Tag Archives: Doula

“Sometimes You Have to Just Walk Away…”

There is a particular statement that I have heard on Labor & Delivery units — not just on one, but on every single unit where I’ve attended women’s births. I have heard it from nurses, I have heard it from OBs and anesthesiologists, I’ve even heard it from midwives.

What happens before the statement is made is that a woman is laboring. She is in pain, and she is doing something to express that pain: perhaps she is calling to her family members for help; perhaps she is unable to keep still in the bed, causing the fetal heart monitor to fall off. Perhaps she is saying over and over that she can’t get comfortable, or begging to be allowed up out of bed to walk, although she will not be allowed to because of her epidural. She may be asking why she is still in pain despite the fact that she had an epidural. She may be loudly vocalizing her contractions — she may be screaming as they occur. Perhaps she has been doing some combination of these things for hours.

The nurse has wandered in and out of the room and said that the woman can’t possibly be in that much pain at only 4 centimeters dilated. The anesthesiologist has been called in and swears that the epidural is in correctly and that the woman is just feeling pressure, not pain. The midwife, shame on her, has stood three feet from the woman’s bed and said that she can ask the anesthesiologist to replace the epidural catheter, if that’s what the woman would like.

Everyone clears out into the hallway, leaving the woman alone in her room. And then someone turns and says to me, the student, as if offering some great wisdom: “Sometimes you have to just walk away and then she’ll calm down.”

I am recording this here because this statement should never become normal or acceptable to me, no matter how nonchalantly it is said, no matter how reasonably intentioned the person who says it. Bear in mind that I don’t mean a situation where a woman asks for privacy to labor (privacy being something that she will never get in a hospital), but rather one in which the clinician judges that the woman would be better off by herself.

The assumption behind this statement is, first and foremost, that the woman will essentially be alone in her labor. There is no expectation that she should be continuously supported throughout labor (as has been shown over and over again in research to lead to the best outcomes), no expectation that one should do anything other than spend a few minutes at a time dealing with her.

This statement also represents the feeling that a woman asking for help in labor is, after a certain point, just a complaining, attention-seeking, pain in the ass. Her pain, discomfort, or distress isn’t real — especially if you already gave her medication. She’s just being melodramatic, and what she really needs is for you to ignore her a little bit so that she can spend some time alone in her room. Like a child. You acknowledge that the woman is having anxiety and frustration — and your reaction is to walk out.

I have recently had the realization that the people who make this statement are also fundamentally ignorant — despite being professionally involved with women giving birth, they have almost no idea how to comfort them, calm them, and make them feel cared for. It’s not exactly their fault; most clinicians have lots of patients and are taught to use very few tools to relieve suffering apart from epidural anesthesia. Nevertheless, it is galling to see that this is apparently good enough for them, and that they consider it natural not just for women to be in pain in labor, but to suffer deeply as well. (The difference between these things is a topic for another time, but sufficed to say that they do not have to go hand in hand.)

Finally, this statement begs an obvious question: If you’ve left the room entirely, returning only hours later or when she shouts loudly that she is going to push the baby out right now so you’d better get in here, how on earth would you know if you helped her to calm down?! You left her alone, you fool — you have no idea whether she is curled up in a knot of suffering, or whether she’s actually glad to be rid of your ham-fisted, anxiety-provoking presence.

I know that there are some future midwives reading this post, so my reminder to all of us is this: the next time you hear someone offer you this particular “wisdom”,  remember that a gentle hand, a low voice, and a calm, steady presence can be the difference between a happy, healthy birth and a violent, traumatic one. Go back into the room and stay with her.

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Encountering the Newborn

When I first decided to become a midwife, people would often remark, “Oh, you must just love babies!” or “You probably can’t wait to have your own babies!” (Do people who announce they want to become obstetricians get the latter reaction too? I’m guessing not so much.) In reality, midwives mostly care for babies when they’re still inside the mother. Midwives take care of women, pregnant and not; once a baby is out in the world, it’s generally the midwife’s purview only for the first few weeks of life.

The truth is that prior to nursing school, I didn’t think that babies, especially newborns, were all that fascinating. I was sure I would be fascinated by my own, but newborns as a whole seemed largely to sleep, and when they were awake they seemed largely to scream. Nothing too thrilling there.

