Friday, July 1, 2016

The Labor of Love

Well, it certainly wasn't the love of labor. I've been struggling for a couple days trying to decide how I wanted to share this story from last week. It struck a chord that brought me to a shattering halt, reminding me that no matter where you are, everyone has their struggles. Sometimes we get caught up in the successes that we forget about the human factor. So, here we go.

It was quiet in the health center on Tuesday. A couple children had come in with cases of malaria, but other than that, everyone was just keeping busy with paperwork in preparation for our quarterly supervision visit. We had the new lights on in the consultation room and cell phones charging away in our new charging station. The only noise was a low moaning coming from the outer lobby.

Leonie is 18 years old, a good student and from a well respected family in the community. She was also in her 9th hour of labor. Since there's not much we can do to induce labor, it's a waiting game. The midwife kept checking on her and it was getting close. I took her hand and we walked to the delivery room. The pain was etched across her face. Beninese women never shout, scream, or swear. Somehow, they remain composed, taking each contraction with a wince and deep breath.  Leonie was no different.

Once on the bed, things moved quickly. I'm always shocked by how little pushing is actually required once we get the women on the table. She squeezed my hand and arched her back with every push, trying to stay as relaxed as possible. A minute later, the baby had arrived. We placed it on her chest and carefully cut the cord.  She didn't see the child, just threw her head to the side in agony. The birth had resulted in a total episiotomy, a procedure that we repair within minutes of delivering the placenta, but without any local anesthesia. I knew she was already in excruciating pain and I couldn't break the news to her that we'd have to stitch her up. I kept talking to her, counting deep breaths and complimenting her on her great job. Ironically, bon travail can mean both good work and good labor.

After delivering the placenta, Sabine started the sutures while the nurse aids cleaned up the baby. It was a healthy and beautiful baby boy!! Like each birth I attend, I immediately got all googly eyed, busying myself by making fishy faces and blowing raspberries. One of the aids was guiding Leonie through the process and she was a total trooper!

With the baby swaddled and in my cradled arms, I stood next to Leonie as she breathed through the resulting pain from non anesthesia stitches. I kept reminding her to breathe while counting to try and calm her down. After a couple minutes, I looked at her and asked if she wanted to hold the baby. I told her it was a healthy boy. I expected elation, but the look in her eyes was despair. She asked me to repeat it; yes, it's a boy. She began to sob.

I've seen many birth while here in Benin, and none have ended in tears. I had no idea what to do, so I did the first think that came to mind. I held the baby close and sang the lullaby that my dad used to sing to me every night. Somehow it calmed all three of us down. The vulnerable child in my arms, the weeping young woman on the table who had just endured the most intense pain of her life, and the only white girl in miles, feeling helpless.

I don't know why she was crying and I don't know what her situation is. I don't know the father and I don't know if she will ever continue her education. I do know, however, that this baby will be welcomed with open arms to my loving community and soon become a member of my growing village family. Life is a gift and health is a blessing. Leonie is just another of the strong women I've met along my path here, and I'm so proud of her, her resilience and the wonderful mother she will become. 


  1. Thank you for sharing this story. So proud that you are family!

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