This blog post was contributed by Onikepe Oluwadamilola Owolabi, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.
I walked into my cousin’s house at 11pm in the suburbs of London, relieved to be inside a warm place after 2 hours traveling. It was my eighth day away from work in Mumbai, and all my days had been spent in a specialist hospital on the outskirts of London caring for family. Indeed, I hardly had any time to think of the community resource centers in the slums of Mumbai or the data I was collecting. All my energy and attention was focused on something different.
As I slumped into the sofa exhausted from three hours of traveling home, my cousin’s first statement was- “….. died yesterday you know”. She then proceeded to tell me about one of our other relatives who died in childbirth. With her limited medical knowledge, she felt the case had been mismanaged, and she related the details to me, eventually calling up the deceased’s sister-in-law to clarify the unclear details. I switched into my doctor role, asking as many questions as I could to create a clear picture, and sadly her hunch turned out to be right; it was an extremely avoidable maternal death, one which took place in the city where facilities are available and whose victim was an educated member of a middle class family.
Two weeks before this, I heard that a senior colleague of mine from medical school had also died in childbirth, from some of her outraged friends who were trying to investigate what appeared to have been a poorly managed case. As I tried to quell my cousin’s anger for the rest of that night, I mulled over these two incidents. It really hurt to think that two people whom I was somehow connected to died for reasons that can be prevented. My concluding and very simple thought before I slept was that there’s still a lot of work for me to do.
A few days later, back in Mumbai and dealing with the extreme change of temperature, I saw my first Holi celebration and continued to work on analyzing data for the sustainability plan. Results show we will need to have in-depth discussions with two of our communities to understand how exactly we can help them continue the maternal health initiative through the community resource centers. Very few of our ideas seem to pique their interests and even though it’s a bit disheartening that we didn’t find a match for what to do yet, it will inform our next steps and how we eventually roll out our entire plan. I also did some preparatory work on developing an emergency obstetric care protocol for different levels of the Mumbai health system. This reminded me of the two women who died and how critical it is to involve the health system in our work to eliminate maternal deaths.
This was one month when I was definitely grateful to be a doctor, as my clinical knowledge helped me get through a lot of mental stress and answer a lot of people’s questions. Being able to stand in a hospital’s ICU and understand what is happening to the person you care about the most, while answering innumerable phone calls from close family, speaking to them confidently and knowing their fears are less because you’re there, is a massive responsibility. It’s one I am eternally grateful I was able to do. Furthermore, watching our Wellcome Trust fellow and consultant pediatrician, David, provide voluntary clinical care to our field staff’s children on the last day of this month reminded me of how much I can give to people around me by using my medical skills.
March was a month of mixed feelings, but it taught me a lot of things. Spending all that time in the hospital and seeing a public health system function so effectively, coupled with those two heart-wrenching stories, inspired me immensely. It has strengthened my resolve to ensure that I create access for every woman to have a safe delivery, and it has made me more convinced that I want to help make public health systems ones in which people (by which I mean every single person around me) can access the highest quality of care, because these are the places where the neediest and most vulnerable people will end up.