by Gail Ward, 27.July 2011
I spent the first week of July as a volunteer doula at Hospital Atlantida in La Ceiba, Honduras. Although my husband Wade and I had worked in the Tegucigalpa area several times in years past (on construction projects, with medicalclinics, and teaching English, Sociology, and Art classes), branching out into a new work in an unfamiliar part of the country felt both intimidating and exciting. But Silvia’s assurances and encouragement set me at ease.
In my home community in Northeast Mississippi, I am involved in two areas of work. My primary job as an English teacher to immigrant children takes me to three county school campuses, serving K-12th graders. But I also work as a birth doula. In this, I support pregnant teens and, since I live in a military town, also serve wives or partners of airmen deployed overseas at the time of their baby’s expected arrival. Although I’d love to work with a midwife in home or birth center settings, such opportunities in my area of the state are almost nonexistent at this time. So, working in a traditional hospital setting has been the extent of my “doula-ing” experience. With hopes of gaining a different perspective, I was excited to learn of “Dar La Luz” and jumped at the chance to volunteer inHonduras.
Thanks to Silvia’s correspondence, all the needed arrangements were made…..even though the timing of my trip happened to be when Silvia would be gone to Germany. But Silvia got everything set up in advance so that I was able to get into the hospital, get a volunteer I.D., and get started, even in her absence. Via email, she also prepped me on what to expect, offered suggestions on local hotels, recommended sites to see, and put me in contact with Erin, a missionary nurse who would make introductions on my first day (before leaving with her family on vacation). Everything fell into place beautifully as I began the work and Wade and I settled into the city.
The new Hospital Atlantida’s “Labor y Parto” (Labor & Delivery) unit is equipped with twelve beds for laboring mothers. Day and night, the beds always seem to be filled. I began each visit to Labor and Delivery by going around to individual patients, introducing myself, and explaining that I was there to offer support and comfort measures. To get acquainted, I’d tell each mother a little about myself, then ask questions about Mom’s name, age, if this was her first child, how she felt, and what she needed (Since I do speak some Spanish, I think I was able to communicate well enough).
I’d make mental notes on how well contractions were progressing and how each mother was dealing with her situation. After assessing who needed immediate attention, I knew who to focus on first. As the only doula present that week, there was no shortage of things to do. In fact, the first day I worked twelve hours without sitting down (After that, I realized I’d have to do a better job of pacing myself). Depending on individual needs, I massaged backs, legs and arms, carried bedpans, fanned, held hands, changed bedding, coaxed, monitored contractions, demonstrated breathing techniques, counted, and relayed messages to family members waiting outside. Because the women were expected to labor quietly alone, fixed in the bed on their backs, and because many had either never given birth or done so under such circumstances, my challenge was not only to offer comfort, but also to alleviate fear and uncertainty.
Once the laboring mom was deemed ready to push, her bed was wheeled into the delivery room, which contained three birthing chairs. It was then up to the mother to get herself up from the bed and into the chair. Of course, by this time, contractions were usually continuous, along with the urge to push…… making such movement awkward and difficult, at best. At times, all three of the birthing chairs were occupied, so babies who could not wait for the next available chair were born where the mother lay……proof that when Mother Nature calls “Next!”, time waits for no one!
And so went my days and nights at Hospital Atlantida. The youngest mother I assisted was just fifteen years old and the oldest was grandmother, terrified out of her mind because she had never been in the hospital before. I assisted with VBACs (Vaginal Birth after Cesarean) an accompanied a patients down the hall when the decision was made for C-Sections. I experienced newfound, yet fleeting, kinship with women who were suddenly discharged too soon after birth for me to say goodbye. Though tired myself, I empathized with the women’s exhaustion and felt a sense of obligation in seeing them through to a positive outcome. I felt challenged to meet the ongoing needs and, at times, overwhelmed by the endless urgency of the work at hand. But most of all, I felt blessed to be there!
As my work at Hospital Atlantida took form, Wade’s path took him in a different direction. When the medical clinic construction he’d planned to do was postponed for the week, Wade took it upon himself to look for other ways to serve the La Ceiba community. After delivering supplies to new mothers at the vaccination center at the old Hospital Atlantida, Wade walked around downtown and ended up on the beach. To his surprise, the beach that he’d expected to experience as a squeaky-clean natural wonder was instead strewn with all sorts of garbage. It was then that his purpose for the week became clear, and he immediately left to buy garbage bags. At a nearby store, when Wade asked for large garbage bags, the sales clerk wanted to know if he needed one or two bags. When she learned that he wanted two boxes of bags, she was clearly astonished! And so, as Garbage Man for the week, Wade spent his time in La Ceiba cleaning the beach. At week’s end, when I was able to see the finished product, I was amazed at the results of his lone determination! Maybe the beach will stay clean, maybe it won’t. But at least thewaters of La Ceiba were washing onto a pristine shore when we left.
In closing, I want to thank you, Silvia, for the work you do in educating and supporting women and medical personnel in Honduras! I recognize the challenges you face and I’m inspired by your commitment to the women of Honduras. I so much appreciate the foundation you’ve laid for people like me to come in and serve for a brief while. Since returning home I’ve had ample time to reflect on the whole experience. In doing so, I’m continually reminded that at any given moment in time, the beds of Hospital Atlantida’s “Labor y Parto” unit are filled to capacity with laboring mothers enduring birth experiences common to women everywhere. Such experiences have bonded women since the beginning of time. My awareness and reflections will better equip me to empathize and reach out to those I serve, making me a more compassionate doula …….wherever I happen to be!