Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dar a Luz on the Mountain

On my second day at site, I was gathering alfalpha with my host mom when she got a call there had been an accident on the mountain. So we hiked to the puna where there was a mess of women wrapped in black mantas weeping hysterically. On the other side of the mountain, I peered into the ravine and saw a twisted body.  One of the women in a caserio’s husband fell of the mountain to his death. Not surprisingly, he was drunk at eight in the morning.  The widow is in her mid-thirties with four children and one on the way. Her source of chacra work had just died and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have a life insurance policy to help her raise the kids. I still don’t really understand how families in this type of situation survive.  I wondered how that type of stress would affect her pregnancy.
    A couple of weeks ago, I was hiking to a caserio with my host mom, a socia of mine, and the male tecnico at the health post.  I was going to do house visits and we were going to check on the full-term widow. We reached the puna and the spot where her husband died and met a woman on the mountain path.  Totally in Quechua, I found out through my translator mom that the pregnant woman was dying. I really, really didn’t want to see her and maybe her baby die as well. I thought about her other kids.  The tecnico started running.  I walked briskly for my clumsy American-sized feet were sure to slip on the narrow, rocky campo pass. We reached the woman about three minutes after the tecnico. She was lying in the pass with a new baby still attached at the umbilical cord.  She had delivered moments before I got there. The mother looked in bad shape but then again, she hadn’t had as much as an ibuprofen.  Her breathing was slow and there was enough blood that I was pretty sure she was never going to meet her new infant.  The tecnico tied a piece of string from a campo hat around the umbilical cord.  Then he went in there with his hands and removed the placenta.  He also put in an IV into her arm. Since I was the highest point at the time at a whopping 5’5’’, I was in charge of holding the IV bag.  
    The baby seemed ok. He didn’t cry much and was a bit blue, but I have no point of reference with which to compare and infant’s newborn state.   He was being held by one of the mother’s friends.  We buried the placenta under a rock and covered the blood with mud.  And then they had to get to the health post, an hour walk away. The tecnico put the mother on his back in a manta and we started hiking. I walked alongside the pair holding the IV bag.  The back of the tecnico’s pants were covered in blood as we inched along the path.  As we reached the part where her husband died, I knew what everyone was thinking about.
    I really don’t know how he did it because the descent is difficult with the rocks, but the tecnico safely brought the mother to the health post at my site. I was holding her baby as the doctor was checking the mother out. I welcomed it to Earth because no one had spoken to the baby since it’s arrival into the world. I asked if she wanted to see him and offered to hold him near her head. She seemed indifferent, but I did it anyway. I asked her if he had a name yet.  He didn’t. She didn’t want to hold him or anything and after a minute told me to put him over there on the table. After she was settled in and doing fine, she finally got to hold him.  She didn’t talk to him at all and just fed him.
     I guess it’s not too strange to not name a child here until days or weeks after birth.  For most Americans, the baby in utero has a name and has is typically talked to by the parents.  However, maybe it’s a coping mechanism here with higher infant mortality rates. Maybe not perceiving the fetus and newborn as a new member of the family until it seems healthy makes death easier.  Regardless of the differences in cultures around how a baby is treated during pregnancy and birth, it has been shown that early childhood stimulation helps make smarter, healthier babies and eventually healthier, smarter adults.  I’m not here to change Peruvian culture, but this experience taught me there is much work to be done educating mothers about how to stimulate their babies in utero and after birth.  I’m sure any mother in the world would want simple tips on how to make their babies healthier and smarter.  I look forward to starting this type of project.
    Update: I visited the mother and baby a week after the birthday. Both look great and healthy.  I have been present at two really huge events in this family’s life but can barely communicate with them (she speaks mostly Quechua).  I hope I get to know her and her family better over my two years.


  1. Wow, Juliet. What an experience. I can't imagine all of the emotions that must have conjured. You're a strong force, and it sounds like you're finding learning opportunities in everything. Keep it up, we're thinking of you!

  2. My goodness, what a story. Hope you can keep up with the two of them and tell the baby how you were there on his birthday in Quechua some day. :)

    - sara b

  3. totally amazing story, juliet. I'm glad you're there to help!