Hamilton doctor battles deaths during childbirth

October 5, 2002

SANA’A, YEMEN – Folks who lined up to throw pies at the prime minister for his candid suggestion that 9/11 was linked with growing global disparities and Western greed may want to stop reading this. The rest of you may meet my wife, Jean, a woman I thank God for every day.

Say hello while she’s back in Hamilton for McMaster University’s fourth annual International Women’s Health Symposium. Circle Nov. 8 if you’re interested in knowing more of the terrible global tragedy of women dying during childbirth.

Worldwide, almost 600,000 women now die annually while giving birth. That’s the same as three jumbo jets filled with pregnant women crashing daily. Today, if your mom or wife or sister or daughter were on such a plane, would it matter?

In Hamilton, one mom dies about every two years during childbirth. For every maternal death in Hamilton, however, 115 women die in university hospitals here in Sanaa. Across Yemen, a staggering one in nine women won’t survive delivery.

It’s not commonly known, but the rate of maternal death is actually the largest discrepancy in public health care between rich and poor countries.

Jean, a McMaster University obstetrician-gynecologist, is making the issue her life’s work. The symposium she organizes at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington is part of that.

Journalist Sally Armstrong, author of Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan, is among the speakers who will talk of the challenges women face in the Third World, that is, the majority of the world. Others will share how organizations such as governments and universities, not to mention participants, can help.

Note, Jean’s current work in impoverished Yemen is possible thanks to private sponsors and a unique relationship with McMaster. It’s a template I imagine others would also desire, to bring their own skills to an area where they’re needed most.

“Global tensions are giving people exposure to things outside their borders,” Jean says. “That doesn’t mean they know more about women’s health, but they know more about the inequity of resources.”

Jean’s vision, though, goes beyond what she can accomplish herself. She’s now spearheading the birth of a Canadian-based international program to see professionals in the Third World care for their people by linking with experts and resources in rich countries such as Canada. It involves creating training centres in as many developing countries as possible over the decades.

Known as Save the Mothers, the program will outlive Jean if it becomes what we hope. And it will need support from many organizations.

Jean also has written a manuscript, Where Have All the Mothers Gone? Based on previous experience in Africa, the work is now seeking a publisher. But I thank God for Jean, not because of what she does, but who she is.

My wife is the only person I’ve seen literally shed tears for people she’s never met. Her parents tell me she was just a little girl when she first announced her desire to be a doctor for poor people far away. That would have been near the time my own mother died, the summer before I started Grade 1.

It’s been said we need to be willing to leave the life we’ve planned to get the life waiting for us. If this is true, and I’ve found it is, then the West is facing a significant crossroads. Sept. 11, 2001, for all its horror, is the mother of all wake-up calls, especially for a new generation tired of hollow definitions of success. Didn’t this summer’s visit by Pope John Paul show what many yearn for? Lose yourself; gain life.

That’s why I don’t accept the nonsense of the PM’s attackers. They hoard things they don’t own. I’m not saying the West should feel false guilt for being rich or for the evil terrorist acts of others. Our tremendous institutions have historically helped bring various freedoms to many people.

But have you heard of the rich, young ruler? Eventually his wealth defined who he was. And at the end of the day, he lost his soul because he couldn’t walk away from it all.

How sad.

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October 5, 2002 • Posted in ,
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