“The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.”
– E.M. Forster
January 12, 2010, the earth shook. It shook lives loose and took them back in — unready. That day a 7.0 magnitude earthquake tripped the already fragile footing of Haiti, causing massive infrastructure destruction to the poverty-stricken nation. Damage to government buildings, hospitals and schools challenged the country’s ability to deal with the disaster, provide care for the injured, bury the dead, and educate future generations.
It also damaged the country’s only midwifery school — a necessary institution in the long struggle to decrease one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. In Haiti, aftershocks continued the shaking, not just of the earth, but of a way of life. In September of 2011, midwife Sarah Taylor wrote on the Mama Baby Haiti blog, “I then witnessed what I now know as the shaking method of medicine which is if you don’t know what’s wrong and why, just shake or smack it and it will all turn out. You have to feel and watch — not just grab mothers and babies and uteruses and pound and rub and smack them into existence.”
In February, a month after the earthquake, several midwives arrived in Haiti, along with other aide volunteers, as flights were able to land. Jennifer Gallardo, owner of Andaluz Waterbirth Center, and Patricia Couch, a fellow midwife, came to offer services and aide along with other volunteers of Midwives for Haiti. Desiree LeFave, midwife and owner of Bella Vie Gentle Birth Center, arrived a week earlier.
They set to work immediately, assisting in hospitals without running water or electricity; hospitals that closed their doors at nightfall as the light waned. The doctors slept. People were left waiting, malnourished and suffering because there was no other choice. The dead, mothers and babies among them, were stacked nearby to deal with later as workers tended urgently to those who still had a chance. Volunteers worked alongside doctors in hospitals where the rhythm of life and death repeated itself against the backdrop of the sunrise and sunset. The morning Jennifer left a hospital in Hinche to return home, a four-year-old child died after waiting throughout the night for care. She still remembers the anguished mother screaming, “Where are the doctors?”
Jennifer was familiar with the poverty that is found in developing countries, but the extreme poverty she witnessed in Haiti made her want to do more. She says, “You cannot walk into a pediatric unit and see babies starving, sucking desperately on their little fingers and whimpering, without being forever changed. These babies I witnessed were being fed sugar water, as their mothers had stopped breastfeeding them for various reasons, and formula was much too expensive for any of these mothers to buy.”
Amazed, she continued, “Peanut butter and formula cost more down there than they do here!” While still in the thick of it she wondered, “How, after seeing such a thing time and time again, could I come home and continue to live my life without doing my part to help? I was raised in Latin America, and I had seen poverty. But the poverty I saw in Haiti was so desperate that it ripped open my soul and tore at my heart, until the only option I had was to do something about it.”
Jennifer talked with Patricia about her desire to open a nonprofit birth center in Haiti; Patricia was onboard. Patricia says, “I went to Haiti after the earthquake not really knowing what to expect. I met so many amazing people living lives I could never understand. People who had lost many loved ones, people that were sick, people that were starving. I felt overwhelmed by the reality of not being able to help everyone.”
Jennifer called home and told her husband, Fernando, about her plans for a birth center; he supported the idea. Soon Desiree joined the effort, and once Jennifer was back in Oregon, plans were made and a birth center was in development, as was Jennifer and Fernando’s ninth child.
The declaration of the dream was the easy part; the implementation was, and is, labor-intensive; a labor of intense love and hope for the future. Jennifer, Fernando, Patricia and Desiree became the founding board members of Mama Baby Haiti — named by Patricia. They dove into paperwork, fundraising, and outreach — asking for money, volunteers and supplies.
Within a few weeks, Fernando and their eldest son Galen, still in his teens, flew to Haiti to begin the search for a building; the first of many trips to the area for Fernando. Galen, witnessing the enormous challenges facing the people of Haiti says, “The people in Haiti, their struggles are where to eat, where to sleep, where to find work for the day. While us, we have a place to eat and sleep, and our struggles are finding what really makes us happy because we are plagued with an epidemic of taking everything for granted.”
As Jennifer’s pregnancy grew, so did the work involved in creating the birth center. Jennifer and Patricia worked on the nonprofit details stateside, while Fernando, Desiree and other volunteers made several trips to Haiti with the goal of opening the birth center in November. Haiti was still reeling from the quake and a cholera epidemic created widespread panic and anger among the Haitian people. Riots broke out in November and Desiree caught one of the last planes out. Fernando, unable to fly home, made it safely through the chaos to a United Nations building. A few weeks later, when the turmoil died down and flights resumed, Fernando returned home in time for Thanksgiving and the birth of their daughter, Ashlen Genevieve Skye.
The upheavals set them back, but in December the doctors for Mama Baby Haiti came back to the clinic, Patricia was on-site hiring midwives, and Fernando returned to finish work on the building. Fernando says, “Haiti is in a difficult position and they can’t even meet some of the basic needs for their population.” Mama Baby Haiti opened their gates in December 2010, and the need for their services was tremendous. Presently Mama Baby Haiti performs approximately 600 prenatal and post-partum exams and delivers about 50 babies a month.
Opening the doors, and keeping them open, has been rewarding, exhausting and at times frustrating. The time, talent and money of the founders made Mama Baby Haiti a reality and it continues to operate with support from board members, volunteers and other donors. By the end of 2011, the four founding board members needed a rest. As their energy waned in the face of never-ending need, Jennifer questioned whether they would be able to continue without help. They hoped to find additional volunteers willing to share the leadership and work. Jennifer, working hard at home, started to wonder if all the effort was worth it; if they were really making a difference.
After a busy year stateside raising her newborn, being a mother to her other children, managing her business, Andaluz, and clocking several volunteer hours weekly, Jennifer planned a trip to Haiti to witness clinic operations firsthand. In January of 2012 she flew to Haiti, accompanied by Kelli Beatty, a midwife volunteer from Texas, and Kelli’s husband Rob. They each carried 20 duffel bags filled with supplies. When Jennifer first arrived at the birth center she was “overwhelmed by the huge need, the lines of patients that start at four in the morning, the women walking in the door in labor, one after another. The orphan babies dropped off on the doorstep, hours from death. The toddlers brought in starving, for food and vitamins.” And, she worried, “How are we going to continue employing all these people, paying the rent, and feeding and medicating everyone?” Even with the worry, she was grateful they were able to provide quality care, clean facilities and more to the women and children of Haiti.
The founding members of the board, while still active, have passed the baton of leadership to others. Mama Baby Haiti President Kelli Beatty, Treasurer Jeff Osbourne and his wife Sue, are managing the operations of the clinic from the U.S. Jennifer is thankful to everyone who has made Mama Baby Haiti possible, the many U.S. donors and volunteers and the Haitian staff; especially house manager and head translator, Santo Choute, who she says “Mama Baby Haiti would not have survived without.”
Jennifer’s heart and hands are still involved in Mama Baby Haiti, and the clinic is on a path to financial stability — needing a bit less investment from Andaluz and the other board members, and relying more on gifts of donors and the midwife volunteers. She says, “We are thankful for the volunteers who have come to Haiti and brought supplies, their funds to help us continue operating, and their hands and love. We are thankful for the people who have donated and who continue donating: for the faith they have had in us and in the vision of Mama Baby Haiti.”
Midwives speak of ‘catching babies’ as they aide laboring mothers through the miraculous process of birth. Hands are the tools of the trade and instruments of compassion. At Mama Baby Haiti, women are able to birth their babies with the aid of trained and caring staff while supported by family. When Jennifer was introduced to the Haitian Minister of Health, he looked at her and said, “You are the people who hold women’s hands while they give birth.”
Catch and hold, ladies, catch and hold.