27 March 2012

The Reality of Maternity. (A Visit to the Clinic.)

Remember when we mentioned that we were planning a visit to a small maternity clinic outside of the city?

Well - we went.  We listened.  We talked.  We took pictures.  We watched.

Dr. Laure, a Kinshasa-trained OB/GYN, was our host.  She met us by the side of the road, her little daughter, Maleka,on her hip.  We piled into the blue Suzuki Jimny (gotta love that car) and rattled off down the dirt paths that form the outskirts of the city - near Lac de Ma VallΓ©e.  Dr. Laure had to ask directions several times.  Because she never drives and always walks to work.  Getting there via road is a very different process than on foot.

Finally, Adam (our trusty driver), Sarah, Dr. Laure, baby Maleka, and myself unloaded ourselves here:

This is the little clinic. Just two Kinshasa-trained physicians work here. Dr. Laure is an OB/GYN but can hold her own in most any other field.  Dr. Maurice has trained in surgery and internal medicine. They make about 2,000 FC ($2.16) per month profit.  (Laure told me that a "fancy city doctor" makes about $1000/month in Kinshasa).  It serves the population living within 10km on all sides.  A lot of people.  It is a "charity" clinic.  Meaning - they will take those who the city hospitals turn away.  In Kinshasa, if you can't pay, you are often turned away.  Simple as that.  Doesn't matter if you are on death's doorstep, a small child, or a woman in labor.  There is no EMTALA in the Congo.

For example, we arrived at the clinic along with another car.  This tiny car, it's chassis hanging and scraping, parked next to us.  Two men extracted a broken, angry body from the back seat.  When we discussed it later, all of us had the same experience of looking at this injured person and having visceral knowledge that there was something horribly wrong but being unable to exactly identify the issue.  Later, it was clear that both of his legs were severely broken.  Bent.  Twisted grotesquely.

We learned that he had been in a motorcycle accident five days prior.  He was poor.  He didn't even try to go to another hospital.  Finally, after five days of broken dangling legs and pain, friends or family loaded him into a car and drove him to Dr. Laure and Dr. Maurice.  While we were there, both physicians regarded the x-rays.  They knew the solution:  surgery, a few pins and plates, and a long, but complete recovery.  They also knew that none of this was an option for this patient.  They didn't have equipment.  He didn't have money.  His reality was permanently unusable legs, loss of any prospect of future income, and chronic pain.

Dr. Laure explained the scene matter-of-factly and with genuine sadness.  She then ushered us into the tiny cement hospital for a tour.  We met Nurse Terese - who would work three, solo, 24-hour shifts before her replacement arrived.  She changed dressings, served as a surgery first-assist, held flashlights for procedures in the dark, and cleaned rooms. 

We spent a lot of time taking in the salle d'accouchement - or delivery room.

Now, Sarah and I have a little experience (i.e. one time) with Congolese clinic delivery rooms and we both agreed that, compared to the dank, unbearably hot, crowded city delivery space where we assisted in a delivery last Fall - we would give birth at this clinic any day.  Sure, it's plain.  The equipment is old.  The beds seem impossible for a laboring woman.  But, it's light and breezy and cool.  Everything is kept as clean as possible.  And the care is expert and calm. 

Dr. Laure and Terese were quick to point our the shortcomings of this place in which they work.  They asked to have their photo taken.  In preparation, the arranged all of the labor and delivery instruments, medicines, and equipment into a little pile on the table beside them.  They wanted you - the readers of this blog- to see that this was all they have:

  • 1 pair scissors.
  • 1 pick-up/tweezers.
  • 1 bulb syringe (for sucking out baby's mouth and nose).
  • 2 clamps (for the umbilical cord).
  • 1 syringe.
  • 1 needle.
  • 1 stainless canister (used with a little rubbing alcohol and fire for sterilization of equipment.)
  • 1 pack of matches.
  • 1 mostly-empty bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
  • 1 half-full bottle of Ketamine for emergency anesthesia.
  • 1 old vial of Lidocaine for numbing skin
Luckily, most babies can come into this world without much fuss.  They don't require much more than what Dr. Laure can offer at her clinic.  She brings skill and patience, and usually, this is sufficient for a safe delivery.  

