Riding in a van several hours beyond Nairobi, I noticed a roadside sign for a nearby hospital. For me, the word “hospital” triggers an image of a large building bustling with nurses, doctors, technicians, patients, and visitors. And on this day, far from my family, I thought about the hospital where my sister-in-law gave birth to her first child with the help of a surgical team that we probably took for granted at the time.
There was ample medical staff to provide the care my sister-in-law and her unborn child needed, and the operating room was ready and fully equipped. The routine Cesarean section was successfully performed, and while my niece’s birth had not gone according to plan, the new mom and dad were predictably elated, grateful, and relieved.
When I travel to resource-limited settings, especially in remote communities, hospitals are very different. Wards are filled with patients, usually with family members huddled close by, all waiting for an overworked nurse or doctor to make their rounds.
For some women who are about to give birth, there may have been no prenatal visit and their unplanned trip to the hospital was an ordeal triggered by someone’s recognition that obstructed labor and complications were presenting a life-threatening risk to the woman and to her unborn child. In many of these cases, the arrival at the hospital is often too late to save the life of the woman or her baby.
Could anyone in my family have imagined this situation on the day my niece was born? We know that complications can occur at any birth, but conditions in low-resource settings result in death and injury that in other parts of the world are the rare exception rather than the norm.
Last month, I had the honor of meeting five inspiring women from rural areas of Kenya who gathered in Nairobi to discuss the challenges of providing basic health care and services to pregnant girls and women.
The challenges are significant, linked to a long and well-known list of issues that includes poverty, lack of knowledge or information, cultural barriers, poor nutrition, lack of essential supplies and medicines, and a dearth of trained health workers. In Kenya, there are only 1.3 doctors, nurses, or midwives per 1,000 people, and skilled health personnel attend just 44 percent of births.
As I listened to the litany of obstacles that face a girl or woman who is about to give birth in a remote community in Kenya, I was reminded of discussions in other countries and even in my own, where girls and women die, as do their babies, because they do not have access to prenatal care or to skilled support during their labor and delivery. Most of these deaths are avoidable.
I believe that women pay it forward. When a mother survives and thrives, she devotes her energy and resources, no matter how scarce, to the survival and health of her child and family. When she learns about the importance of immunizations or bed nets or nutrition, she does everything possible to ensure that her children benefit. Mothers feel the responsibility for setting their children up for a healthy, productive future.
The company I work for, Johnson & Johnson, is a partner in USAID’s 5th Birthday campaign, which shares every mother’s hope that her child will be born healthy and grow to celebrate many, many birthdays. And I believe that fulfilling this dream of healthy babies and children starts with a mother.