Afghan maternity care gets desperately needed funds
BY TERRA COONEY For Sun-Times Media
Lifesaver: During her time in Afghanistan, Sgt. Michelle Johnson delivered a stillborn child from a 13-year-old girl and ultimately saved the mother’s life. As a result, Johnson and her sister started the Afghanistan Midwifery Project, a nonprofit organiz
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It was the day after Christmas 2008, and Sgt. Michelle Johnson was deployed in Afghanistan, the country ranked most dangerous for women by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. That night, a 13-year-old girl pleaded for medical help at the base’s gate. The nearest hospital was unreachable via bomb-plagued roads controlled by the Taliban; a helicopter request was denied. The girl had been in labor for days, her stillborn child lodged in her pelvic bones. With no other option, a doctor on base prepared for a traumatic delivery.
“I volunteered to help, figuring I would just be holding her hand,” Johnson said.
She quickly learned males do not treat Afghan women without the patient’s risk of being stoned to death. Having the smallest hands in the room, Johnson was designated to extract the lifeless child and stop the mother’s bleeding. Johnson, guided only by verbal instructions from the male doctor and no medical training of her own, was able to save the mother’s life.
Following the horrific experience, Johnson and two other female soldiers began to help at a local women’s clinic in Waza Khwa, Paktika. Here, the Americans witnessed a shocking shortage of pre- and post-natal care and learned that some clinics even operate without running water or electricity. Afghanistan health institutions do their best, but they aren’t often supplied with the necessary tools to prevent severe complications or death.
“It is typical in impoverished countries to see a lack of sanitation standards, but it’s appalling to see such a lack of knowledge regarding germs and infection,” Johnson said.
Upon hearing from her sister in Afghanistan, Danielle Johnson began to send vitamins and other aids overseas from Illinois. She started a blog to generate donations, resulting in monumental progress within the clinic. The donation of a fetal heart rate monitor allowed women to hear their babies’ heartbeats for the first time: a touching experience for the soldiers.
Johnson returned to Illinois in July 2009, and with her sister, started the Afghanistan Midwifery Project (AMP), a nonprofit organization that garners donations for equipment and medicine to be used in Afghanistan. AMP began by supporting the Inchu Clinic in Parwan.
“The hospital had mold growing on the walls; they had to carry in water to wash instruments and their hands; and they had no way to keep medicines refrigerated,” said the AMP president.
These impediments have resulted in Afghanistan’s ranking as highest in the world for maternal mortality rates. The statistics from the State of the World’s Children 2009 report by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed an estimated 1 in 8 maternal deaths and 257 deaths in children before age five to each 1,000 live births. Many injuries, infections, diseases and disabilities still occur in survivors. These pregnancy-related ailments often present permanent consequences, which contributes to an Afghan woman’s low life expectancy rate of less than 48.
According to the study, only 14 percent of Afghan women have a skilled attendant present during delivery, but even birthing in a medical institution has proven a noxious experience. Mothers are rushed and often barely cleaned up before their husbands collect them.
“A woman had maybe 10 minutes after giving birth before she had to hop on a motorcycle or get in a truck for a bumpy ride, as none of the roads were paved,” remembered Johnson.
In an attempt to improve medical care for women and help with the shortage of female doctors, AMP works with the Afghan Midwives Association in Kabul. The Chicago-based AMP hopes to raise $20,000 this year to support midwives’ continuing education. Here in the United States, the nonprofit shares personal accounts of Afghan women’s struggles through speaking engagements and fundraisers.
“These women deserve as much of a right to deliver a safe and healthy baby as any other woman in the world,” Johnson said.
More information can be found online where you can also make an impact with a modest donation. Find out more about these women’s plight and what AMP is doing to make a difference in Afghanistan’s future at afghanmidwiferyproject.org.