THE BLOG
03/08/2014 09:45 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2016

For International Women's Day, Let's Make Childbirth Safe Everywhere

Vanessa Kerry

This week I was honored to have taken the stage with First Lady Michelle Obama, Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom and the 10 outstanding award recipients from around the globe being honored at the 2014 International Women of Courage Awards ceremony. These honorees' unwavering dedication to improve the lives of their communities and countries in the face of serious adversity is truly remarkable. I am deeply inspired by these women -- and by the countless other women like my colleague Maureen -- who persevere to make positive change in the world despite significant challenges set before them.

As we approach International Women's Day this coming Saturday, I have been thinking often about Maureen. She is a physician volunteer currently based in Tanzania, part of a novel partnership aimed at creating a new pipeline of well-trained doctors and nurses in the countries where there are crippling healthcare worker shortages.

On Maureen's first day in Tanzania, where she is teaching obstetrics and gynecology, she sent me an email with an unassuming subject line: "Day 1 in Sengerema." But the email's content was another story. I read it with shock and pain as Maureen recounted her first day.

Maureen wrote us just hours after her arrival. Amid half-unpacked bags and unopened boxes, a nurse had summoned her urgently to the hospital. Maureen didn't even know yet where the operating rooms were. She had no idea what medications or surgical tools might be available. She had barely caught the name of the surgical nurse who was leading her down the sparse concrete hall to the door marked "Operating Theatre." What Maureen did recognize, though, was that the pregnant woman on the operating table lay dying and there were few options to save her. Performing an emergency c-section, she hoped she might at least be able to save the mother's baby. She delivered twins but painfully she and her new colleagues lost them too.

In her email Maureen concluded that she was sad and shaky, but okay. And in a remarkable gesture before signing off she tried to comfort us: "Tomorrow has to be better. Right?"

The next day, dumbstruck, I read her second sad account. A mother had arrived from her village in labor for over a day with her sixth child. She had the worst uterine rupture Maureen had ever seen; it was so forceful it had destroyed the adjacent organs in the mother's pelvis. It had also cost the baby's life. Faced with the choice of witnessing her fifth death in two days, Maureen walked her colleagues through a life-saving surgery for the mother. She knew the procedure well from her US training, but it was one unfamiliar in actual practice to her Tanzanian colleagues. That mother lost her uterus that day but she kept her life. She is alive, and most importantly, was able to return home to care for her other five children.

Maureen helped turn the course of a typical day in Tanzania: where one woman every hour dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; where there is approximately one doctor per 100,000 people, compared to 240 for the same number in the US; where the negative effects of poor healthcare and high maternal mortality ripple throughout a household, a community, and a country fueling social and economic disadvantage.

Maureen is trying to help change this. She is one of 27 extraordinary, committed US doctors and nurses that are serving in medical and nursing schools throughout Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi. These health professionals are volunteers in the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP), a joint program between Seed Global Health, a non-profit, and the Peace Corps. This year, by each teaching hundreds of trainees in the classroom and at, these volunteers are not only helping to improve education and training, they're also helping strengthen the health systems in the countries where they work. But it is going to take many more committed volunteers, local medical and nursing schools, students, funders and private-sector partners to help us expand this remarkable model beyond these three countries. That's my mission.

Maureen's emails have sadly kept coming. Her initial shock has now evolved into expectant outrage. But she has deep pride in what she is accomplishing and inspiring in her trainees. Her students are proud too. Maureen and her many colleagues, including four other obstetricians and midwives, are helping to address this need and many others this year.

One woman like Maureen can teach dozens of health professionals in resource-limited countries, and they in turn, can save millions of women's lives now and in the future. Every day is a day of honor and courage for Maureen. I will honor and rejoice for women like Maureen, and for the lives of women and children which will be saved for years to come.