By Cara Stephenson: Development and Partnerships Intern
When the other interns and I sat around the dinner table deciding on the topics we should blog about, the decision to write about one of our midwives seemed easy. Stella is one of our closest friends and we laugh and joke with her every single day. However, the more I thought about writing a piece on her, the more nervous I became. What if what I wrote didn’t do her justice? Honestly, she is one of the most inspiring people I have met, not just here in Uganda, but anywhere. We sat down and began our “interview” (aka an informal discussion on the floor of her room, post chatting about Grey’s Anatomy and our plans for the weekend… very official).
I asked Stella to start at the beginning, with her dreams as a child. Had she always wanted to be a midwife? Apparently not; as a girl, Stella had dreamed of becoming a lawyer, a far contrast from working in the field of health. Stella was a typical teen girl, similar to how I recall myself as a teen – mischievous and disruptive, and despite being smart; she mostly enjoyed joking around with friends. Sitting in biology and chemistry was a chore, and it wasn’t until her teacher, Madam Sancte, believed in her science ability, that she even thought about a career in science and health. Stella thought Madam Sancte had always hated her, but one day her teacher asked the entire class to clap for her because she had done so well on a test. Stella admits “If it wasn’t for that woman, I wouldn’t be a midwife today”. She adds, “If someone you hate suddenly shows you love, you can’t help but change”.
From here, her path was clear. After finishing Secondary School, Stella enrolled in a Comprehensive Nursing School. During the diploma she decided to major in OB/GYN. Immediately she was drawn to this specialty, and befriended doctors and midwives during her rotations. Her specialty became C-sections, and she assisted in over 300 procedures. One day in particular reminds her of this period of her life: an intern doctor was giving a mother a C-section, and Stella wasn’t around. He was in trouble and was fighting to remove the baby’s head from the uterus. The anesthetist saw Stella passing in the corridor and called for her to help the situation. Stella knew exactly what to do, and surprised the intern doctor with her skills in the theatre. Later that evening, the young doctor found Stella on the hospital verandah, and was surprised to find her in her student uniform, not doctor’s scrubs. He told her to go and specialize in maternal health, because she clearly had a gift for it.
Stella was completely confident in her knowledge, and made an effort to deepen her understanding of anatomy outside of what she learned in classes. “Midwifery is an attitude,” she adds, and further adds that she doesn’t want to praise herself too highly, but more midwives need to improve their attitude to maternal and infant health by respecting their patients, no matter what their backgrounds. When quizzed on her favourite thing about being a midwife, her answer was simple: “Being able to treat mothers with dignity and respect, and at end of the day, they have their child and they are happy with me. There is nothing better than that”.
I went on to ask Stella what frustrates her about the maternal health system in Uganda. I expected answers about corruption and bureaucracy, which Stella admits is a problem. However, what frustrates Stella the most is that midwifery schools aim to train future midwives about safe motherhood only. Stella acknowledges that knowledge is not enough. Attitudes, soul and spirit need to be changed too. Lecture based learning is insufficient; midwifery schools don’t talk about the social aspects surrounding birth – they only speak of anatomy. Bring students a story she adds, and encourage students to think deeper, to consider context. Many students become a midwife without realizing the impact they have on the future of Uganda – they have Uganda’s future generation in their hands. For Stella, students shouldn’t make the decision to become a midwife lightly, or to make money. “It’s like being a monk, it’s a calling”.
Sadly for Shanti, Stella is leaving us and heading back to university in August. Studying further is a must for her, and she is off to Makerere University to study her Bachelor of Nursing. Stella has earned a full scholarship into the program – a huge achievement! Only one scholarship is offered per degree program! We are so proud of her! However, her loss will be felt – when Stella walks into Shanti, everyone lights up and her presence is noticed. I too am saddened by the thought of having one of my closest friends move across the country, but I am so proud of the person she wants to become and only want the best for her.
It won’t just be Shanti who will miss Stella, the reverse applies also. Stella talks of Shanti in such a positive light. She describes Shanti as “innovative”, adding that when there are shortages of anything, the staff are innovative and do not sit and complain. Stella also will miss the solidarity of workmates and depicts Shanti as a “sisterhood and brotherhood fraternity”. If someone has a problem, it is everyone’s problem.
For a whole year Stella has worked with Shanti and seen only healthy babies. Her placement at university will have her at a public hospital, and soberingly, Stella adds that she will miss a society where she doesn’t see dying infants all the time. Her new placement means that dying babies will become part of her reality.
It is here in our interview that Stella really inspires me, and I wish I had her passion. She quotes “I will do the best I can. I am single person in a million, but will fight until the end. I don’t work to be recognized, just to do my best. It is my motto”. Stella is so clear about her work ethic, adding, “I will take sleepless nights reading, and if I only get grades of 60%, as long as I know I have done the best I can, I will be happy with myself”.
After studying her Bachelors, Stella intends to further her studies to eventually obtain a Master’s of Public Health. Stella wants to study until she “can study no more, if the opportunities will allow”. She wants to learn more so she can increase the number of people she touches. With her Bachelors, she thinks she can touch a village, but with Masters, maybe she could have an impact on the entire healthcare system.
However, immediately after completing her Bachelors, she wants to concentrate on safe motherhood, and conduct a research project on mothers. Her goal is to gather mothers out of hospitals and work on a project. Stella aims to educate pregnant mothers, in a hall donated by the District, teaching twice a week for a few hours. Stella likes teaching mothers because they can do everything for themselves if they have the knowledge. She wants to work on competency, attitudes, skills pre and post pregnancy, self-awareness, and importantly, family planning at a deeper level (not just administering an IUD or injection). Sometimes in Uganda, “women are slaves to their husbands”. Her goal is to have women become assertive (not aggressive she makes clear), and know their rights.
By this point of the “interview”, I am staring in awe at my friend sitting across the room in front of me. I am hesitant to ask my next question, because I know it will only increase my awe for her. I ask Stella what is her dream job, and she barely needs time to think. “I want to be in charge of Safe Motherhood in Africa”, she responds. “I don’t want to sit in an office and direct funds, I want to talk to women and be an inspiration so women know we all have been in tough times, but we all get there in the end”. I tell her the truth in response to this, “I don’t think that’s unrealistic, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this eventuates”.
Stella sees a health system where people can access services equally, regardless of social status or tribe. She sees a Uganda where health workers are committed to their work, and where everyone admires health workers. She sees a Uganda where there’s no reason for people to die. Lack of equipment and skilled surgeons isn’t a problem, and mothers certainly don’t die in labour. My final question is just as large, if not larger, “How does Uganda reach this ideal world?” “Patriotism”, she responds, “Not only of civilians, but from the government at top. If the top wasn’t rotten, the roots wouldn’t be”.
Stella ends with a story of her grandmother. At times when she is feeling down or has a difficult patient, she admits it can be easy to forget to smile. However, she adds, if anyone treated her ill grandmother with anything but respect and dignity, she’d break down and cry. So she lives by this, and treats each woman with respect, even it’s hard, because it’s the right thing to do.
We all need to take a leaf out of Stella’s book. Such maturity and compassion from someone the same age as myself reminds me every single day of what is important and what we should strive to become.