Stacey-jean assists Veronica (not her real name) as she labors in horrific conditions at a government hospital in Belize.
The below story is graphic and is not suitable for all ages.
During our time in Belize, we became friends with a group of Mennonites forming a new community in the jungle. This new community in Belize is forming from both German Mennonite and Hispanic ethnicities. That fact alone makes this small community unique.
Part of the challenge of living “back in” was finding adequate care for women and babies in a country where, even in the few urbanized centers, such care is severely inadequate. I informally functioned as a lay midwife for the community and general nurse for all.
Veronica was a young mother from a Hispanic family in this new community. This is the gripping story of how she gave birth in the primitive conditions of this government maternity ward. It is also the story of how I fought for her and her baby.
We eagerly anticipated our week-long border run north from Belize to Mexico. We snorkeled, fished, and camped on white sandy beaches. The trip had a few unexpected bumps–a flat tire, U.S. banks closed for Memorial Day weekend (strapping us for cash), and some heavy rain. To top it off, an unscrupulous border agent attempted to charge us MX 3000 (US 300) to re-enter Belize. We refused to pay. Instead, we stayed in Mexico another night, wearing our same clothes and waited for the shift to change.
Just before we crossed the border, our cell phone rang. Gerhard Fehr, a friend from our church in Belize, asked when we would be home. He mentioned that Veronica was having some pain. Veronica, expecting her second baby, had had some back ache throughout her entire pregnancy.
“Can you describe the pain? Is it the same or different than what she has been feeling for eight months?”
Gerhard replied flatly, “She just has a little pain but maybe you can visit her tomorrow when you settle back in…”
Buzzzzz. We lost connection.
This time our family was ushered through the Mexican side without delay. One guard said something to another guard about not cheating a nun; we were not hassled. We then decided to make a quick stop to check out the Corozal Free Zone, a duty-free shopping area. We were bushed and had intended to enjoy the day, taking our time getting home.
We finally re-entered Belize, somewhat frazzled, but filled with fun family memories. After crossing through the Belize border, we stopped at Blues, our family’s favorite spot in northern Belize. We enjoyed a very late lunch by the sea. The children jumped on the trampoline and played like monkeys on the swings. As we were sipping lemonades, Gerhard called again to make sure we’d crossed over.
I asked again about Veronica. He said she had some pain and wondered if we would come to check on her tonight or tomorrow. Not hearing anything to make me concerned, I promised to come in the morning unless she needed me to come that night.
“If she had any concerns, she should go in to the hospital to be checked,” I added.
“She does not want to go to the hospital. She would rather have you there tomorrow,” Gerhard stated.
Somewhat relieved, we sat and enjoyed our lemonades and adjusted to being back in Belize. As the children played, I wondered if we might be able to make a detour to see Veronica when we got closer to her area.
Just as we were leaving the phone rang again. This time it was Susanna, Gerhard’s wife. She was a bit frantic and spoke in her broken English mingled with Spanish.
“Where are you?”
“Corozal. About four hours from home.”
“Okay, den. We take Veronica to de hospital. I tink she gonna have de baby now!”
“What? How close are her contractions?” I asked.
“Five minutes apart. She ben in terrible pain all day.”
“Okay, Susanna. Yes, do go to the hospital and we will meet you there.”
“Stacey? Veronica wanna talk you.”
After a brief phone fumble, Veronica blurted, “Hi Miss Stacey, I’m a scared. I dunno what to do. I’m so ‘fraid of de hospital cuz dey so mean to me der. I want you to come. Can you come help me, pleeeease?
“Veronica, I am on my way. Rest in Jesus. I think you should go ahead to the hospital, and I will come there and be with you while you labor. I will be praying. Take a deep breath now. You are going to be okay, You are going to do great. Soon, you will have a sweet little baby in your arms.”
We were still hours away. Veronica’s last birth in a government hospital left her traumatized. Her description sounded more like rape than labor. She had memories of being called names; nurses threatened to throw her out and let her birth and bleed on the streets. She longed for a peaceful, natural birth.