Then I got to do my OB nursing rotation, and had an excuse to spend hours inspecting newborns: observing their entry into the world and their adjustment to its climate; their experimentation with their limbs, muscles, joints; the perpetual, quiet movements of their mouths; the almost elderly expressiveness of their foreheads.  As obvious as it may seem to anyone who has actually had a child, I discovered that for the brief periods when newborns are awake and alert, they get up to plenty of very subtle business. You just have to be paying attention to see it all.

But there is an encounter even beyond that. If you are attending a woman’s birth, and you get very lucky, you get a chance you stare into the eyes of a human being only a few minutes old. The conditions must be right: the room cannot be so bright that the baby refuses to open its eyes; the nurses cannot have applied so much antibiotic ointment that the baby physically cannot open its eyes; the baby cannot be too exhausted from a difficult labor or too dopey from analgesic drugs — and of course, the woman has to allow you to do it.

Today I got lucky. Despite enduring a long labor, the tiny girl emerged pink, alert and calm. Once she had been tidied and bundled according to hospital policy, and had a chance to be adored by her mother, I held her while the mother made herself comfortable on the bed. The girl fixed her eyes on mine, and I was reminded of the special color of the irises that only newborns have: a deep, dusky blue like the lightless ocean floor.

As a child, I remember the first time that I stared into the eyes of a bird — a pet canary — and was startled and frightened to find that they were not human eyes. It was my first understanding that my perspective was not that of all creatures, and that the minds of almost all others would be unknowable to me in the most fundamental way.

The eyes of a newborn force me to confront this fact again; there is a recognition that we come from the same root, but their look is otherworldly, ancient. As if they were a new immigrant from another universe. I am reminded that they have just gone through a process that I also went through, but have irretrievably forgotten. The preciousness with which we cradle them seems the only reasonable response.

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Ripping Off the Band-Aid

When I moved to China in 2009 with the intent of writing about my experiences there, I believe I began simply by beginning. When too much has happened in your life, you begin to feel as though you can never catch up in recounting it all — meaning that perhaps you never try. So now, as then, I’ll just begin again, and hope that the stories of the past year that I have wanted to share will simply surface.

If this is the first of my posts you’ve read, let me save you a little trouble: when I moved back to America in 2012, I tried writing about nursing school as it was beginning — but what ended up coming out was a lot of narishkayt about how much homework I had. It’s true that in the past 16 months I’ve sat through lecture upon lecture, studied for hours and days on end, and passed my nursing boards a few months ago — but so did everyone else in my class.

I’m now in my second semester of midwifery school, and since this past week I had my own patients for the first time (as in, alone in a room with a pregnant woman doing her 20-week prenatal visit), I have been thinking about the many firsts of the past year: the first patient I cared for as a nursing student (a 54-year old man with liver failure), the first patient whose body I bathed (an 81-year old woman with a small bowel obstruction), the first patient I had who made me feel so insignificant and incompetent that I cried in the medication room (a 16-year old girl — of course — with bone cancer and a serious attitude).

The first patient I had who died in my care. She was 3 years older than I am. I was alone in the room with her, my hands on her chest.

The first patient I had whose life I knew I had changed, and who in turn changed me. She was a Chasidic woman, and though I have now seen perhaps 75 women give birth (not many, in the life of a midwife), this woman immediately held some special power over me. I stayed with her for 12 hours as she labored with her 6th baby, predicted to be not much larger than the 7 lbs of each of her previous children. She labored all day, struggling with her daughter still inside her, doing the slow dance of the birthing woman that speaks of a deep and private pain. Towards the end of her labor she lost almost all of her English, speaking only Yiddish, a language in which I could not then communicate — but she dropped her head on my shoulder and wailed to me that she could not, that this work was not possible. And somehow, with the low words that were all she wanted, I helped her to believe that indeed she could. She gave birth to her 11-pound daughter not long after, and the love I felt for that moment, for her strength, is still with me. One of the great moments of my life.

I began learning to speak Yiddish in earnest a month later, and found a deep ethnic identity that I did not know I had lost — another first. Perhaps more about that later on.

