Vicki Penwell’s organization Mercy In Action was featured in Robbie Davis-Floyd’s book “Birth Models that Work” because of the outstanding, culturally-appropriate midwifery care model they use that has saved the lives of thousands of women and babies in the Philippines. In this piece, Vicki shares with us a few touching stories from her family’s successful birth center, shedding light on the value of adequate and compassionate maternal health care, especially in resource-constrained areas.
Greetings from Mercy In Action, here on the edge of Subic Bay in the beautiful but poor Asian country of the Philippines. The provision of safe, free and quality maternal healthcare here has been my life’s work for the past two decades, along with providing midwife training to committed individuals working to become a midwife to meet the urgent global shortage.
Here is a glimpse of a few of the 28 births in our center this past month. Names have been changed to respect women’s right to privacy.
~ My daughter-in-law Rose, also a midwife, calls me from upstairs at 4 am and invites me to attend a breech birth with her. The mother, Minda, has just arrived at our birthing home. We rush calmly in to see that it’s a baby boy about to emerge. We get her into an upright position, a breech delivery position I learned from my old friend Michel Odent years ago, that has always served us well. I smile and reassure her that the baby is well, though up-side-down, and proceed to a lovely hands-off delivery. The baby has excellent APGARs and is latched on nursing at 19 minutes old. Observing and assisting that birth are a visiting 4th year medical student from Puerto Rico, and a National College of Midwifery student from Madagascar who are interning with us. The soon-to-be doctor said after the birth, “I prayed I would see a natural breech while here. It was amazing… how do I ever explain this back in the states to all those doctors who do not believe this is possible?”
~ We get a text message at 5:30 am from Marcel in the nearby resettlement camp for Aeta tribal people who were displaced 20 years ago following a volcano that destroyed their homeland. They are known by the world community as Internally Displaced Persons, and Marcel is the tribal Chief’s wife. The family has 6 children, this is number 7. Since these refugees are truly among the poorest of the poor, she has not even the few pesos for public transportation, so our midwife Theresa picks her up and drives her to the birth center, where everything is free, including supplies and a newborn layette. We would have delivered her at home but like many countries in the developing world, our country passed ordinances to ban home birth a few years ago, in an attempt to lower the high neonatal and maternal death rate. Fortunately, the local Department of Health recognizes our birthing home as a facility, so they allow us to midwife babies in home birth style in our own converted home. The baby is a girl. The Chief tells us he knows many babies and mothers who have died in childbirth; he is wildly happy with the birth.
~ Arriving at 6 pm, Fe’s water broke on our living room floor as she steps in the door. She calmly walks into the birth room, lies down on her side, and delivers a baby girl a few minutes later. No one touches her perineum, or the head or body of the emerging baby. We only take heart tones and maternal vital signs; if all are good, we try hard to keep birth totally natural. The baby, a girl, is latched on nursing 6 minutes later. Research shows that 22% of all current neonatal deaths worldwide could be averted if all babies drank colostrum (first milk) in the first hour after birth.
~ GinGin arrives from the local landfill, where she lives in a shack along the edge of the city garbage dump. With her husband and older children she ekes out a living by scavenging for items to recycle in the mountains of fly-infested stinking trash. She stoically delivers while sitting on our hand-carved wooden birth stool, a baby boy alive and squalling, and rejoices as she gathers him into her arms because her previous baby had died at birth. Once a government official told me there were no really poor people anymore in the Philippines; I could not believe him because of all the families I know who live on the Smokey Mountains in every large town on these islands.
~ I recently spent 3 days observing a few dozen births in a large hospital in the capital. Shocking is only one word to describe it. Later, the director of OB invited me to teach a class to all the doctors and medical residents on how to treat women with respect and dignity during birth. I am very happy; this is an incredible opportunity to change things for the better for the 60 women a day who go there to give birth to their babies. When I go to present I will show the slides from the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood website on their newest campaign Respectful Maternity Care: Every Woman’s Right.
~Mary Grace had a baby girl on Easter Sunday. She is not sure she wants to keep her. The baby is being bottle-fed and exhibits early symptoms of failure to thrive. We are counseling with her now. My heart feels broken.
Vicki Penwell started as a self-taught midwife in Alaska in 1979, then went on to earn a midwife license in 1983 and one of the first CPM designations in 1991. She holds 2 Masters degrees, in Midwifery and Intercultural Studies, and is currently working on a PhD in International Maternal-Child Health. Married since 1978 to Scott, they have 3 sons, 2 daughter in laws, and 5 grandkids. The non-profit organization they began has to date helped over 12,500 women in the Philippines have babies free of charge in the past 20 years, with a newborn mortality rate 4 times lower than the Philippine national statistics. Vicki says “we are proud and humbled to have been chosen to be in Robbie Davis-Floyd’s book Birth Models That Work. We try to live up to that. We try to make women’s hard lives a little bit gentler and kinder, and to give newborn babies a fighting chance to survive in a country were 1 in 16 will not live to see their 5th birthday. We are always trying to be a model, to do better, to love better.”
Learn more about how to become a midwife so that you can serve in the 58 countries where, according to the UNFPA, up to 3.6 million deaths could be avoided each year if maternal health services were updated. Midwife International provides midwife training and clinical experience to help you on your path.