Susanna, Veronica, Orlando (her husband) and his brother were en route to the hospital. Brent and I swung into the fastest action a family of ten (eight children 12 and under) can go. The older children, ages twelve and ten, helped me load the two youngest children into car seats. Brent ran to pay the bill. I put fresh diapers on the four children who needed them. This included lifting Hosea from his wheel chair to his car seat.
Suddenly, our journey changed from a relaxed entry to a rushed flight by night. Brent sped through the night; we each prayed out loud and sang. The roads were in total darkness. He dodged many ruts and huge potholes in the unlit blackness. Drunken cyclists, drunken pedestrians added to the Friday night flight.
The trip from Corozal, the border city, to the capital of Belmopan takes us about three hours, sometimes longer. That night, however, Brent got us there in under two hours. It was about 9:30 pm when we arrived. Having already been to the government hospital to visit and help others, I knew it well. I also had already built a little rapport with some staff. I jumped out. Brent stayed with all eight sleeping children in the van we converted into a makeshift camper.
I am now racing into the maternity ward, ignoring the “No Visitors” sign. I find the head nurse. I attempt to make a quick friend in her. I see she is overloaded. Right away I notice the stifling absence of air conditioning, just a few cheap plastic fans. There is no security to speak of. Six mothers recover in a room with no privacy curtains.
The nurse points me to Veronica. Smacking a mosquito, I ignore my thirst and push the heavy swinging doors to the labor room.
Suzanna’s ankle-length lavender dress covers her large frame. A black veil covers her head. Unable to squat down due to an arthritic knee, she gently stoops over a laboring Veronica.
Veronica, in contrast, is slight, even malnourished, in her early twenties. How will her tiny, almost frail frame cope with the approaching birth?
Attempting to cope with labor pains, Veronica repeatedly whips her right hand, snapping her wrists and fingers. I drop to the floor beside her and begin massaging her wrist, encouraging her to focus her energy down low and let the rest of her body relax.
In a government hospital, each patient is required to bring her own nurse. The two nurses on duty leave her unattended while she labors. In Veronica’s case, this is for the best.
Helping her up, we make our way into the labor room. The room is drab, all of the tables and sinks look like the original equipment from fifty years ago. I search in vain for soap at any of the antiquated, over-scoured sinks. Reaching in my purse, I hurriedly apply some hand sanitizer.
Veronica squats on the floor and moans loudly; she is not effectively managing her pain. I squat on the floor next to her and make low moaning sounds. I wipe her forehead, beaded with perspiration. I ask a few history questions.
“When was your last meal? What did you eat? Have you been drinking?”
She has had nothing to drink and has terrific thirst. Just then, a Kriol nurse walks back and sternly states,
“Only one person may be back here. One a you gotta leave now.”
Veronica asks me to stay. I feel badly for Susanna who also wants to stay. Susanna has a compassionate heart for ladies. I wish she could stay, too. She and I had been working as a team.
Despite my hope that she could be a part of the birth, the nurses usher her out. I whisper to Veronica that I will grab her a drink and return.
Poverty in a government hospital is nothing new to me. Memories of hospital scenes in the Philippines flash through my mind: crowds are bigger, conditions more primitive. Unlike the service-oriented Philippines, however, the staff here is unbelievably cold. Gentle care, understanding and compassion are breathtakingly absent. The heat is suffocating. The stench of body fluids that have not been removed is sickening.
Entering the hallway, the nurse brusquely shouts at Susanna. Susanna is as gentle and sweet as she appears. She recoils in wide-eyed confusion. The nurse yells at husband Orlando, commanding him out of the women-only labor room. Belizean government hospitals exclude men from the birth experience. I walk over to intervene.
“Dis is Belize why you can’ta speak no English? You live in Belize [Susanna is from Bolivia] you should be speakin’ English!”
English is the official language of Belize. The Hispanic community often speaks of racial prejudices within the country. I gently explain that they are trying to learn. With that, the nurse closes the door on them and walks away. I crack the door, smile, compliment their efforts in English, and promise to bring back information as soon as I can.
I ask the nurse if I can get Veronica something to drink. She has not eaten all day and has had very little drink. Through her parched throat she has been begging for water.
The nurse and I walk down the hall together. I grope for something positive to say while taking in what labor in a war hospital must have looked like.