*****

Autumn has arrived in earnest in the past few days, and it’s approaching midnight — both of which I will blame for the mawkish turn of this post. I used to write poetry, and this moment in my life is a time that is probably deserving of such attention, but I’m finding it enough to read the poetry of others. I recently found Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ slim volume,”Miracle Arrhythmia,” on the shelves of a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn. Recently I’ve been thinking of ordinary things that anchor a life — of food, of sleep, of mending tears in a shirt. This is what I read tonight:

Portrait of a Sunday Woman

Once I saw your mother as a wife.
Sunday morning she stood at the stove,
pressing her wrist simply against her hip.

She wore a robe, red as temper.
Her shorn hair glowed like a burn. Fire
haloed the filter of her cigarette.

One bare breast welcomed the sun; steam
curved from the tin kettle. She wiped
her eyes, over and over.

Turning her head, silent as a bird, your mother
lifted a wedge of lemon and sucked
the dull dream from rind.

By then I had been kissed by a man and knew
something of the crumple around the corners of
the mouth on those godless mornings.

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Experience Overload Part 4: Danger in the Valley, and Making it Out

Barbara and I made it out of the Valley without incident, which is certainly not always a given. Last time we made our 5am exit (I kind of love doing that – stealing away under cover of darkness!) there was a giant mudslide following a night of torrential rain, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to leave at all.

Before going to the Valley I had never encountered a mudslide and didn’t understand what the big deal was. So it’s some mud, right? Can’t you just…go over it? No, it’s not just “some mud” – it’s like a giant flood of rocky pea soup, up to your knees, or waist, or higher. You do not just “go over it”. Earlier this year, farther up the Valley, there was a mudslide that killed 30 people when it submerged an entire village – so don’t mess around with mudslides.

Life is full of little horrors like that in the Valley. It is a deeply beautiful place, and one in which life has become easier for the Azu over the past couple decades as they have become wealthier. On this past trip, all of the fields were ripe and bursting with greenery – mostly corn and rice, but there are also little orchards of peaches and apples,  and fields of tea bushes.

The Valley in April, when the rice was just starting to come up.

But the beauty and increasing fortune of Valley life belie the many dangers of living there.

The River that cuts through the Valley is a beast – broad and muddy, swirling with rapids and hidden boulders. Every year some number of people are carried off in it and drowned, including a little boy this summer who was pulled out into the River and died, after playing alone on its shores. He had been living with his grandparents, his father having run off and his mother away in another province working as a migrant laborer. Local authorities called his mother back to the Valley, telling her that her own mother was very ill. They feared that if they told her what had actually happened she wouldn’t even be able to withstand the journey, and they were probably right; upon hearing the news that her only child was dead she seemed to lose her mind, and was closely watched in case she should try to commit suicide.

Any little incident can turn into an emergency in a place like the Valley; even those who live on the Valley floor near the main road, and who are likely better off financially, are hours away from a hospital that could deal with any remotely serious issue. This is to say nothing of the poorer people who live many hours up into the mountains, which can only be accessed by footpath. A minor injury from a fall goes untreated and becomes a lifelong limp; a small cut from a tool or animal bite becomes infected and festers, turning deadly.

One day we were in the Valley, Barbara and I were riding down the main road in a little motorized vehicle when we saw a teenage girl we know pass us on her bike. We called out a greeting to her and she smiled, disappearing over a dip in the road. Sixty seconds later I spotted her again, this time lying unconscious by the side of the road. Her arms were bloodied and she couldn’t move – fortunately this was temporary and she was only in shock, probably having had a moderate concussion (wearing a helmet, thank god).

But what if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet? What if she had broken her back instead of cutting up her arms? The hospital in the Valley doesn’t know how to treat head injuries or perform involved, emergency surgery.

We managed to get her home and she is perfectly fine now – but you see how fortunes can change in an instant in the Valley.

I don’t know when I’ll next be able to go back with Barbara; the next few months are full of plans made or half-made, and then RP and I may be going back to the US. I’m trying to savor the experience of having been there as if it will never happen again. There is no classroom that offers the education that going to a place like the Valley can, but I’m excited to return to the classroom nonetheless; these experiences show you all of the gaps in your abilities, and teach you how insufficiently educated and unprepared you are to help people in situations of real hardship.