However, every midwife or doctor knows that some basic strategies are needed when things don't go "perfectly".  We talked a lot about the common - theoretically easy-to-manage, complications of labor and delivery.   Pitocin, Methergine, or Cytotec for heavy bleeding after delivery are not usually available.  Dr. Laure knew all about the up-to-date uses of these drugs, but did not have them at her side.  A patient's family may make a trip to the pharmacy for medications - if they have enough money and enough time.  Dr. Laure said that the clinic frequently gives out their limited stock regardless of a patient's ability to pay.  But, the reality is that the clinic doesn't have any money either.

Some of you reading may be Labor & Delivery nurses.  My colleagues from Virginia and Washington.  Right now, you are horrified.  Right?  One syringe for eveyone!?  Matches and alcohol for "sterilization"?!

But - ask yourself.  What would you do?  Not suck out the mouth of a sputtering newborn with a dirty bulb?  Not administer lifesaving oxytocin with the dull, oft-used, needle?

For Dr. Laure, the answer is easy.  She knows full-well that her little clinic is sorely lacking.  She would accept donations of expired medications and equipment from fancy U.S. hospitals - where we throw out unused supplies in the name of quality control - with a joyful relief.  But, she's not begging.  She will continue to serve these women and their babies with or without the supplies. She won't turn anyone away.

Sarah talks with Dr. Laure in the salle d'accouchement

I had a funny telephone conversation with Dr. Laure last week.  The connection was bad.  The children were screaming.  My French is bad.  She was calling to see what day I would be available to help with next month's prenatal clinic.  I understood that much and responded with my strategy of using all of my French vocabulary at once in an effort to convey deep appreciation and excitement.  Hopefully, it was effective.

So, Sarah and I will trek out to the hospital again in April.  We'll take some blood pressures (I'm starting Sarah's medical training tout de suite), measure some bellies, and listen to some heartbeats (although, I'm not sure Dr. Laure owns a doppler...).  School nursing is lovely.  Truly.  But, I've been waiting for the chance to work with moms and babies again.  Waiting around for an opportunity.  And it seems, this is it.

What Dr. Laure and her hospital really need is a sustainability plan.  For this, she is in touch with an amazing new local organization (I wrote about it here), Fond pour les Femmes Congolaises.  They exist to help Congolese women help Congolese women.  Dr. Laure is a perfect candidate.  

Shout out to Martha Jefferson Hospital! While donations aren't the answer to all of Dr. Laure's needs, it's not like she wouldn't put an old Doppler or some just-expired oxytocin to good use...  What are our options?  Any chance MJH L&D unit could gather up a few supplies for Dr. Laure by summer?  I will deliver them personally when we return next Fall.  Contact me if you have any brainstorms...


  1. I will personally help you fill a trunk or 2. Seriously. Not shocked at the stark reality of the post, but recognizing (once again) how protected we are in the US from seeing and feeling that reality on a regular basis -- even sometimes in our own country. Amazing post from an amazing daughter!

  2. I should clarify that saying, "I would give birth in this clinic any day." Is me, 8 months postpartum talking. Long enough to have forgotten how much I love my air conditioning mid-contractions.

  3. god, and i thought i was hardcore for having eye surgery in taiwan . . . great job, Jill (just kidding Sarah! Hee hee)

  4. Wow, so interesting and humbling. Thanks for sharing. I am loving your blog!

  5. Your beautifully conceived, beautifully written post is also quite moving.

  6. Are there any updates since you wrote this post? Wow, what an interesting peek into their clinic. I hope there are ways to get help to them. I am an RN in Las Vegas, NV and know that they are really lacking! I would love to hear more about if you have worked with them more lately (maybe you have, I need to start reading your blog more! I just found you through cupofjo)

    Thank you!

