Thursday, September 9, 2010

Haitian Women Need Mesh Panties

I never cared too much for the white mesh panties that every American woman adorns after giving birth, whether having given birth in a hospital or at home. The Haitian midwives have nicknamed them "sexy coulottes." I have a newfound love for these American throw-aways.

The Midwives for Haiti program is stocked with the weekly supplies brought in by the American volunteer midwives. Ami and I brought head lamps, wrist watches, rain ponchos, fetoscopes, baby clothes and blankets, 100 units of pitocin, 3 bottles of misoprostol, suture material, and the miscellaneous supplies donated by midwives -- cord clamps, gauze, syringes, tape.

There will always be demand for these items. Yet, this is the bare-bones minimum.

What I really wanted to give the women giving birth was a simple, clean pair of mesh panties and a single Kotex pad. Whenever we found these items in the storage room, we brought them to the hospital and gave them out. The women always received them as a gift. I saw it as a moment of dignity. Finally getting up off of the birthing table, to be able to feel clean and complete was a simple dignity that only one who has given birth can describe. The cushioned GYN tables of the Hinche hospital are only minimally cleaned after each birth. There are no pillows or sheets. Often I saw the mother resting her head on the metal rail at the head of the bed in between contractions.

The cloth that the mother brings for the birth is soiled quickly from the normal fluids of a baby being born. Blood stains her skirt that she has drawn up to have the baby. Sometimes, if she's lucky, a sister will come in after the birth with a clean set of clothes for the mother and the baby. Cotton cloths, usually from a torn sheet, are placed in her underwear to absorb the lochia of postpartum.

The simple, bright white of a clean mesh pantie and Kotex felt like a luxury each time it was placed. I especially wanted to give them to the mothers who lost their babies. I felt that they were leaving with nothing. I desperately wanted to give them something to express our compassion, to honor their work.

The other thing we gave out was water. While we were organizing the storage room, I found a bag of water. It was a black shoulder bag filled with approximately 15 small, plastic sacs of water. Upon seeing them, I could tell that this is how they sell clean water in the market. A commodity. When I inquired about the water, I was told they weren't being given out because then everyone would want them. I packed them up to bring to the hospital.

Whenever Ami and I were working, we made an impromptu policy that each woman in labor would receive a sack of water. In the heat and the relentless work of labor, the water was gulped with gratitude. Before we left Hinche, Ami and I bought two large plastic bags of water sacks from the market and left them in the Maternity ward. It was our final gift.

Paul Farmer's guiding premise is to care for the poor with dignity and commitment. If a TB patient was living under a leaky roof, well, of course, they wouldn't get better. Therefore, a prescription for a roof repair was written and carried through by Haitian carpenters.

In birth, women need respect and dignity as well as anti-hemorrhagic drugs.  They need clean mesh panties and Kotex. They need water, not only to prevent dehydration, but to honor their hard work. As a woman would shuffle out of the maternity ward, adorned in her new mesh undies like her American sisters, I would feel the tiniest glimmer of relief -- we had given back.


knitty gritty mama said...

is there a way to donate or mail these sorts of supplies? i am a doula and a lot of my clients give me extra hospital supplies which i in turn donate to home birth clients, but i have much more than i need. i'd be happy to ship them to mothers in need. i have pads, underwear, everything.

Andygirl said...

Where can we send donations to the hospital? I can't afford much, but it sounds like anything would help.

Maria Iorillo, LM said...

Email me at and I can tell you more about donating. Thank you!!