Here’s hoping that one of these nurse-midwifery programs will take me!

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Experience Overload Part 3: Miracles and Meltdowns

Miriam (Barbara’s foreign nurse friend) runs a free clinic out of her home one day a week, so Barbara and I were able to go a couple times when we were in the Valley. The clinic is a pure act of charity; Miriam’s resources to treat the many people who sit on her front porch each week are limited, and people are often seeking help for complex illnesses and injuries. Sometimes frustration runs high because people are clearly looking for a miracle cure – but in order to know why this is reasonable, you have to understand the mysterious circumstances under which healthcare is sometimes provided here.

As in many places in China, tuberculosis is endemic to the Valley. Cases here are often allowed to progress to a stage rarely seen elsewhere; permanent lung damage, disabilities from TB that has spread to and destroyed skeletal joints, and deaths are not uncommon. The government, however, does provide a certain amount of TB medication for free if you test positive, and Miriam is often able to arrange for a patient to receive this treatment. That can, indeed, seem miraculous – one day you have a cough and a fever, the next day you’re diagnosed with TB, and then this foreign lady makes sure that you get free medication and home visits so that you’re not going to die! From that perspective, why shouldn’t people turn up expecting to be cured of all manner of diseases?

Clinic days are long; the first patients have shown up by 8:30am, and we often weren’t finished until 5pm. At a desk job, that’s just a regular day – but when you’re seeing an endless stream of patients who often cannot be helped, you want to go home and go to bed without dinner at 6 o’clock.

What complicates matters is that many of the patients we saw had actually already been seen by a physician in one place or another – the Valley hospital or a village clinic – and simply did not like or did not understand the answers they received.

Some of these patients face deeply serious problems: one young mother brought her 2-month old baby girl to the clinic for intractable chest congestion. I have never seen a baby that looked like this before – she cried endlessly in a way that seemed to choke her every five minutes. She was clearly unable to breathe properly, and turned blue several times. At the Valley hospital the mother had been told that the baby did not have pneumonia, and they didn’t know what to do for her.

Fearing that perhaps the baby had cystic fibrosis, which would be tantamount to a quick death sentence in a place like the Valley, Barbara and Miriam advised the mother to take the baby immediately to the city hospital four hours away for further tests. Unfortunately, the young mother was living alone with the baby at home for the next few days, with her husband off working and in possession of all of the money. There was a discussion of scraping together enough money to lend her so that she could get to the city, but someone who spoke Azu and Mandarin would have to accompany her, since she did not speak Mandarin and the city hospital staff do not speak Azu. No such person could be found on such short notice.

Then there are other patients who have been told what to do to fix their health problems and are simply being stubborn about it. One amazingly wizened Azu woman presented herself on Miriam’s front porch complaining of eye troubles, eventually revealing that she had been diagnosed at the hospital with cataracts in both eyes. The woman was a serious character: at 75 years old, she stood perhaps two and half feet tall, a consequence of her dwarfism. She was dressed as if she had been plucked from her village and drafted into the Cultural Revolution-era military; she wore the traditional Azu women’s patterned skirt and embroidered vest, strung from neck to knees in beads and large shells, and had paired them with a camouflage green Mao hat and combat boots of the kind favored by the People’s Liberation Army.

Despite the fact that she had been correctly diagnosed, and that her problem was fixable with a very simple surgery that would be provided for free by a hospital right down the road, she refused to go, claiming that the doctors there would kill her. She quickly announced that she would only have her eyes operated on by a foreigner, and demanded to be sent to Kunming for said mythical foreigner to schedule her surgery.

We explained to her, in the nicest possible terms, that she was being a huge pain in the ass, and that if she wanted her sight back she should go get her free surgery down the road, where they were not going to kill her.

“You people aren’t helping me!” she companied, adding, “Plus my knees and hips are sore.”

Lady, you are a 75-year old with dwarfism who has done manual labor in the fields her whole life. My joints would hurt too.

