By Bailey Martens/Special to the Langley Advance
While transporting a new Ethiopian mother to a postpartum bed with her newborn, the convalescing woman unexpectedly grabbed Jennica Rawston’s hand, looked deep into her eyes, and in a breathe barely audible said: “ameseganlo.”
The woman had thanked her in Amharic.
“I had a gut feeling that the compassion I had shown her was meaningful to her,” Rawston said. “And this was something I tried to encourage amongst the staff… to see the women as humans with thoughts, pain, joy, feelings and choice.”
The 32-year-old Glen Valley native and trained midwife had only spoken a handful of words to her patient that day. They “basically did not communicate verbally to one another” until that powerful moment, she recounted.
Now hailing from Penticton, Rawston recently spent six months volunteering with Cuso International as a midwife supervisor at Pawe Health Science College in Ethiopia, an experience that changed her life.
Her duties included working alongside local midwives who were helping women through difficult deliveries.
While most of what she called “baby-catching” was done by the local midwives, Rawston did attend several deliveries in situations that most Canadian women would never face.
In one of those first deliveries, the baby was breech.
This time, when the baby was born, Rawston stepped in and resuscitated him. The baby survived. But it brought to light the reality of the differences for her.
“Ethiopian mothers do not have the opportunity for the same kind of health care that women in Canada have, so there are more of these high-risk births happening,” she said.
In Canada, most mothers and babies have access to the care they need in hospitals, or at home through the services of midwives.
But in Ethiopia there are fewer qualified health workers, Rawston elaborated. As a result, Ethiopian mothers and babies are far more likely to lose their lives from causes that are easily preventable with the basic health care and resources.
“Working is a low resource setting is more difficult. Even when things are normal, you always have to prepared to resuscitate a newborn,” Rawston added.
“I tried to discuss it and practice it with the students, and shared with them that even in Canada, we do this kind of training. I tried to teach them to practice more so that if it happens, they will be calm and able to do it.”
To support mothers and children in Ethiopia, Cuso International is frequently fundraising to send more skilled healthcare workers, like Rawston, to the east African country.
The volunteers are tasked with working alongside Ethiopian midwives and other healthcare providers to help them improve their skills – and save more lives.
Cuso was founded in 1961 by a group of university graduates hoping to use their degrees for good around the globe.
Today, the organization focuses’ efforts into three major areas; health, livelihood, and community.
In was a goal that spoke to Rawston, when a friend first tipped her off to their efforts.
In part, Rawston credited her involvement with Cuso to a similar program she participated in more than a decade ago.
She had spent time in both Quebec and Burkina Faso – in West Africa – with a group called Canada World Youth.
Following her experience with that organization, she returned to Canada set to pursue a career in midwifery.
It was during her schooling that she envisioned herself returning to Africa as a volunteer – this time in Ethiopia, Rawston said.
“I really looked forward to contributing on a global scale to maternal health, in an area where skilled professionals and resources are limited,” she told the Langley Advance.
But it wasn’t to be for a several years.
Experienced mentors needed
Ethiopia is in desperate need of health care workers, according to Cuso International.
Eighty per cent of childbirths occur without a medical professional present. Because of this, the country has one of the highest childbirth mortality rates in Africa.
“I realized that working alongside the midwives was more beneficial than I had imagined. Through trust and relationship building with the local staff, I got the sense that new suggestions were better received,” Rawston said.
“Role modeling also played a big part in any impact I could have because simply being a Canadian trained midwife meant a certain standard of care that was different from what I witnessed. I am extremely grateful to return to work in Canada and be a part of this health care system. Not only as a care provider, but as a patient. We are very lucky,” she added.
“I was attracted to the position because it was a teaching role, which I believed was working for sustainable change. It meant we were targeting early change and development of an impoverished area of Ethiopia,” she said. It turned out to be an experience she won’t soon forget.
Rawston was particularly appreciative that Cuso calls for a minimum six-month placements, which she’s convinced ensures volunteers can learn some language, integrate into the community, and “hopefully have lasting impact.
Endless opportunities to make a difference
In addition to Ethiopia, Cuso International operates in Asia, America, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
For people looking for volunteer opportunities, there are positions available nationally with Canadian causes.
Alternatively, there are telecommunication options that pair Canadian with those in developing nations.
Rawston recommends the experience highly.
“I would encourage anyone who is considering a placement with Cuso or with another overseas project, to talk to past volunteers about the struggles they encountered,” she said. “Preferably [talk] to people who have been in the same region and country that you are considering, because I believe the working and living conditions can be quite diverse.”