Maternal Health

It Takes a Village to Save a Mom’s Life

You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a child, right? Mother’s Day is all about the mom, and I’ll take that margarita you’re pouring me, thank you. But on this day, I choose to give thanks for all the people who help me be successful in this exercise of motherhood—from my amazing husband to a cast of baby-sitters, from their talented teachers to my doting parents. There are folks up and down the line who share this task—this challenging, exhausting but ultimately rewarding task of raising children.

Every mom’s story is unique, starting with childbirth itself. I suffered from preeclampsia, a sudden increase in blood pressure, with my first pregnancy almost 7 years ago. I’ve written about my experience on many occasions, from many angles, and it never fails to get me thinking about how my journey as a mom connects me to so many other women around the world.

Suzanne and girls
Suzanne and her family earlier this year, at a Valentine’s Day dance at her daughters’ school.

I was planning my birth, like all first-time, well-educated, overly-ambitious women of my generation seem to do. Except no one told me it is the one thing in life you profoundly cannot plan. Anything can happen, and everything does happen. My plan had been to birth at home, with a team of midwives from a long-standing and reputable practice near Washington, D.C. Throughout the first two trimesters of my pregnancy, I was seen by a mix of certified nurse midwives, registered nurses, and nurse practitioners. I was given exemplary care.

And then my blood pressure went sky high. I was lucky that the midwives were able to identify my problem and transfer me to another level of the health system. A home birth with midwives turned into an induced hospital birth with an OBGYN. Take that, birth plan.

The complication I had—preeclampsia—is common, and if left untreated turns into the more dangerous eclampsia, which causes seizures. Overall, 287,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth each year—a death every two minutes. Eclampsia and hemorrhage are two big reasons why, and the drugs to treat them—magnesium sulfate, oxytocin, and misoprostol—each cost less than $1 a dose.

These lifesaving drugs cost so little, but they still aren’t getting to the moms who need them. Clinics often experience stockouts of these medications. Governments often don’t adequately track the level of need for maternal health supplies, so they often don’t buy enough. If the drugs are in stock, health providers may not be trained to administer these drugs, or may not know how to properly store them so they stay effective.

In addition, some national treatment guidelines limit which health providers are authorized to administer these medicines. In the countries with the highest numbers of maternal deaths, there is less than one doctor for every 1,000 people. Allowing nurses, midwives, community health workers—and not just doctors—to administer the drugs could greatly increase women’s access.

Just as raising children is a collective effort, making sure their moms survive is a task that we all have a responsibility to share.  Sure, there are uneventful and uncomplicated births all the time, from the Rio Grande Valley to Lusaka to Dhaka and back. But there are also eventful and complicated births all the time, and having well-trained professionals at every level of the health system to administer these drugs could be the difference between life and death.

I’m still alive, to celebrate my 7th Mother’s Day.  Let’s make sure more moms have the same chance.

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