With some effort I state, “You all sure work hard to keep everything clean.”
Through a smile she says, “It be a lot o’ hard work, but we try our best.”
The nurse points me to a small water hose connected to a dilapidated sink.
“Excuse me. Would there be any pure water in the hospital I could get for her?”
The nurse barks, “If dey wana pure water dey has to bring it demselves.”
With no other option, I fill a plastic cup with water from the hose and race back to Veronica now laboring alone.
No doubt she is progressing. With no nurse or husband in sight, I am her only labor partner. I let her drape her arms around my neck as many ladies would with their husbands. My back aches, but I try hard to not let on. For about an hour and a half, she and I labor together.
I remind her to make low sounds and keep her chin down as practiced. I smile and encourage her. She is at once very thankful and fearful.
An older nurse I have come to like comes back to sit with us. Veronica walks around one bed; the nurse sits on the other. Upon entering, she flicks on a garish fluorescent light and mentions she wants to check Veronica.
I know Veronica well. She does NOT want to be checked. She looks pleadingly at me. I attempt to befriend the nurse for Veronica’s sake. The nurse states that an internal is protocol. Realizing there will likely be other areas to challenge, I encourage Veronica to let her gently check her. The nurse inserts her hand all the way up to her elbow while Veronica screams. I smile gently at Veronica, hold her hand and promise her it will be over soon.
Tears flow from my eyes, even now, as I remember Veronica’s tears.
The nurse insists that she has to stay with hand inserted through the next contraction.The nurse finally removes her hand and offers Veronica no encouragement.
She blandly states, “You are about an eight.”
Veronica looks desperately at me, “Do you think that means I will have this baby soon, Stacey?”
“Oh yes,” I promise. “It will not be too long and you will have your sweet baby in your arms.” I whisper a prayer in her ear.
The nurse, tossing an adult diaper at her, orders, “Stick this diaper on so you do not make a mess”.
Until the baby’s birth, Veronica labors with a huge diaper about six sizes too big for her. It is uncomfortable, sagging and distracting. I am horrified but try not to show it.
A younger nurse enters, one of only two on night duty. There is no doctor in the maternity ward either; he leaves at five every day and does not work weekends. I ask if we can turn the lights off since plenty of light shines in from another room. With some reluctance they agree.
I keep my focus on Veronica, rub her back, and continue moaning low sounds alongside her. Ignoring the noises around me, I smile and again offer water. There is no straw available for the water. I quietly reach for a catheter tube and make a straw.
At a neighboring bed, two nurses sit, speaking loudly to each other. They babble on about ladies doing better with caesarians instead of facing pain in labor, babies dying during birth, and announce,
“We only have thirty minutes left on the shift.”
Inwardly seething, I stifle the urge to verbally attack these women.
I want the nurses to engage gently so I ask if they had children. That question completely changes the atmosphere. There’s a positive feeling in the room as they begin to recall their own labors.
I whisper. They follow my lead by dropping their voices. Now, they just watch silently. They watch
Veronica gain control over her own pain. They watch me stroke her gently, smile and praise her. They see me offer her sips of water and remind her that soon her arms will hold a sweet baby.
The older nurse, obviously touched, keeps saying, “I wonder how different it would be if each lady would have someone treat them kindly like that.”
She sees how a dark room helps the mother to focus. We whisper about how this helps both mother and babies. She wonders out loud why this has never been done in Belize. Just then, another nurse walks in, flicks on the light and sharply announces, “Shift change! I need to check Navarro.”
Like the others, she refers to Veronica by her last name. Again, Veronica is made to lie down. This nurse checks her even more aggressively than the first.
Veronica screams, “Get your hands out of me!!”
The nurse grabs at her hand shouting back, “This is hospital protocol. It has to be done.”
Hospital protocol. Inserting an arm inside a lady in labor is both invasive and introduces risks of infection. A totally natural labor that occurs without unnecessary assistance waits for the cervix to fully dilate. With the invasive process, however, the nurse removes the cervix off the baby’s head and speeds up labor. The harsh process removes the control from the mother.
I feel so sorry for Veronica. I try to befriend this nurse, too. This helps some. Both nurses become more gentle and aware that I am advocating for Veronica.
