A Clinic On The Ivory Coast

How Patsy Mertz and the Ivory Coast Mothers and Children Foundation are improving maternal health.

In 2001, Patsy Mertz, founder of the Ivory Coast Mothers and Children Foundation (ICMC), made a radical mid-life career shift that’s paying off for families on the Ivory Coast. Mertz says, “I was at a point in my life when my parents had died and my children were independent. I was working as an event planner for Goldman Sachs and knew there was more to life than that!” At age 55, Mertz quit her job, joined the Peace Corps and moved to Braffoueby, a small, rural village on the Cote d’Ivoire. This is where Mertz witnessed extreme and chronic poverty and recognized why the Ivory Coast has some of the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the world.

Evacuated from Braffoueby in 2002 when civil war broke out, Mertz stayed connected to the women in the village who’d become her friends. In 2013, after a little family nagging and years of relentless fundraising, ICMC opened the Patricia Nau Clinic (named after Mertz’s mother) in Braffoueby and delivered its first baby. We asked Mertz to share her story.

Every Mother Counts: What happened in the years after you left Braffoueby that made you open a clinic?

Mertz: I left very abruptly during the coup d’état and never got to say goodbye to my friends and I couldn’t get those women out of my mind. They’re the ones who do all the work. Everyone depends on them for food and school and well, everything. It’s like that of course for mothers everywhere but these women have so little. I wanted so badly to do something for them, but didn’t figure out until 2006 what to do. I spent so much time talking about the women and children and their living conditions though that one day, my little niece piped up and said, ‘So what are you going do about it?” and I blurted back, ‘I’m going to build a clinic.’ Suddenly, when you say something out loud it’s like you move the earth. Everything changed and people started calling to help me.

Every Mother Counts: How did you turn that blurt into a fully functioning clinic?

Mertz: It took a while. Back then; there were no cell phones or Wi-Fi in the village so everything had to be done via letters translated into French. My friend Christine, a very modern woman who grew up in the village, was my go-to communications person. She approached the village chief with the clinic idea who got the ministry of health involved. They built foundations for the clinic in our village and several others, but they didn’t finish any of them. Currently, our clinic is the only one that’s finished, opened and functioning. I went back to the village for the first time since the evacuation in 2009. I got to see the foundation and met some Ministry of Health members. My cooperation with them has always been very important because we’re a semi-private clinic. For us, that means the government pays the nurse and midwife’s salaries, but ICMC pays the other staff. Hopefully, in another year, the clinic will be able to pay its own salaries.

Every Mother Counts: Does the clinic have electricity?

Mertz: Yes, but it goes off all the time. I’d love it if they had solar power, but this country is very underserved. It’s not like in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi or Ghana where tons of non-profits provide services. Everyone thinks the Ivory Coast is stable because of all the chocolate that comes out of there but these people are suffering. They had civil wars in 2001 and 2010 and government money that should have been spent on health went for defense instead.

Every Mother Counts: You only have one nurse and one midwife?

Mertz: Right, but we also have a 7-year and an 8-year medical student on our six-person management committee and they were both born in the village. The clinic has two sides with an open hallway in the middle. On one side we have a six-bed maternity department, staffed with a traditional midwife and professionally trained midwife. We also have two aides trained to work both in maternity and in the dispensary on the other side of the hall where we see about 450 sick people every month. We provide prenatal check-ups, blood testing, ultrasound referrals, labor and delivery services for about 80 babies per month, post-natal and newborn care, immunizations and vitamins. For mothers who have critical financial needs, we often provide financial assistance for food and rent too.

Every Mother Counts: Are all your patients from the village or do they come from the surrounding community too?

Mertz: Both, but the number coming form other villages and from the field camps where people work is increasing. These people have no electricity, water, schools, hospitals or anything. They live from day-to-day, eat what they grow and make about $1.50 per day. They trek a long way to reach us because we have the services and pharmaceuticals they need at the best price. Most of the mothers have never had prenatal or postnatal care. Many of their children are never counted because they die in childbirth. I met one woman at the clinic whose husband had been blinded during an accident in the fields. She came in to have her sixth baby, but didn’t have any money to pay her fees. We paid them and bought her some food but there are stories like hers everywhere.

Every Mother Counts: What other services is ICMC providing?

Mertz: We have a disease treatment and prevention program. We’ve raised money through Johnson & Johnson to build sinks for about 2000 kids in two villages and we’re working on nutrition and sanitation services too. We’re coordinating with neighboring villages and trying to do it all. Like I said before, the need is so great. I guess that’s what we have in common with Every Mother Counts. We’ll just have to keep working at it.

Log on to the Ivory Coast Mothers and Children Foundation to learn more and help support their work. To learn more about how poverty contributes to maternal mortality and how you can help, log on to Every Mother Counts’ website. With women like Patsy Mertz and the help of people like you, together we can make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.

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