Celebrating in Haiti with Jennie Joseph

Jennie Joseph, midwife, founder of Commonsense Childbirth Inc. and The Birth Place and one of our US grantees based in Florida is featured today, in our new three-part film series, Giving Birth in America airing on CNN.com today.

Jennie’s work illustrates the challenges low-income mothers face in Florida and across the U.S. when trying to access maternal health care. Jennie’s newest project is one we strongly endorse — a Change.org petition that demands national Medicaid reimbursement for midwives and doulas.

Last month, Jennie traveled to Haiti with a small EMC delegation to celebrate the opening of the Carrie Wortham Birth Center in Cabestor, a project facilitated by an EMC grant to Midwives for Haiti.

This was Jennie’s first time to Haiti and she shared with us her perspective of the disparities she sees in Haiti and how some of it all is eerily similarly to the challenges the US faces when in comes to improving maternal health.

EMC: Jennie, your trip to Haiti was a wonderful coming together of two EMC grantees. Can you share some trip highlights?

Jennie: The whole trip was very moving and quite a revelation. This was my first trip to Haiti, but my father is from Dominica, and my mom is from Barbados so my heritage is in the Caribbean. I knew deep poverty was a given in Haiti, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. When I arrived in Port au Prince I met the other delegates traveling with EMC. Together, we drove to Mirabelais and what I observed blindsided me. I couldn’t believe the level of poverty and the realization that no one is coming to fix it. This is how Haitians live. No one is coming to collect trash or build homes. There’s nothing, no infrastructure, no support. I was shocked.

And yet throughout the trip I saw hope all around me. It was in the resilience of the Haitian people — the children, midwives, supporters and volunteers. I was also able to get to know the other delegates who I traveled with; to understand their hearts and the amazing and impactful things they’re doing in the world and their willingness to make a difference. I was humbled to be with a group of individuals like that. I’ve not actually had that experience before.

The fellowship was refreshing in a way that I badly needed. I was keenly aware while I was in Haiti that I had an opportunity in the evenings to be very quiet, a time to relax and reflect that was juxtaposed with the joy of being with the group. It was such an important and timely visit for me.

EMC: How did you spend your time in Haiti?

Jennie: Our days were full and amazing. We visited the St. Therese hospital in Hinche, which was another eye opener. It was bare bones, very few resources. People stood around the hallways and grounds waiting on loved ones. Through open doors and windows we could see patients lying on beds, just a few had mosquito nets, and every now and again, someone had an IV. It was all very rudimentary.

EMC: What did you think of the maternity ward at St. Therese?

Jennie: I was impressed. I’ve been in a rural Jamaican hospital before that had only one ‘delivery’ bed. Laboring mothers couldn’t get on that bed until they absolutely had to push. So, Hinche hospital’s four delivery beds seemed luxurious considering the dire straits they’re in. Nurses and midwives tended to mothers in all four beds and a newly delivered young mom snuggled her newborn. They also had prenatal and postpartum clinics going on, some 50 or 60 women sat outside on benches, waiting their turns. We learned that the NICU has been upgraded and nurses have been specially trained to manage the critically ill babies. The neonatal unit was certainly the highlight of the hospital tour.

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EMC: What was is like to spend time with Midwives for Haiti founders, Nadene Brunck, CNM and Stephen Eads, MD?

Jennie: It was really special to hear how they got this amazing vision for Midwives for Haiti to come to fruition. I got a sense of their values and I appreciate their approach. As a woman of color, I was thankful that Midwives for Haiti trains Haitian midwives to teach and lead clinics, rather than have them follow behind American midwives. That was important to me.

EMC: What do you think of the new Carrie Wortham Birth Center in Cabestor?

Jennie: It’s beautiful, simply perfect. It’s named in honor of Carrie Wortham, a much beloved young woman who worked for Midwives for Haiti and recently passed away. The birth center has everything it needs to be very productive. It’s well thought out, purposeful, clean, attractive and convenient. Other than the church and the school, there’s not much else around. Cabestor is located about five rough miles inland from the main road. The ride in to the birth center was quite the adventure — jarring and bouncing down the rocky road, through the streams and up and down hills. It was also clear how wretched it must be to travel that road by motorcycle or on foot, especially if you’re in labor or having an emergency.
EMC: Can you share details with us of what the opening celebration was like?

JJ: It was so moving! It began with church services that went on for quite a while, but they were beautiful. The singing really wrenched at the heart. All the children were dressed in their best uniforms and behaved perfectly. About halfway through the mass they made a procession down the length of the aisle carrying fruits, vegetables and gifts for the altar balanced on their heads, including, a lively rooster. That part was funny but it was all about bounty and making an offering, even where there is lack.

The Carrie Wortham Birth Center dedication was later and it was so poignant. Carrie’s father made a few remarks about his daughter and about how important her time with Midwives for Haiti had been to her and her family. Afterward, we had lunch and shared a few gifts with the children. Everybody had so much fun.

EMC: Now that you are back home, what were some of the similarities or contrasts you see between the U.S. and Haitian maternal healthcare systems?

Jennie: Ultimately, no matter which country women are in, it is obvious that ALL women want a healthy baby. And just as Haitian women would walk for many hours to come to a mobile clinic for care with the midwives, so American woman will continue to search for an access point, to achieve the same goal.

The main difference though is that where women are suffering or in jeopardy, the US obviously has more resources, obligation and responsibility to address it, while Haiti flounders without the necessary support for safety in pregnancy and birth. In either country though, where there is maternal risk, it’s about access to quality care. Really, that hashtag, #WhatIsPossible, says it all — a few thoughtful and dedicated people fulfilling a vision to improve maternal health have brought such hope and change where it was so badly needed. A community of people working together — that’s #WhatIsPossible.

To support Jennie’s effort to improve midwife and doula reimbursement in the U.S., sign the Change.org petition. To learn more about Jennie’s work, watch the full series “Giving Birth in America” starting today on CNN.com.

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