*****

One of the strangest problems we’ve encountered at the clinic is infertility. Barbara and I were meant to be focusing on any OB/GYN patients, and apart from a few women with minor infections, they all seemed to be having trouble getting pregnant.

Infertility can be difficult to cure even if you have lots of money and all of the latest technology available to you. So what do you do when women show up at a free clinic halfway up a mountain side, with no lab technology, no samples of or understanding of any medications they’ve previously been given, and tell you that they can’t seem to get pregnant?

These are not 40-year old women who put off having children because they were busy with their careers or because they couldn’t find a suitable mate. Azu girls often start marrying by age 16, and everyone seems to be married by age 20. Marriage and childbearing and extremely culturally important, and therefore nearly universal. So again: what do you say to a 26-year old in seemingly good health, who had one still birth when she was 8 months pregnant seven years ago, who has been trying to get pregnant ever since, but who doesn’t quite understand the mechanics of how pregnancy actually happens?

Pesticide use on crops in the Valley is ubiquitous, and women often apply it with their bare hands – perhaps that’s the problem? Perhaps it’s their husbands who are infertile, having contracted sexually transmitted infections? Perhaps this incidence of infertility is no higher than normal in a population of this size, but because it’s so embarrassing for Azu women to discuss it they will only come to this free clinic, making it seem like we’re seeing unreasonably large numbers of infertile women? Who knows.

We drew lots of pictures, and explained in simple terms about the ovum traveling down the fallopian tube. We went over the possible causes of infertility, and even tried to explain how to monitor your temperature and other symptoms daily to determine whether or not ovulation is occurring. Even as I was explaining these things, I could see how hopeless the situation probably was for most of these women. They seemed to understand what we were saying, but were quiet; perhaps they knew how hopeless it was as well.

If we could help everyone who came to the clinic, the days would simply have been exhausting. But because we couldn’t help many of them, the days were not only physically tiring but full of anguish. Azu people are often happy to explain their health problems in front of other Azu, presumably because they are used to the very public nature of village life – so when one 36-year old woman approached me speaking so quietly that she was almost inaudible, I knew her problem must be very serious. Barbara and I took her into an inside room, where she presented us with a CT scan of her uterus. I don’t have any training in reading CT films, but even I could see that her uterus had some sort of mass in it, and what looked like only one fallopian tube. She said she had been trying to get pregnant for six years, and then dissolved into sobbing. She lifted her shirt to show the thick, dark scars lacing her abdomen from previous gynecological surgeries.

It was certainly not my place to give this woman a possibly faulty reading of her CT films, nor to pretend to understand how much pressure she must be receiving from her family to have a child at age 36. What was clear was that no one had ever sat with her for half an hour and allowed her to say how scared and upset she was about her infertility. We gave her advice as best we could, and she cried, “It’s hopeless, isn’t it? Isn’t it hopeless?”

It’s at times like these that I find myself wishing away the next few years, so that I can be done with my nurse-midwifery training and actually help a woman like this. Did we do anything to help any of these women in the Valley? Did we offer them hope, simply with our presence, that we then dashed by being unable to fix their problems?

How do you know when you’ve done a good enough job?

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Experience Overload Part 2: Hospital Regulars

We visited the hospital several times this week, checking up on the women who were of particular concern to Barbara. Their outcomes ran the gamut:

  • The woman with the seizures and infection had been doing better, but then her infection returned and she seemed to be retaining fluid at an undiminished rate. They had transferred her to a hospital in a city four hours away.
  • The woman who had had a cesarean after her labor stopped was much improved and, by our visit yesterday, had gone home with a healthy baby.
  • The woman with uterine cancer was gone from her bed, the sheets neatly folded. I assumed she had died, but was later told by a nurse that they had sent her home to die there – nothing more they could do for her at the hospital anyway, and they needed the bed.

For the record, I think this last outcome is probably a good thing. Just as a system in which hospital births are the norm for all women leads to lots of money being spent in achieving relatively poor outcomes, I think the same may be true of a system of hospitalized death.

