My first real job in the health care field was an internship I participated in as an undergraduate. I worked for a summer at the Family Practice Residency Program of Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, CA. A few years prior to my internship, one of the residents had noticed that there were an unusual number of anencephalic births in the patients who delivered at the medical center. Anencephaly means that the baby is essentially born without a brain, and is a fatal congenital deformity.
The resident who noticed this spike in anencephaly wondered “Could this by due to exposure to pesticides among the farm-workers in this area?”. Salinas is an agricultural area, with a lot of migrant farm-workers who frequent the Natividad Medical Center.
So, they started reviewing the charts of any birth over a certain number of years to ascertain whether there might be an association documented in the medical record between agricultural exposure and anencephalic births.
By the time I got involved in the project, they had already identified the obvious cases, but they were looking for any charts that may have been overlooked, and a primary focus was those patients who discharge status was “Transferred to Jail”.
It turned out, somewhat to my surprise, that a significant number of women were admitted to the medical center from jail, pregnant, and then discharged back to jail, post-delivery, and the only way to identify and access their records was to go through the microfilm archives, looking for the discharge status “To Jail”.
At that time, I had a toddler, myself.
In fact, while I was pregnant with her, we had a scare in my home town with spraying of Malathion to get rid of the invasive Mediterranean fruit fly. My best friend and I took our little sisters, aged 10 and 11, to go camp out for a few days on the other side of the hills bordering our valley, on the ocean side, with clean ocean air. We had a choice whethe to be exposed to pesticide from the air; unlike the pregnant farm-workers.
Searching those medical records opened my eyes to the circumstances that might lead a woman to give birth while imprisoned. When you’re in jail, you lose a lot of control over many aspects of your life. In the past 20-30 years, it has become fashionable to reclaim control over the experience of childbirth – particularly among women of privilege. There are books and websites devoted to empowering women to experience the birth of their children fully, but, what of the women who find themselves behind bars and pregnant?
I think we often forget about the women who struggle in poverty, and do their best, without much help, if any. I will never forget a young woman I met in northern Uganda, when the Lord’s Resistance Army still held sway over the area. She came into our hospital grounds, leading a 7-year-old, a younger child, and carried an infant in her arms. She was 20 (yes, do the math – she was how old when she gave birth to her first child?) and she hadn’t eaten in three days. She was the second wife of a much older man, who came by now and again, to impregnate her, and between his visits, she subsisted on selling beer that she brewed from corn that she bought or grew. She was infected by this “husband” with HIV, and she knew she was sick. She came to the hospital hoping against hope that we could help her and her children. Her most immediate need was malnutrition, and we had resources to feed her kids, but not her. She died. Her kids? I have no idea.
Life is really hard for a lot of people.
Is your life so hard?
Think about it.
Maybe you can lend a hand…not all of us can plan our perfect birth experience. But we can all try and bring up the standard of compassion and dignity.
This post was inspired by the novel Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. Ladydi was grew up in rural Mexico, where being a girl is a dangerous thing.She and other girls were “made ugly” to keep protect them from drug traffickers and criminal groups. Join From Left to Write on February 18 we discuss Prayers for the Stolen. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.