although often premature babies in the developing world often will die, along with their mothers. (Photo by Laura Mawson)
Volunteer obstetricians lived in the rural town of Kigoba. As the first Canadian volunteer, I was also the program's Canadian clinical director. The goal was to educate the local community in ways they could help themselves.

The little guesthouse where I lived rarely had running water. On a good day, electricity ran from 5 to 8 p.m. And this was a high standard of living, since I had a gas stove and fridge.

And the women. I'll never forget the young woman, deserted by her family, who needed emergency surgery to save her and her baby. The hospital's electricity was out, so we worked with a few lights from the generator. In pain, the girl writhed, and chanted in a strange language. What a relief to finally deliver her new, little life. She was barely 16. And yet many others would still die.

I remember Christine, a young girl I met in rural Zambia. Her baby died in her difficult labour, which lasted several days. The prolonged labour caused a permanent hole in Christine's rectum. As a result, this girl - like many thousands of others in the developing world - was continuously incontinent of stool, and became a social outcast.

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese holds a newborn baby boy in Sana'a, Yemen. In Yemen for every 90 births, one woman dies in child delivery, which is among the highest rates in the world. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Chamberlain Froese)
To add to Christine's misery, she had HIV/AIDS. I was the surgeon during her fistula operation, a dangerous situation because of the AIDS. I prayed for a successful operation, and that I wouldn't prick myself with a needle. The only person Christine had left in this life was her mother. Her HIV-positive husband had already left her for another unsuspecting woman.

These are just two examples of the hopelessness of needy women, women who have so moved me. You never forget their faces.

Four years ago, I moved to the Middle Eastern country of Yemen. While I would continue to be based at McMaster University, where I direct the university's International Women's Health Program, I knew the importance of having my feet on the ground among the poor. Since then, I've lived in Yemen's capital Sanaa, returning to McMaster for a few months every year.

In Yemen, I've helped UNICEF, I've taught at a Sanaa university hospital, and I've helped acquire a generous donation of equipment from St. Joseph's Health Care System in Hamilton, for a new maternity house in Sanaa.

To be more effective, I've also learned to speak Arabic. This is most important in my contact with rural women I see during weekly visits to a nearby village.

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese teaches medical students in Sana'a, Yemen about safe delivery. A large percentage of female students in Yemen wear a balto, with a face covering also, called a lithma. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Chamberlain Froese)
Sometimes, I hear a mother did not get the midwife's help early enough. These mothers often bleed to death, alone, in their own homes. One woman casually told me that she has lost seven children, while only three are alive. I thought of my own little baby girl, born in Hamilton in June 2003. These women often don't know things can be different.

There are various reasons why these women die: money may be short; a woman's husband is out of town, and cultural ways tell her to wait for his permission to seek help; sometimes, there is no transportation to a facility that may be days away; hospitals are often ill-equipped, with neither proper medicines nor personnel. The needs are large.

But what I've experienced has also encouraged me to birth a program called Save the Mothers International. (www.savethemothers.org)

To be launched in Uganda, this is a master's degree in Public Health Leadership. It will train professionals from developing countries to build new infrastructures in their countries.

If leaders in medicine and other disciplines, such as government, law, media and education, learn about why women are dying, they can make a difference in their sphere of influence. Simply building more clinics isn't the answer.

As the program's executive director, I will move from Yemen to Uganda with my journalist husband, Thomas, and our infant daughter Elizabeth, in 2005. Save the Mothers will go to other countries, such as Yemen and Afghanistan after it's successful in Uganda.

Mothers dying. Needlessly. It's a story in need of more international attention. It's led me to places I would have never dreamed, and it's led me to try to make a difference. I've found God has given strength I didn't know I had, and opened roads I didn't know existed.

If you find yourself also desiring to impact the world for better, never think it can't be done. My prayer is that you do. A first step is to educate yourself about how your skills might be used among the world's neediest people. And look for organizations that will help you go abroad for a first-hand visit.

It's never too late. Someone, somewhere, will be thankful you bothered to care.

Note: To help share some of these women's stories of hope and courage, Dr. Chamberlain Froese has written a book "Where Have All the Mothers Gone?" (ISBN # 1-55306-762-2).

Dr. Chamberlain Froese can reached at jchamber@mcmaster.ca


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COLUMNS: Aly-Khan Rajani (CARE Canada) Nicolas Palanque (CARE Canada) Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese (Save the Mothers International) Monique Russell (HRI-NetCorps Intern San Jos�)

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