June 5, 2013 Tom Berlin

A Day at the Maternal Health Clinic


I spent the day at a maternal health clinic that Mercy Hospital offered on the outskirts of Bo, where people have little access to medical care. Creativity is a wonderful human quality that is used in abundant supply here. A nurse taught the women when to come to the hospital. Rather than lecturing, she sang a responsive song that the 100 or so assembled women sang back to her. When it came to listing reasons, like heavy labor, or your water breaking, not only did she sing it, she danced in a way that portrayed the symptoms so that the women could see what it would look like. If you have never seen a woman dance in a way that portrays her water breaking, then you need to come to Bo, because it is fabulous. A second song taught the women when to bring their child to the hospital. Between the chanting and the nurse’s dancing those symptoms, and all these lovely pregnant African women holding their other children while singing, it had to be the happiest clinic in the world for the first ten minutes.

My daughter Hannah and I helped read tests for malaria and HIV. My respect for the medical community, already very high, went up a notch or two today. When you are doing these tests, you are wearing gloves, but you realize that you are possibly a thin layer of latex away from something you don’t want in your life. We gave each child a malaria test. A technician pricks their finger to produce a drop of blood. This blood is put in a very small plastic hole in the test kit. Let me say that getting a drop of blood to fall from the finger of a struggling child into this tiny hole is harder than Luke Skywalker dropping a torpedo into the exhaust vent of the Death Star.

Pregnant women received the malaria test as well as the HIV test. I cannot quite describe what it is like to wait for an HIV test to show its results. One stripe for negative. Two stripes for positive. If you are positive for malaria, you go down the hall and are given some pills. Most people here have malaria on a regular basis, although the efforts of the UMC’s Imagine No Malaria campaign and similar programs by other organizations are now driving down the incidence of the disease. A positive HIV test, on the other hand, changes things for the rest of your life, especially in a country where medications are hard to get on a routine basis. So we waited for results, one by one, and every time an HIV test came back negative, I felt such relief. One time I was looking at this woman who was pregnant. She had that radiant look that women often have when they are pregnant. They are feeling large and unwieldy while you are looking at them thinking how alive and vibrant they appear. She had two children with her. These children were twin girls who were about 18 months old and very cute, with big dark eyes and long eyelashes. I began to think about what it would be like for her family to get the news that the test had two stripes, how her husband would feel, and how that might impact them all, and I was so very happy when only one stripe appeared that I wanted to do a fist pump and yell “yes” but restrained myself.

By the end of the day, much to my joy, all the HIV tests were negative and it was my best day here so far, in a week that has included a lot of very good days. Here is why it was my best day: I love the fact that the church cares enough about people to provide them with access to the instruction, the tests, nutrition packets, exams, and medicines these women could never afford but all received today. It was hot, and a bit overcrowded, but everyone was seen, and every mother was treated as though she was important, and her child was important, and life was important and even sacred.

I think the church is an imperfect body with a lot of flaws, but some days we do exactly the kind of thing that Jesus would have us do. We just nail it. We get it all right. And today was that day for me. 


Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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