Froese: A health system to serve mothers is one for all

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese of Ontario, Canada, meets with audience members after her Interfaith Lecture “Am I My Sister’s Keeper: Addressing Maternal Mortality in the 21st Century” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“What is the value of a mother’s life?”

Then: “What is the value of your mother’s life?”

These questions, posited by Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese, the founder and director of Save the Mothers, began her presentation, “Am I My Sister’s Keeper: Addressing Maternal Mortality in the 21st Century.”

The audience mulled over her questions. There were murmurs of “I wouldn’t have enough money!” and “Priceless!” at 2 p.m Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Yet the discrepancy in maternal mortality in developing countries demonstrates something else.

“All mothers are not worth the same — or so it seems,” Froese said.

In addition to her work with Save the Mothers in Uganda, Froese works as an obstetrician while at home in Canada during summers. In 2006, she received an International Community Service Award from the Federation of International Obstetricians/Gynecologists.

“I really saw at a young age about the discrepancy between the health and the spiritual well-being of people in the developing world,” she said. “And so I decided that one day I wanted to be a missionary doctor somewhere in Africa.”

She said her travels around the world provoked her to ask herself, “What is my responsibility as a Western-trained obstetrician … to that woman out in the village who can’t even access a simple antibiotic to save her life or the life of her child?”

Froese offered four answers to the question, “Why should we care, and more importantly, why should we act?”

First, there is the moral imperative.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Froese said.

Second, saving the lives of mothers saves the lives of children.

“Four million babies die as a result of unsafe motherhood,” she said.

Third is the economic aspect. Saving the lives of mothers saves money, and the financial figures matter to politicians. Investing in safe motherhood could save an estimated $250 million in Uganda alone, Froese said.

Fourth, equipping hospitals to serve the needs of women is “building a health system for all.”

Froese said the tools needed to perform a cesarean section on a woman could also perform an appendectomy in a man. Similarly, blood transfusions for women bleeding after delivery can help injured car accident victims, and antibiotics can be given to pregnant mothers and to children with pneumonia.

“Building this … health system that saves mothers’ lives also saves the whole community,” Froese said.

One obstacle to the prevention of maternal mortality is the fatalism that pervades some communities in Africa, Froese said.

“There’s a real fatalism in many parts of the developing world: ‘It was God’s will that that happened,’” Froese said. She said she understands that such a reaction is natural in the face of the tragedies the people have experienced.

“We have to, again, help people think about things differently … teaching people that it actually is in your hands. … God is ultimately in control, but he’s also given you resources,” she said.

In addition to the hopelessness, Froese described “three deadly delays.” The first is the delay of the home; women might be miles from a facility that could provide adequate care for them, and finances are typically in the hands — literally — of the paternal household figure, who works outside the home.

The second delay is the delay of transportation. Women have to walk, wait hours for a bus or ride a bike down dirty roads to find health care.

The third delay is the delay of medication.

“There’s a huge barrier, even at the health facilities, of saving mother’s lives,” Froese said. “There’s not enough treatment out there to help these women … suffering because they’ve been in labor for too long.”

Unsafe motherhood has resulted in what Froese refers to as two million “21st century lepers” — women infected with fistulas.

“At least 50 percent of the delays are attributable to (the delays of the home and transportation),” Froese said. “(The purpose of Save the Mothers is to) train indigenous leaders within strategic contexts and professions to address those three delays — especially those two delays that I as a health worker can never address.”

Froese discussed the changing attitudes she has witnessed and how Save the Mothers uses the media to reach out.

“We’re targeting journalists who can give the messages about safe motherhood (and) how to save mothers’ lives,” she said.

Froese provided several examples of how the idea of safe motherhood is moving into the political sphere in Uganda. One-third of the House of Parliament in Uganda is women, and six of these women have been a part of Save the Mothers.

“(They’ve) brought new legislation for safe motherhood that makes the government accountable … it’s a start to get the government involved,” Froese said.

A part of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s manifesto centered on the imperative surrounding maternal mortality.

“One of the things he was focusing on was safe motherhood … that is unbelievable that he would get up in front of the whole country and say, ‘You know, we have to improve maternal health in our own country,’” Froese said.

Changes in the budget also show improvement.

“When there’s money being delegated to safe motherhood, then you know there’s going to be real action on the ground,”  Froese said.

Froese expounded upon several of Save the Mothers’ goals: “Save the Mothers is hoping to expand into all of east Africa now and … to improve the facilities as well, to make mother-friendly hospitals,” she said.

“Mother-friendly” doesn’t mean Western standards, she added, but rather describes facilities with the basics — like running water.

Froese concluded her presentation by reassuring the audience members that they would be able to help to promote safe motherhood in different ways during different seasons throughout their lives.

“We can all do something. We can all be our sister’s keeper,” Froese said. “The question is, will we?”