One of the highlights of my reporting trip to South Sudan was the day I spent in the labour and delivery ward at the Juba Teaching Hospital.
It’s a crowded and noisy place. There are two women to each bed, some in the midst of labouring, others cradling their newborn babies. The midwives lack even the most basic supplies, such as rubber gloves and needles.
There can be twenty or more births per day in this ward, so I knew if we stuck around long enough, we may have the opportunity to see a new life come into the world.
After we’d been at the hospital for a couple of hours, the midwives checked a woman named Maria who was labouring heavily on one of the ward’s three birthing chairs. The midwife confirmed, Maria was fully dilated. The baby should arrive soon.
But childbirth happens at its own pace. As dozens of people filed in and out of the swelteringly-hot room, Maria laid back in silence, and for what seemed like ages, nothing happened. The midwives urged her to push, but she refused, saying she was too tired.
The clock kept ticking. No pushing. Seemingly no closer to the baby being born. The midwives started to get edgy, urging Maria to push the baby out before there was trouble, but she was what they called “an uncooperative mother.”
Despite the suffocating heat, I tried to stay in the delivery room, not wanting to miss the birth. But every 15 minutes of so, I had to go outside to get fresh air. Maria didn’t have that option.
I’m not sure when was the last time she had anything to eat or drink, but no family member offered her even so much as a sip of water during the time I was there. Finally, the midwives managed to find a needle to administer some fluids and medication to progress the labour.
The IV bag half emptied. Still Maria could not find the energy to push.
Finally, after more than an hour awkwardly perched on the edge of the birthing chair, she asked to speak to her husband. Someone handed her a mobile phone. Maria murmured a few words and held the device to her ear. I don’t know what her husband said, but just a few moments later, she started pushing and we could soon see the top of the baby’s head.
The midwife in charge sprung into action, massaging the perineum to prevent tearing, while holding the baby’s head.
As soon as the head was out, there was obviously a problem: the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. The midwife put her fingers between the cord and the baby’s throat, to prevent it from being strangled as it was being born.
The midwife coached Maria as she continued to push the rest of the baby out, and finally at exactly 1:30 pm, the big, 3.5 kg baby boy was born and laid on his mother’s stomach!
I am a mother myself, but I have never seen anyone else give birth before. It was an enormous privilege to witness this birth.
Maria and her baby boy are the lucky ones. The complications in her labour and delivery were easily handled by trained professionals. A similar situation in a rural area may have led to the death of the mother, the child, or both.
After giving birth, the nurses cleaned mother and baby and took them back to the ward. The only bed available was one without a mattress. This is South Sudan. Things aren’t perfect. But everyday there is new life in this new country, and if you look in the right places, you can find new hope.
– Tanya Birkbeck