In death, of course, unlike birth, the outcome is eventually the same for everyone. On the other hand, hospitalized birth and death have much in common: enormous potential for trauma; unnecessary and invasive procedures being performed, often without consent being given; massive quantities of money spent on these procedures; the transformation of a private, family affair into a sterile, clinical one. I’m still formulating my thoughts about this, and, in truth, have seen a dead body but have never actually seen someone die. Still, I think that establishing a system in which the beginning of life and the end of life generally occur out of the clutches of hospitals will be one in which more people have a good birth and a good death, instead of the undignified medical disasters so common now.

One of the nursing schools that I’m applying to has a minor in Palliative and End of Life Care; perhaps I’ll be their first midwifery student to take it up!

*****

One of the days we were at the hospital, Miriam (a foreign nurse friend of Barbara’s who has lived in the Valley for years) came by for a prenatal check up and ultrasound. The hospital staff were perfectly happy to lend Barbara a spare bed to perform the prenatal check up herself. Having seen Barbara do a few prenatal check ups, I knew that she would begin by asking a series of questions about Miriam’s general health and comfort, anything unusual during the pregnancy (Miriam has a number of children already, so she is very familiar with her pregnant body), and fetal movement. She then performs a Leopold maneuver, which is the process of manually palpating the woman’s belly to determine fetal position. Miriam said it would be fine if I wanted to palpate her belly as well – and judging from how exciting I thought this was, I can already tell what a geeky midwifery student I’m going to be.

Let me tell you: feeling the position of the fetus is not as easy as it looks. You think that if you palpate a pregnant woman’s belly you’ll be able to feel something concrete in there, but Miriam is around 7.5 months pregnant, so the fetus still has plenty of fluid around it. For the first few moments I couldn’t feel anything at all – just a dense orb of fluid, like a medicine ball. But then I felt a solid, unbroken line between her belly button and left flank – the fetal spine! – and followed it down to the head above the pubic bone. Her baby has been moving around a lot, but for now it’s in the perfect position for birth.

After using a Doppler fetal monitor to listen for the heartbeat (again, not as easy as it looks to get the fetal heart beat instead of the mother’s), we went with Miriam to another hospital building to get an ultrasound. I’ve only ever seen fetal ultrasounds done in China, so my experience is limited to what they do here, but so far I can’t tell a damn thing from looking at an ultrasound screen. It occurs to me that they may intentionally do them very quickly here, avoiding prolonged views of things you might recognize like the fetal torso, because ultrasound technicians are forbidden from revealing the baby’s sex. This is because one well-documented side effect of China’s “Family Planning Policy”, as it is known here, has been an exacerbation of the population’s lopsided male-female sex ratio, and a high prevalence of sex-selective abortion.

Supposedly, ultrasound technicians can lose their jobs if anyone finds out that they revealed the baby’s sex to the parents. However, I have also heard that bribing the technicians is common, and that technicians sometimes drop hints to eager parents – saying “Congratulations!” if it’s a boy but nothing if it’s a girl, for example. At the end of Miriam’s ultrasound, she and the technician exchanged a few words:

“It doesn’t matter to us what the sex is, since we’re definitely keeping the baby.”

“It may be a boy. We’re not allowed to give you any information because of the Family Planning Policy.”

Perhaps that was a hint, or perhaps they just say that to everyone.

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Experience Overload Part 1: Training Day

I don’t think I have it in me to put up a post every day, but I really ought to. Each day in the Valley reminds me of the summer that I took intensive Spanish (bear with me on this analogy) – one day was equivalent to a week, one week to a month, one month to a semester. If I let too many days pile up without ordering it all into neat paragraphs it seems impossible to process. We’re heading out of the Valley tomorrow at 5am after almost two weeks here, so it’s time for some wrap-up. So as not to tax your patience, I’ll put this up in pieces over the next few days…

Training Day

Barbara and I started off Monday by meeting with two Azu women to prepare our training for the next day. The training was to be for some 20 Azu village women, on a topic related to maternal and infant health. We are using the American College of Nurse Midwives’ Home-based Life Saving Skills manuals, which contain very basic, picture-based instructions on how to deal with life-threatening situations that can arise during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period. They’ve been used all over the developing world, particularly in rural areas like the Valley, and are easily adapted because the pictures and text are so simple.