  7. And boy, their women are so beautiful there! It seems like a country full of wonderful people

  8. I used to volunteer here. Cheapest option is $1/lb of supplies if you pick them up and take them yourself. They have everything from used anesthesia machines and dental chairs, to catheters and syringes. I even found a prosthetic testicle once.


  9. If I wanted to donate money to this clinic is there away?

  10. I would also like to know about the best way to help. I am a drug rep calling on OBGYN offices and would love to know a way to most benefit these people. Truly moved by this post!

  11. Hello to everyone!

    We are so happy this post is getting re-read...it's such an important one. Dr. Laure is still very much a part of our lives (everyone should have an OB/GYN as a friend is what we always say...) and we plan on an update to the original story this fall. Last year, thanks to many generous folks, we were able to provide the clinic with a small stock of medications and needed supplies.

    Through that process, we realized how incredibly complicated it is to support good work like that of Dr. Laure and her colleagues. Because of this, we made contact with the folks at Every Mother Counts (http://everymothercounts.org/) and have been amazed at their careful, evidenced-based approach to making motherhood safer around the world. At this point, the best way to support Dr. Laure and her clinic is to support the work of Every Mother Counts. You can do that here: https://donationpay.org/everymothercounts/.

    We are constantly brainstorming ways to use this blog and our time in Kinshasa to highlight and support all of the good, kind, talented people we have met - and we will continue to do so (and keep you posted on how you can help)!

    Thanks for reading. Dr. Laure will LOVE to hear all of the comments - we'll show her as soon as we can. Just knowing that people an ocean away think that what she does is important is huge.

  12. Dr. Laure is an inspiration to all women who aspire to be in the medical field. I am currently a pharmacy student in San Antonio, Texas, US and this just touches my heart. I aspire to one day use my education to help those in need abroad through medical missions. Maybe even Congo one day, God willing. Please let Dr. Laure know she has inspired a person across the globe to do great things and give of herself as selflessly as she does. Blessings to you and the clinic.

  13. As someone whose pregnancy was high risk and required medical intervention without which I would probably not be alive, I am in awe of the work Dr Laure does, as well as all the brave mamas of Congo. I found you through Cup of Jo and have been working my way back through your posts. I am headed to Every Mother Counts now!!! Thank you for bringing this issue home to us in the States.

    1. Fabulous! We are truly impressed with the impact that Every Mother Counts has had around the world in the area of maternal child health. Your donation will be well utilized. We will pass along your words to Dr. Laure!

  14. WOW, what a story and the pictures tell a thousand words.

    My heart sunk when I saw that delivery bed/chair, and the little supplies they have. That said, Dr. Laure & Nurse Terese are AMAZING!! Look what they are doing, for free!! Helping so many people, it's simply amazing. Quelles belles et incroyable femmes. On besoin plusieurs personnes comme ca dans le monde. Wow.

    I shared this post on FB this morning because it's such an amazing one.

    1. Merci pour les beaux mots! Thank you for the kind words. They ARE amazing!

  15. I'm an OB/Gyn in C'ville. Please email me kirbykurtz at gmail
    I also have an uncle in Kinshasa.
    I think we should know one another. I would love to help.

  16. Hi!

    I want to donate a birthing ball (exercise ball - great for mothers to sit on during labor) and hand air pump to this clinic! Where do I send it to?


    1. Hello Miriam-

      Email us at blogmamacongo (at) gmail (dot) com!

      Many thanks!


  17. This post has me all choked up. Thank God for women like Dr. Laure, Nurse Terese, and you! I have two children, but none of us would have survived childbirth in this clinic. It humbles me and renews the gratitude I feel for all that we have here in the US. I am on my way now to everymothercounts to make a donation in the name of Dr. Laure and Nurse Terese. Thank you so much for this post.

