Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Today is Mothers Day here in Malawi. It is a national holiday. It is good that we celebrate the mothers of this country, their strength, their commitment and their love, even under the most difficult of circumstances. And circumstances are very difficult here for women. Being a mother in Malawi is dangerous. Over 800 in every 100,000 Malawian women will die in pregnancy or childbirth. Many women are already suffering from underlying medical conditions (chronic anaemia, mal nutrition, Hepatitis, AIDS, etc.) when the strains of pregnancy and childbirth are added to this, becoming a mother moves from the physiological into the pathological, from ‘normal’ to ‘dangerous.’ Lack of health care facilities, equipment and medication, huge difficulties in accessing the hospitals also adds to the problem. But of course the biggest challenge is the staffing. Never sufficient doctors and nurses to attend these women, overstretched, tired and demoralised the care is often far less than it should be and women die unnecessarily.
As I write I am looking out onto the waters of Lake Malawi. It’s a warm but windy morning. The sun is shining over the lake in front of me and I can see Lucas throwing his line and patiently awaiting his catch. Fishing is his passion. As soon as we arrive he sets up his lines and there he stays for hours. Yesterday evening was a great success, having caught more than 16 ‘little’ fish he is inspired and encouraged this morning! However, like any true fisherman, it doesn’t seem to matter that much if he doesn’t catch any!
I decided at the beginning of the week to spend these two days with Lucas at the Lake. This week is half-term holiday from school. The past weeks, since returning from Europe in August, have been totally hectic. I have been working 7 days a week and often 12 hours a day preparing for the opening of the new maternity unit at Bwaila. I have felt increasingly physically and mentally exhausted and so overwhelmed with the enormity of the task I have undertaken I sometimes become lost. Where is the way forward? Where do I start this morning? Which of the multitude of tasks is the priority? It is so easy to become frustrated, annoyed or angry. Things just take so long, are poorly done or not done at all. Promises are made and not fulfilled. Responsibility and accountability is hard to find therefore even more precious when shown. Recently I was asked by a Norwegian visitor if I was still positive, encouraged, enthusiastic, and energetic? The answer despite everything is quite firmly, ‘Yes!’
‘Let the fire in my heart, let the wind in my sails, let my reason to live......be love’ and if you want my definition of love you just have to look at the bible....1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind. Not jealous, boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. Does not rejoice in wrong but rejoices in right. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
I’m not saying it’s easy, nor that I manage it all the time, in fact sometimes it’s very difficult and I have to keep reminding myself, but there it is and the closer I try to keep to this the easier it is and the happier I am. It’s about self becoming less important, about looking at the bigger picture. It’s about lots of individuals becoming truly more loving to make up a better world.
At 8am. 1st October, (Fiona’s birthday) after many setbacks in all areas, the Family Health Unit (Out Patient Department) finally opened its doors to the first mothers for their antenatal, family planning, postnatal, immunisation etc. care. It was a truly emotional moment for me. Up until 4pm. the previous day it was still not clear if we would open as some official checks were still not completed but we went ahead. The benches for the waiting area, promised the previous evening, had still not arrived at 7.55am.despite several frantic phone calls on my part. The matrons were eager to let the women in. ‘The lorry is coming through the main gate! ‘I shouted. Benches and women arrived together! Having arranged for the touch screen electronic registration equipment to be transferred the previous evening (I was still on the unit at 8pm.) I was horrified to find that it wasn’t working the next morning. A frantic phone call to the experts assured me they would arrive within the next hour. In the mean time the women were crowding in through the doors but with no way to register them! I decided to take a look. Now my knowledge of computers, as my children will tell you, is not extensive, nor of car engines, but I do know what a car battery looks like and I found two of them somehow linked to the system. Following the cables, as if I was jump starting a dead car battery, I noticed that one of them had become unattached. Red to red, negative to negative.....hey presto and it worked! The curtains came off their hooks, (more DHO workmanship!) the keys to the male and female toilets were identical, causing some embarrassment, the baby weighing scales got hung over the first available door frame, the painter was still precariously balanced on some stacked benches finishing off the health advice and pictures he was beautifully painting on the walls but still the women crowded in and still they sang and danced. More than 400 women and babies passed through our doors that day. It may have seemed like chaos, more or less organized, but all went well. (Malawi style!)
