Soon it will be Mother’s Day in the United States. For most women in developed nations, motherhood comes after months of joyful preparation to make sure the birth goes as smoothly as possible. But in places far away from the world of prenatal vitamins and baby showers, women routinely deliver their children at home, hundreds of miles away from the nearest doctor or midwife. This is the story of a health worker in South Sudan who is fighting for change and finding strength in his faith.
Last fall, health worker Zoal Gatkuoth Puok of South Sudan faced a tough decision. His wife was six months pregnant and he wanted to be there for her, but he had just been given the chance to be part of something vitally important to his community. Zoal had been selected along with 12 other South Sudanese students to go to the Great Lakes University of Kisumu (GLUK) in Kenya for an intensive course on emergency obstetric care.
Zoal took this opportunity very seriously, as pregnancy is the number one cause of death for girls and women between the ages of 13 and 40 in South Sudan. Due to more than 50 years of violent civil war, the health system and its health workers—which are few in number—are simply not equipped to care for the needs of pregnant women and infants.
In the Jonglei and Upper Nile states of South Sudan, less than one-third of pregnant women have access to any kind of prenatal care, and only one woman out of every 10 delivers in a health facility. Most deliver at home with traditional or untrained village workers without any access to medicine, medical supplies, lights, or running water. Women who require a C-section have nowhere to go, and even the most minor complications of labor and delivery can mean death to both mother and baby.
The nine-month course, being taught by GLUK and funded by the faith-based organization IMA World Health with support from the U.S. Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, is teaching health workers the skills for safe vaginal delivery, management of post-partum hemorrhage, treatment of toxemia and other interventions for saving lives and bringing new life into the world. After completing the program, the students will return to their rural clinics, fully equipped for delivering babies and managing a host of complications that have already taken too many lives.
Though he was torn about the decision to leave his home, Zoal knew he had been chosen for a reason. The people of his village recognized his deep commitment, his sharp intellect, and his passion to learn and help the women in his community. After reflecting on how much the training meant to him, his family, and the women of his community, Zoal decided to go.
Tragically, not long after arriving in Kenya, Zoal learned that his wife had gone into labor very early. No one in the village could provide the necessary care, and both mother and baby died during delivery. Though this is a common story in South Sudan, no one can be prepared for this devastating news.
The staff at IMA offered to fly Zoal back home to mourn with his family. Deeply grieving, he thought for a moment and responded, “My heart is with my family and I want desperately to be with them, but my commitment is to the health of my people, and I must stay and finish this program so others will not die.”
On June 30, 2012—after nine months of preparation and planning—Zoal will graduate from the training program and return home to his village. And if he can help it, no one else will have to endure the pain and loss that he and his family have endured. Though he was devastated by his loss, Zoal says, “All things work through the plan of God.”
There is much work to do all around the world to improve conditions for pregnant women and infants. But through the courage, compassion and dedication displayed by people like Zoal Gatkuoth Puok, we can make a difference, one mother and baby at a time.
Erika Pearl is a Senior Program Officer with IMA World Health. IMA provides healthcare services and medical supplies to people in need around the world. IMA is an active member of Christian Connections for International Health, a network of organizations promoting global health from a Christian perspective. Learn more about how you can show your support this Mother’s Day for programs to protect the health of women and children.