  18. Many thanks for all of these thoughts and comments. We too, are in awe of Dr. Laure!

  19. Hey Jill,
    Wondering if you can give me a call sometime. Would love to chat. Laure saved my daughter's life and became her foster mama for 10 months. She is now home and I continue to try to think of ways for her to make a decent living to support her six bio kids, not to mention all the foster children she now cares for. Would love to chat and be updated on your involvement in her life/work.

    1. Hi there! Send us your contact information. We'd love to help you get in touch with Laure.

  20. Oh my god, this touched my heart so deeply. Imagining just all of this for the patients, and the doctors and nurses trying to help them. I think we had more to work with in the Civil War in the 1800's. I studied to be a registered nurse here in the United States and it's not even an older metal syringe that can be boiled. While we may have issues with our health care system at times, this breaks my heart. They are wonderful people for doing what they do. I am thinking hard what can be donated legally. Like maybe glucose testing supplies, nebulizers, with expired Albuterol, a stimulater might help some pain. I know I sound ridiculous bit those are durable items that may be allowed to go. Then of course rubbing alcohol and basic supplies. πŸ’‰πŸ’ŠπŸ”¬πŸ“šπŸ’±πŸ’ΊπŸ¨πŸΌPeople may be given too much when they have surgery. I myself have the items above just sitting there. I want to help so much but I don't have money right this moment as I myself am disabled. If I were to get my approval from the state I could help. Or I could save some extra but don't know if it would be enough to help. Please know I respect you both for trying to bring attention to this more. It's so different to know but then to really see. We worry here about being in pain, the patients there don't even have that luxury of waking up from a surgery in discomfort but knowing they will be ok at some point. What do they do if a c section is needed. I know in 1979 having me at 27 weeks they gave my mom alcohol. Then she was shipped to a higher level then the anesthesiologist left to get coffee. Then they literally even though they had said at 4 am they were deciding he didn't come back in time. They cut her open with nothing. No epidural, I have no idea why she did have one already. They said to my dad they would try to save her, but prob would not be able save me. We were both septic she had a hole.in her amniotic sacred and there was a bad flood. My mom lived and I did too with just a few issues. I wrote that story out cause it sounds so horrible to most people all over the world. That is not even available to these women at least the after care and a sterile good scalpel, and the antibiotics to cure us let alone the preemie care. They turn my incubator off by accident and I needed car and blood dropped another half pound. Which sounds bad, but there isn't any of that even there for.the doctors and the women and babies. πŸ‘§πŸ‘©πŸ‘ΆπŸ‘ͺπŸ‘«πŸ‘¬πŸ‘­ That is just so horrible for them all. They are making the best out of the situation but Lord this breaks my heart.πŸ’” I didn't write the sruff about me and my mother to say poor me but to actually say what most people would be horrified 😲by in 1979 and then to compare it to this in 2013. It's 2015 now of course and I am not sure how much help was recieved. My heart, πŸ’– thoughts and prayers πŸ™go to all of them and you all for trying to do so much.πŸ˜‡

  21. I am just reading this article now in July of 2016 and it was written back in 2012. I am amazed and shocked and have the deepest admiration for the care team that does the best they can with what they have to help. Is there an update to this story? Has anything improved?

  22. I am not going to be a very sympathetic sounding person but I am a African person that is not black......AMERICAN parents but I am not at all American I’ve never had a very strong attraction to any other culture other than Tanzanian.

    Pardon me for not patting you all on the proverbial back,,,,, it’s like this every where all over the world and if white people of the USA and the eu paid just a Little bit of atttiontion to the majority of the earth instead of a few miles in Scottsdale the world you are feeling a bit of guilt over would not exist if you did not want it to...

  23. Treason to whiteness is loyalty to the human race

  24. Is this still relevant for today? Or have things changed? What I'm curious about is how this will carry out, like what will the trend be for this type of stuff.urgent care near me


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