Veronica’s water breaks; she is ready to push. I expect she will have the baby where she is. Instead, the nurse sharply tells Veronica, “Get up and walk into the other room.”
Poor Veronica can barely walk. I help her. We pause through one contraction. I have her blow so she will not push the baby out there on the floor.
The next room has an ancient stirrup table raised four feet high. It seems more like a Civil War battlefield clinic than a labor room. Holding off the natural urge to push, she mounts the contraption.
Bright lights irritate her eyes. The nurse slides a red plastic trash bag under her. No sheets. Her sweaty body sticks to the large bright red bag. The bag pools her blood and amniotic fluid. More misery. The nurse makes Veronica lift and scoot and move to get that plastic bag just right. I steal that second and rush to the waiting room to get Orlando.
“Forgetting” that fathers are not allowed back, I blurt, “Do you want to see your baby get born? Come now!”
As he ran he asked, “Boy or girl?”
Laughing I say, “We do not know yet.”
The older nurse I have befriended flashes a knowing smile as I enter with the father.
Back at the delivery table, this nurse points to me saying, “That lady there is [Veronica] Navarro’s midwife. I think we should all learn from her. She is kind and gentle.”
The remark both encourages and humbles me. She motions for me to deliver the baby. I grab a pair of sterile gloves. She and I quickly form a team working together. Three student nurses enter with clipboards.
I lock my eyes on Veronica.
Smiling, I coach her verbally, “Push-push puuuuuush.”
I motion for Orlando to stand beside her and help her lean forward on the cold, awful table. I ask him to hold one leg. I hold the other so she can be free of the stirrups.
“I see the baby, Veronica. Your baby has a lot of hair. On the next contraction, whenever you are ready, take a deep breath and push hard.”
I supported her perineum, a practice the nurse told me later she had never seen. Just that simple help prevents women from tearing. I can not believe that is not being done here.
In a moment, the baby was born. Veronica was a good pusher.
I know a secret. I have been praying. Orlando, who is not yet married to Veronica, told her “if the baby is a girl, we will give the baby away.”
Veronica longs for a boy. She has been too terrified to get an ultrasound. Her first child is a girl; Orlando has “no need” of another one.
I place the slippery baby onto the mother. The baby has a head chock full of black hair.
I notice the nurse immediately going for the umbilical cord. She obviously does not understand the safety to mother and baby of waiting until the cord stops pulsing. She cuts it immediately and leaves four inches of cord. I grimace.
The nurse then begins pulling the placenta out.
“Can we give it a chance to come naturally?”, I ask.
“Boy or girl?” Veronica asks, smiling.
“You check, Daddy. ” I say. “Tell us. What do you have, boy or girl?”
Orlando looks. His face falls. His disappointment is obvious. His wife has failed. The knowledge she has failed washes over her as the room falls stone silent. No one breathes.
The baby lays on the mother’s belly, but Veronica does not touch her. No one speaks. Not the father. Not the mother. Just cold, awful silence; the baby cries. Veronica remains limp even as the baby whimpers from her belly.
With one hand on baby, I gaze at Daddy in the eyes. I can not help but break the silence.
“The Lord only gives good gifts. Look at your daughter. She looks just like you.”
The older nurse adds, “That’s right! And this baby is a good gift.” Daddy seems genuinely touched.
“Hold your baby, Veronica.” I lovingly command. I am surprised my by own assertiveness, but I am overtaken with a mother’s protective instinct for the baby. “Come on, Veronica, hold your baby girl. She’s beautiful. Look!
“She looks like her daddy. She’s hungry and wants to nurse. Let me help you nurse.”
I place the baby at mother’s breast and she sucks. Tender, precious life. Amazing, gentle baby. How awesome that God makes babies know how to suck and crave milk from birth.
“Does she have a name?”
No name. They only have boy names.
The shift changes. No good-byes or well wishing, just a change. The new nurse I can not win over. As a Kriol, she is evidently unimpressed with a white woman wearing gloves and clearly involved in what has just taken place. Furthermore, a man is in the labor room. In comes another Kriol. She mumbles under her breath.
“Hallelujah, and thank you Jesus.”
