It’s one of the greatest challenges a woman faces in having a safe birth in the Milne Bay Province of PNG. Can you imagine being heavily pregnant and trekking over mountains and through rivers for 6-8 hours to get to health clinic, only to have nowhere to stay once you got there – no roof over your head while you wait for labour?
This is just one of the challenges we wanted to address through our Safe Motherhood Intervention Project with our incredible partner, Dr Barry Kirby.
What we love most about the project is its simplicity and the holistic approach we take in reducing maternal mortality. It goes beyond just medical interventions. In order to make sustainable, long term change, we have to take this approach.
One of the reasons women weren’t visiting a health clinic to have a supervised birth was that there was nowhere for them to stay once they got there. A challenge unfathomable to us in the first world.
Our solution was build bush material ‘waiting houses’ for mothers. The cost – A$700. That’s all. They are built by locals from local bush materials with round saplings for framing with a sago leaf roof, bamboo walls and floor. The houses are cool and comfortable in the hottest tropical climate for the ‘long-distance’ mums.
They take and average of three weeks to build and last seven to ten years without maintenance. It’s not a lot of money to provide a little safety and comfort for heavily pregnant women in their final days of pregnancy. We also provide mums with some money for market food while they are at the waiting house.
Last week we received pictures of the first of our ‘waiting houses’ which have been built in Pumani. It was a pretty special moment for our team in Canberra and we are immensely proud of the unbelievable work Dr Barry is doing with us.
This year, through our grant with the Australian Government’s Direct Aid Program, we have expanded our Safe Motherhood Intervention Project to Pumani, Agaun, Ikara and Suau health centres in the Milne Bay Province. These health centres are the most isolated clinics in the Milne Bay Province and have been largely neglected because of their extreme isolation. Pumani, Agaun, and Ikara are only accessible by air or trekking in and Suau is accessible by sea.
Mortality rates have mostly gone unrecorded and until Dr Barry’s trip to Pumani, there was no running water or lights in the health centre.
But as many of you know, Dr Barry is no ordinary doctor who constrains his talents to merely delivering babies.
The first thing Dr Barry did before he even started the obstetric training was to clean, renovate and repair the health centre. Ceilings were replaced, walls painted and beds repaired.
The centre had no had running water, so with the help of some locals, he split some old water tanks apart and cleaned them, repaired them, and then scavenged an old down pipe from the roof to fit into the tank. The first drops of running water in a decade soon came to the centre.
The remoteness of Pumani is extremely difficult for the health clinic staff. Until now, there had been no option to medivac mothers out who were facing difficulties. This soon changed after Dr Barry arrived. He worked with the locals to make stretchers to carry patients.
And he found an abandoned airstrip that no plane had landed on in 20 years and engaged 50 local workman to clear the airstrip and make it fit for an aircraft to land so aero-medical evacuations could take place.
With one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, it is this holistic approach to reducing maternal mortality – the practical incentives and the medical interventions – that is going to create and sustain change in these regions of PNG.
We are so proud and grateful to be working with such an inspiring partner to implement the Safe Motherhood Intervention Project in the Milne Bay Province. I will not even try to describe Dr Barry in a couple of sentences. He needs an entire blog post….and an ‘Order of Australia’ to recognise the enormity of his work. He has made a huge positive impact on the mums and communities of PNG. He is selfless, kind and compassionate. Dr Barry, you are a saint!
Written by Board Director Tara Taubenschlag