(Dear visiting Singaporean medical students who were bored and translated the text into Mandarin for fun: PLEASE STOP. I know you are all bursting at the seams with your newly acquired medical educations, but endlessly crossing out the ACNM’s text and replacing it with complex instructions that women who are barely Chinese-literate will be unable to follow is counterproductive. AHEM.)

The two women we met with decided that “Bleeding During Pregnancy” would be a good topic for the training, as this is something that they’ve encountered in their villages over and over. There ensued a flurry of translation into Azu (seeing Azu being typed out on a computer is supercool), cutting and pasting and photocopying, and BAM! Azu handouts on what to do in case of bleeding during pregnancy.

The training itself went very well, and that was not at all a given. Part of the issue in running such trainings is that any Azu woman will tell you that their main characteristic is haixiu – shyness. Azu culture is highly conservative and thick with taboos around issues of health and the body. It’s not at all certain that you’ll be able to get a bunch of women together and convince them to mime such things as urination over a plastic bucket and getting a friend or family member to keep track of how much blood they’re losing.

During the training there was much discussion of Azu women being haixiu and, given that, what people might actually be willing to do in case of bleeding. They agreed that urination would be ok because they can go off alone for that, but determined that they would keep track of their own bleeding, thankyouverymuch, unless they bled so much that they passed out – in which case someone else could take over.

Fair enough.

Haixiu aside, there are other, equally fundamental issues with running such a training – for one thing, it turns out that many Azu women have no idea what their internal anatomy looks like. If I said to you, “The egg travels through the fallopian tube to the uterus”, it’s likely that a little picture would pop into your head that originally came out of a biology textbook, or Our Bodies, Ourselves. These woman are largely extrapolating visuals from their experience slaughtering livestock, which can actually be useful if they’ve been butchering pigs, but not so much if it’s just been chickens. (I will leave it to you to Google appropriately.)

They are also hungry for information, which makes keeping the trainings on track a real challenge. When presented with a highly experienced and foreign-trained nurse-midwife like Barbara, every question they’ve ever wanted to ask comes forward. What do I do in case of a breech birth?…Why do they happen?…Why does the placenta sometimes not come out? It’s too much for a two-hour training – plus, we’ve got to come with better visual aids showing HUMAN anatomy next time.

One thing that doing such trainings teaches you is that just because people are shy, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. This is especially important to understand in the context of hospital care in the Valley, as whenever we’ve gone to the hospital, Azu women and their families are essentially silent in front of the Chinese staff.

We started off the training by having one woman tell the story of a girl in her village who bled seriously during the 4th month of her pregnancy, and miscarried. It was as if she had cracked opened the floodgates – out came the other women’s stories, slowly at first, then faster and faster until they were literally shouting each other down with their tales of pregnancies lost and saved, labors endless and precipitous, babies born alive and dead.

I started bleeding at three months and eventually the fetus came out, the size of a plum…I started bleeding at six months and the twins were born dead – they were girls, I could tell by then…My relative bled all the way from two to seven months, but her mother-in-law prayed every day and the baby was born healthy…A woman in my village had bleeding, so we killed a chicken, stir-fried its innards and made a soup – it saved the pregnancy…A woman I know started to bleed, but she carried to term and even had the strength to pinch and bite her husband during her labor shouting, “This is your fault! You did this to me!!”

I don’t think the staff at the hospital know (or care) what a fine line they are walking with the village women, what a slim margin of error they are being given. For women who are resentful that they have to go to the hospital at all, bad outcomes that happen there are not forgiven. One woman relayed the story of what sounded like a placental abruption and/or uterine rupture – either way, there was massive hemorrhaging. The woman survived, minus her uterus, but the baby died shortly after birth. I have no idea whether or not this was the fault of anything the hospital did, but the conclusion offered by the storyteller was clear: people in her village do not like the hospital any more.

I may be justifying my own ignorance, but with topics like these it strikes me that it may be a good thing that Barbara and I don’t speak Azu. She guides the training in English, I translate English-Mandarin, and another woman translates Mandarin-Azu – which means that these village women are free to say whatever they want, knowing that by the time it gets back to me and then to Barbara, the essential facts are getting through but the nuance is long gone.

In the end, they’re not really telling their secrets to us – and that is a good thing.

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