The next challenge was to get the unit ready for the official opening on 7th October. We had already decided that the inpatient side (Labour Ward, theatres and wards ) should not become functional until 19th October when Tarek returns from the FIGO conference in S. Africa. However the two were completely inseparable as the unit should be fully furnished and equipped for the ceremony just leaving a few final details and practicalities to be tidied up for 19th. It was a huge task involving many people, ministry and health departments, suppliers of equipment and services, on site workman, far too many to mention. Some were helpful, some unhelpful, some amazing. Some cared, some didn’t bother, some put themselves out, some did not respond. I pushed and shoved, nagged and pleaded, praised and hugged, laughed and cried as I desperately tried to pull it all together.(Officially known as the coordinator!)
I have never seen so much movement and so much achieved as in the final 3 days before the grand opening! Saturday 3rd saw more than 70 cleaning staff of the unit. Meetings with the MOH and the Vice Presidents Office resulted in numerous visits and checks during the next two days. Official protocols had to be applied to strictly for a full presidential event. Dr. Mary Robinson (ex president of Ireland and current UN Commissioner for Human Rights) was the honoured guest and together with the Vice President of Malawi (Hon. Joyce Banda) would open the unit. The flag pole was erected and the Malawi flag flew proudly at the entrance to our new Maternity unit. The dignitaries arrived early so that they would be in place to greet the Vice President. A grand tour was made of the whole unit led by our DHO Dr. Ndovie. It was an exciting morning, all comments were extremely positive both as to the quality of the unit and the success of the event. The plaque was unveiled and speeches made. Both the speech made by the director of TRP and that of Dr. Robinson were stimulating and challenging. The VP, in her words, showed her surprise at the scale and the quality of the project and its possibilities and potential for improving maternal and child health and addressing the high maternal and neonatal mortality rates. More importantly she pledged her personal and on-going support not only for Bwaila and maternal health but for the women of Malawi. It was a great occasion supported by singing, dancing and ‘Gule Wankulu’ in true Malawian style. You can read more about the occasion on the Rose Project web site. www.
It was a great honour for me to be personally greeted by the Vice President. It was also a huge privilege to be invited to spend some time with Dr. Mary Robinson not only during the ceremony but on other occasions over dinner. Listening to her speak of her international work on Human Rights and especially those of the mothers and babies in the poorest countries of the world I felt encouraged to continue to play my small role in Lilongwe.
The following day there seemed to be a general feeling of lethargy. I spent most of the day sorting out more than hundred and fifty keys that I had in my possession for ALL the locks in the whole unit. I was keen to get at least some of them handed over to the matrons so that I would not have to be solely responsible for opening and securing the buildings every night and morning. As you can imagine this has been very tiring and time-consuming. At last I handed over the keys to the matrons on the FHU on Thursday afternoon just keeping a main door lock and my office. On Friday Lucas started his half term holiday so I decided to stay a little longer in bed, arriving at Bwaila at 7.40am. Rather later than usual. To my surprise I found a vast number of people waiting outside the unit cleaners, nurses and many, many, women and babies. The keys had somehow got left inside the unit and they were all waiting for me to arrive. No one had phoned me, no worry, no rush......this is Malawi!
It was still difficult to get things moving again on Friday and I began to be concerned as to how I would find the necessary to motivate and build up enthusiasm, once more. Just one week before the women would be admitted, just one week before the babies would start to be born in our new labour ward and the place was empty of personnel. There was still much to be done, pharmacy supplies to be ordered and delivered, instruments to be sorted, packed and sterilised, oxygen cylinders to be filled, the wards had to be kept clean and the linen supplied and beds made among many other things. We had organized a ‘simulation’ to take place on the Monday afternoon. This is to ensure that we can respond to an emergency situation that everything is in place for the safety of the patient. How was I to get it all done? Here I must mention Audny. As the Norwegian hospital technician and procurement person she has been heavily involved throughout, though mostly from a distance. The times she has spent in Lilongwe have been a ‘godsend’ for me as she takes over responsibilities for the equipment and it’s functioning plus a many other things. I must admit to doing a bit of shouting and harassing that day which is not the best way and definitely wasn’t very loving or understanding! I decided to take the whole day off on Sunday. It was clear that nothing more was going to get done before Monday.
So here we are in the final days before the REAL opening. It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s worrying, and it’s incredible! As I sit here and write to you from the peace and beauty of the lake I am thinking of how much more I need to sort out before Monday. I can’t believe we will ever be 100% ready but we WILL be safe. The transfer of patients will take place over three days. That will mean that the first baby will be born in the new Bwaila maternity unit on Tuesday 20th October (Alasdair’s birthday)I can't wait