30 minutes at the ER…a lifetime of work ahead

I’ve been a bit absent recently. I’ve gotten on my key pad to write: first about adoption and all that it entails for the adopting family and the needy child that gets yanked out of their, albeit uncomfortable, environment and expected to assimilate to a new one. Then about the children of incarcerated parents: did you know the Department of Justice has estimated that approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 18 in the US had an incarcerated parent at the start of this decade? The separation that arrest and lock-up entails, especially if its repeated, for children of all ages leads to a plethora of long-term ills that the child, and we as a society, continue to grapple with decades after the incarceration is over. Within the same two weeks of absence I even sat down to blog about the usefulness of aid in areas of this world where tradition is so deeply rooted that what we may identify as a situation in need of aid, the intended recipients may identify as following along the lines of tradition. Repeatedly, it is the women that recognize the need for change and become agents of it in their communities. Sadly, many of them are met with a fate that often debilitates their efforts for good.

So all this was swirling in my head while I searched for a focal point to begin on, until I was jarred back to my own reality last night at 2am. My youngest son was loudly gasping for air while he sat up in his crib looking longingly at the door for his Mom to walk in and save him. There can’t be a more excruciating pain than to be the helpless mother of a needy child.

As I picked him up to soothe him I realized he has a cough that sounds like its coming from the belly of Hell and he’s gagging on his own saliva. “How did we descend from healthy kid to gasping for air in four hours”, I thought? As usual my mind crept in the nagging question: “What would a poverty stricken uneducated mother of 7 do in the slums of the third world at the same moment?”

So I flung on a sweater, jammed on my sneakers, grabbed my son (and husband), shot out the door to the car and raced to the ER nearby… screeched around the corner to the “new ER entrance” and slammed on the brakes in front of the well lit entrance. At this point my son is singing songs and describing the glaring color of the “EMERGENCY” sign. Just as my mind is about to flood with “where do I park!” an old diminutive Hispanic man saunters up to the car and opens my door. His face bears leather tanned skin with hard won age grooves. Methodically and calmly, he hands me a little white cardboard. “Valet” I read on his jacket.

“Great!” I scream inside my own head. Then grab my son and dash in the door marked ‘ER Entrance’. I emerge into an empty lobby, spanking new with a little corner for tots to play and a quiet TV on a news station. An engaging man at the counter ahead asks: “how can we help you tonight?” “He’s gasping for air”, I blurt. The man glances over, detects no gasping. No matter. Within 30 minutes we’ve been triaged by an incredibly knowledgeable and helpful nurse, we’ve received a breathing treatment in a private room with all the necessary apparatuses protruding from the wall, we’ve seen and talked, at pacifying length, to a physician who informs us that our son has a viral cough that sounds worse than it is. Competent, smiling people have taken care of us and are now ushering us back out the door to our car waiting outside – with nary a penny spent but for the valet at $6.

That’s America.

Back at home, my son tucked back safely in bed, my mind tucked back into its comfort zone, I curl up to sleep and realize all I can think of are the millions of women who may find themselves in the same circumstance – with not nearly the same amount of readily available support to get through it. How can there be this amount of disparity on one globe, among one species, all needing the same basic things: health and security?

But today I’m reading that the global economic downturn has led to reduced aid to women’s organizations and even to global governmental efforts that aim to join together to aggregate funding for third world aid. According to the World Bank. much of this aid goes toward healthcare for women and girls, beginning with pre-natal care all the way through birthing and then obstetrics and gynecological health provisions for the long-term. Against this backdrop, this week the World Bank announced its new five year action plan aimed at reducing high fertility rates in poor countries and preventing widespread maternal deaths

In endorsing its Reproductive Health Action Plan 2010-2015, the Bank warned that family planning and other reproductive health programs that are vital to poor women had fallen off the development radars of many low-income countries, donor governments, and aid agencies.


As we speak, in the year 2010, over half a million women die each year of child-birth complications. That is the most basic of a human functions – childbirth. Yet here we are in the 21st century presiding over 500,000 women dying per year doing what the human race expects us to do: procreate. While the medical technology to save these people exists, the will to have that technology reach the nether-corners of the earth – where populations are growing the fastest and poverty is spreading prolifically, where without mothers the surviving children have a lesser chance of living through their first five years, or being able to go to school, or escaping the ever oppressive cycle of working at the home then marrying by arrangement and repeating the same cycle that killed the mother in the first place – doesn’t exist.

“A mother’s unnecessary death in childbirth is not just a human tragedy. It’s also an economic and social catastrophe that deprives her surviving children of nurture and nutrition and too often of the chance of education,” says Julian Schweitzer, Acting Vice President of Human Development at the World Bank.

In developing countries where birth control is a non-starter many poor women turn to abortion as a last-resort means of birth control. Some 68,000 women die each year as a result of unsafe abortions, while another 5.3 million suffer temporary or permanent disability, according to the World Bank Bureau of Statistics. In the most underprivileged corners of the world women’s life expectancy can be as low as 44 years of age. Most of the people reading this blog are probably beyond those years.

We’ve all made it well into our forties because each time we are sick we have a health care system poised, in fact committed, to making sure we get better. We have that health care system because we have educated doctors and nurses that help discover and develop innovations and technology and medicine that enable the most complex life-saving breakthroughs to be at our finger tips – while basic health care remains miles away, sometimes by foot, for those in developing countries. 

That brings me back to last night. While I was squirming in my own thoughts, my husband whispered “count your blessings”. I did. You should too. Ironically, I thought, the doctor who saw us was an Indian man. He is a far cry from the teams of Indian women and children who wallow in poverty and squalor with little or no access to clean living conditions, basic hygiene and elemental health care. The difference between him and them: education.

I will leave you with this thought from the co-author of the new plan by the World Bank to help make healthy, basic care more accessible to more women around the globe, Dr. Sadia Chowdhury:

“Education and greater gender equity become a form of social contraception for women. Time and time again we see how women’s education provides life-saving knowledge, builds job skills that allow her to join the workforce and marry later in life, gives her the power to say how many children she wants and when—and these are enduring qualities she will hand down to her daughters as well.”

 Next blog: education in the developing world, particularly for women and girls… and women as an agent of change…


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