I smile and ask, “Am I hearing you pray?”
She flashes a smile but keeps mumbling, “Gotta clean all dis up. Whatcha dat. Hallelujah! Slap banging, crusty ole man, whatcha gotta doing. Wish she jus shut de mouth. Praise de Lor. Dirty ol’ mess, I always cleaning up mess. Thank ya Jesus.”
I think to myself. “Is this a nurse or a mental patient?” She is a nurse.
The first nurse whisks daddy away. She dutifully, if not coldly, administers a vitamin K shot, weighs all seven pounds of her and hands the baby over to me to dress her. What a joy it is to whisper and click in her ear, smell her beautiful newbornness.
Veronica climbs off the old, high bed. The new shift, still addressing her “Navarro,” wheels her down to the room where six ladies and their new babies recover. That is it. No more special attention. Now she is number six on night shift.
Down the hallway, I am still dressing and holding. I snuggle her and pray that mother and father will receive her. Stopping by the daddy, I again show him his beautiful daughter. I then carry baby to her Momma.
All mothers hunger after birth. There is no food here. I ask the new father if he can go and get something for her to eat; she is starving. I go into the kitchen and fill her plastic cup with water from the hose.
Before long, her husband brings back the only food he can find at 11:00 pm–French fries.
Outside, Brent and the new father speak. He shares with Orlando how precious it is to be entrusted with a life.
Inside, I sit with Veronica as she and I celebrate the birth, eating greasy fries and tepid hose water. It did not take much time for Veronica to warm up to her new daughter. Mother and baby make a good nursing team. Veronica drips with sweat as she lays snuggled to her baby.
There are no more fans. Each room only has three fans; the fan on her side of the room has been claimed by a young girl already. We try to make the fan circulate. It is broken in one position. I fan Veronica with a piece of paper and try to shoo away the flies.
As I sit beside Veronica, the nurse I still can not manage to befriend returns.
“Whatcha still doing here?!” she barks. “She gotta sleep. Doncha know nothin? She can’t be a sleepin’ you here.”
“Okay, I will soon leave.”
“No, you ain’t gonna leave yet. Jest sit der with her help her eat those fries cuz someone gotta take her to de toilet. I wanch ya be da one taking her to de toilet.”
She leaves. The mumbling-nurse-mental-patient enters, smiling. She does have a nice smile. She goes around and takes the temperature of every mother. She reaches one young mother with a screaming baby.
“Wish you would just shut yer mouth.” says the mumbler. She then comes over, grabs my arm and says,
“Hey! Can you teach dis girl how to breastfeed her baby. Ain’t no reason fer a baby to cry lest she be hungry or wet and she ain’t be wet.”
The mother speaks only Spanish and she is a fourteen year-old. Fourteen. She had her baby born Caesarean and was in much pain. I gently help her breastfeed her baby. For several hours, I go mom-to-mom, helping with babies, hearing them ask for food. There is no food. I keep shuttling the cheap plastic cups with tepid water from the hose in the old sink.
Hours pass. I kiss Veronica and her new baby, still nameless. Goodbye until tomorrow. I return to the van where Brent holds my Jeremiah. All of the other children sleep, unaware of the world from which I have returned. We drive another hour and finally reach home.
Afterward, Veronica wept in total gratefulness for intervening on her behalf. She kept saying, “As soon as you came the nurse stopped being mean to me. ”
I was horrified by what I had seen. I could not imagine anything worse.
Orlando and Veronica decided to marry. Orlando shared that actually seeing his baby get born changed his life. They decided to keep the baby girl. We have visited them many times. Orlando and Veronica live a simple but love-filled life. Their two daughters bathe in the nearby creek, catch lizards, laugh a lot and are growing up surrounded by extended family and lots of love.
After this experience, I was invited to speak with the director of Women’s Health within the WHO organization. WHO is working with the Belizean hospitals to decrease the C-section rates and have better labor practices. It’s my hope that the humanity and will of women will be respected as safer protocols are put into practice. Already, I highly commend the government hospitals in Belize for the strong breastfeeding programs they have in place. In the first year of encouraging breastfeeding, there was a marked decrease in infant death.