September 18, 2011, 7:30 in the morning -- a humid, overcast Sunday in Hong Kong: I am 36 hours into my labor with my first child when the doctor arrives to tell me they are going to perform an emergency C-section. My labor isn't progressing and the baby is starting to tire. I burst into uncontrollable sobs as my husband holds my hand and barrages the doctor with questions. My daughter, Anaia, arrives wailing just 25 minutes later. I am a mother, happy beyond belief and completely bewildered by the entire experience.
July 28, 2013, 11:11 in the morning -- a sunny, scorching Sunday in Hong Kong: After 6 days of start and stop labor and six intense hours of pushing, our second daughter, Isha, arrives in this world, 11 days overdue. She nurses continuously for the first two hours of her life. I am now a proud mother of two, a veteran of two very difficult deliveries and have no doubt that I am a warrior, able to accomplish anything after bringing these two amazing girls into the world.
My business partner and I founded Baby Hero somewhere between those two life-changing Sundays, spurred by our own experiences and the knowledge that we were incredibly lucky. We have built an ethical baby clothing brand whose products fund innovations in maternal and infant health.
It was but a roll of the dice that we were born into a life that gave us access to skilled healthcare, while countless women have little or no access to basic necessities. A few months after we incorporated, I dined with some girlfriends -- all mothers. While discussing our respective labors, one of them (now a colleague at Baby Hero) who herself had two unplanned C-sections, said, "I am convinced if I lived 100 years ago, I would have died in childbirth." I had recently returned from the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, and all I could think was, "this is still happening to women." Almost never to women in Hong Kong where we live, but it is happening in Pakistan where I am from, in India where my friend is from, and in many parts of Africa and Asia. It is happening in almost every poor country in the world. Women are dying as they are becoming mothers, almost 800 of them a day. And more often, their babies are dying within hours and days of being born, 3 million babies a year in their first month of life. These deaths are preventable. They are unnecessary. Almost all that pain, all that unimaginable heartbreak can be avoided.
The good news is it doesn't cost much to reduce maternal and infant mortality, but it does take smart, concrete and scalable action. There are many policies and products that show promise, but very few of them are proven effective through scientific studies and even fewer are truly scalable. And again, while this isn't a terribly expensive problem to solve, it is a complex one, which is why the Millennium Development Goals related to these issues are the ones the world is most likely to miss. Poor maternal and infant health outcomes are the result of any and all of the following: poor nutrition, child-marriage, lack of birth control, lack of female education, lack of medical facilities, lack of skilled caregivers, cultural barriers to care and the list goes on. It is like a raging river being fed by many little tributaries and it's hard to know where to build the first dam.
When we decided to create Baby Hero, our first priority was finding the right project to support. We knew we wanted it to be: 1. low-cost 2. proven effective 3. hugely impactful and 4. scalable. We fortuitously found the Toolkit to Save Newborns, created and studied by Dr. Shaun Morris of Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto that fit all this criteria. This Kit includes inexpensive but highly effective items that can be distributed to mothers in the most rural areas -- parts of the world where there is virtually no access to medical facilities and maternal and infant mortality is high. The Kit can be easily used and understood by any pregnant woman, no matter her education level. Most importantly, we believe the Kit can reduce infant mortality by about 40 percent. Proving its effectiveness is a key factor in our approach. Currently, it is being studied in a randomized controlled trial in Rahim Yar Khan, Pakistan and Kwale County, Kenya, meaning within in a year or two we will be able to tell you how many babies lived because their mothers were given the Kit to use, thus knowing if it makes sense to expand it's distribution to other areas. We are building a dam, and we will be able to prove we built it in the right place.
I'm a mother to daughters who one day might themselves be parents. Parenting is a great equalizer -- socio-economic status has no bearing on the terror one feels when their child is in danger or the devastation a family feels at the loss of a mother. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be." This truth is the very reason we wanted to make a difference, wanted to have a real impact, and why we're doing our best to connect people across ethnicities and cultures and countries to combat preventable maternal and infant deaths. Those two Sundays in 2011 and 2013 were the happiest days of my life. We want to make sure that every mother and every baby in every corner of this world lives to experience that same miraculous, breathtaking joy.
Follow Samar Shaheryar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SamarShaheryar