McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Midwives embark on African journey

Students use program electives to assist hospital in Zambia

Published: February 17, 2006
From left to right: Vern Goudy, Catherine Goudy, Rhea Wilson.

Stories of the AIDS crisis and high mortality rates in Africa seem almost commonplace. But for two third-year McMaster midwifery students, these stories spark a passion in their hearts.

On March 5, Rhea Wilson and Catherine Goudy will embark on what they expect will be an enlightening and life-changing trip to Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. As one of three compulsory community placements this year, this trip will fulfill the elective requirement and supplement the midwifery curriculum.

"Elective placements give students the chance to go above and beyond program requirements," says Christine Fernie, program administrator of the midwifery education program. Students must identify an opportunity for enrichment and use the elective to obtain experience in maternal and child health, she says.

Working in a rural hospital in Zambia will provide both students with distinctive experiences and challenges. Not only will they utilize skills they have already cultivated and refined in Canada, such as blood draws, spontaneous vaginal deliveries, prenatal, intrapartum and postpartum care, they will also learn how to 'get by with less'. And they're looking for donations of supplies ranging from gauze packs to paint to take with them.

"In Zambia, the hospital does not rely on nor has access to the many tests and procedures or equipment readily available and accessible in Ontario," says Goudy. Wilson adds, "We'll learn how to provide good care without access to everything that we have here."

Yet the learning extends beyond practical and procedural skills. The 'different' cultural attitude towards pregnancy is something that has fascinated both Wilson and Goudy. As part of their curriculum, the women are writing papers that study childbirth customs and practices in Zambia.

Wilson is looking into the local beliefs and understandings of pregnancy. For example, Zambian women remain very quiet while giving birth. Making noise while in labour is considered taboo, says Wilson.

Goudy's paper compares and contrasts Zambian and Canadian systems of midwifery. By examining the differences and similarities between the two countries, both women are preparing themselves to be immersed in a new and unfamiliar culture.

As with many African countries, Zambia is struggling with the spread of AIDS. With 20 percent of Zambian mothers and infants infected with the virus, Wilson and Goudy understand the risk they will face when working in the local hospital. Everything from drawing blood to delivering babies risks exposure, so Wilson and Goudy have obtained HIV prevention medication kits to protect themselves against the virus.

Yet, even without the associated risks, these midwifery students face the emotional challenge of working with mothers who may never see their children grow up. Some of the babies delivered will become orphans and may also contract HIV at a young age.

Goudy and Wilson hope to contribute what they can through education and training during their month long placement at Mukinge Hospital. Mukinge is a remote hospital in Kasempa, Zambia, that serves the Kaonde people who live within a 150 mile radius.

"Many women walk for hours to reach the hospital and then wait for hours to see the doctor," says Wilson. "We'll be able to use that time to talk to them about what's going on with their bodies when they're pregnant. We hope to teach them how to minimize the risk of HIV infection as well as other sexually transmitted diseases."

Language barriers may cause problems, but Wilson expects to be using pictures and drawings to communicate. The importance of safe practices surrounding motherhood and pregnancy necessitate working closely with local women to learn the reasons behind certain practices and to make those practices safer, says Wilson.

Their passion for their work is clear. "Many of these are simple problems that are easily solved," says Wilson. "The high rate of mortality of women and babies in this area just breaks my heart."

"I can only imagine the way this trip is going to impact us," adds Goudy. "We are going to do our best at helping out in any way we can."

Mothers and children line up for food in the ward for malnourished children.
Mukinge ward for malnourished children.

Goudy's husband will also be traveling to Zambia with the women. He has volunteered to complete a long overdue repaint of the children's ward and to help with maintenance work around the hospital. While the hospital is partially funded by the Zambian government, the funds do not cover maintenance. As a result, the team is looking for donations to cover the $2,000 cost of paint.

Part of their trip preparation includes collecting much needed supplies for the medical staff. Important supplies such as sterile gloves and anti-hemorrhaging medication are easily accessible in Canada, but are scarce in Zambia.

Donations required include 18 to 25 gauge angiocaths, foley catheters, clean and sterile gloves, sterile gauze packs, and anti-hemorrhaging medication such as misoprostol.

If you would like to contribute to this cause, please contact Christine Fernie at (905)525-9140 ext.26652. The midwifery education program in the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Learning & Discovery, room 3010, will collect donations on the team's behalf. Cheques can be made payable to Catherine Goudy or Rhea Wilson.

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