From policing Brooklyn to delivering a new generation
A veteran midwife who is working to improve midwifery standards around the world made a brief visit to give Bermuda the benefit of her extensive knowledge.
UmmSalaamah (Sondra) Abdullah is the director of Birthing Project USA one of the only national African American maternal and child health programmes in the United States, and Executive Director and Senior Preceptor of Midwives on the Move (MOM), an organisation that aims to raise the standards of midwifery in Ghana and around the world.
Ms Abdullah was in Bermuda to visit Sophia Cannonier, a local childbirth advocate and assistant midwife.
Her career as a midwife began when her daughter was pregnant with her first baby in the 1970s. Ms Abdullah’s own experiences with childbirth in a hospital setting had been disastrous and she did not want her daughter to go through the same thing. At that time she lived in Brooklyn, New York and was a police officer.
“I didn’t want her to get turned off to having children,” Ms Abdullah said. “I started reading and looking and searching and found some books on natural birth. I had faith in the natural process. As a police officer I had taken emergency childbirth classes. They basically tell you to keep your hands off and it will be okay. I had done cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for many years. I had faith in the natural process.”
She helped to deliver her daughter’s first child at home and sat in on two other births.
“One New Year’s Day I was sitting with a pregnant friend,” she said. “The midwives were out at a New Year’s Eve party. I wasn’t even supposed to be doing that birth I was supposed to be her hand holder.”
But the baby made its appearance just as the midwives were walking in the door. The baby had a double knot in the cord and one of the returning midwives quickly gave the baby a couple of life saving breaths, and he was fine. Ms Abdullah, however, was not fine.
“That really scared me,” she said. “I thought if something happened to someone that could have been prevented then how could I live with that? So I quit. Then my daughter and goddaughter were both pregnant again and they didn’t want to hear that. They said ‘what do you mean you’re scared? You weren’t scared the last time. I don’t want to go to the hospital’. I started searching. I needed to know more.”
She eventually connected with The Farm, a community in Summerton, Tennessee that advocated natural birth and had pioneered several important natural birth techniques. Women who give birth at The Farm are completely involved in the process and even weigh and measure their own babies, among other things. Ms Abdullah fell in love with the way the midwives at The Farm dealt with birth as a sacred part of life. She spent two years training at The Farm. Later, she also studied nursing and midwifery at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Since that time she has delivered over 4,000 babies in hospitals, clinics and in homes. She has also delivered three of her own grandchildren and two of her great grandchildren.
“It does give you a special bond with them,” she said. “I am semi retired at this point. I decided I wasn’t going to do anymore hospital births.”
She said she doesn’t often encounter problems during a delivery that she can’t handle, but she always has an agreement with her clients.
“I tell them I am not a fearful person,” she said. “I am not going to rush to judgement, but if we say we need to go into the hospital you have to agree that you will go.”
Her work has taken her beyond the borders of the United States. She worked as a midwife and primary health provider in clinics in Senegal from 1990 to 1997 as a volunteer with the African American Islamic Institute.
“Senegal is difficult,” she said. “It is a really poor country. That was one of the things that made it hard to be there, after awhile. If you don’t have any money sometimes a whole family could put money together to send someone to the clinic and then there would be no money for the medicine the patient needed. If you were a patient, you had to buy everything yourself. If you needed an intravenous (IV) drip you had to buy the IV bag, tubing, the needle, the medicine. It is hard. You see a lot of things. You see children dying of impetigo, a skin infection easily cured by a small amount of antibiotics. The clinic is a god send, and a blessing.
“They do have a high infant maternal and infant mortality rate. They have an iron poor diet. They are right next to the Sahara and there is not a lot of fruits and vegetables and green things, but the people are surprisingly sturdy.”
In 2010 she set up MOM in Ghana, partly because of a personal connection to the country. Her great grandchildren live there.
MOM is an organisation which recognises the disparities in both infant mortality and maternal mortality in America, Africa and the Diaspora. MOM provides a venue for overseas experience for midwifery students as well as on-site additional training to the midwives at The Abura Dunkwa Midwifery Training Center in Ghana and to the traditional midwives in the surrounding rural villages. Her goal is to demonstrate to all that the birthing experience can be compassionate, safe and inclusive.
Of Bermuda, she said her impression was that it was a healthy community with a pretty good healthcare system.
“I think it could be improved by allowing the families to stay together after a birth,” she said. “Birth is a bonding experience for the whole family. At the hospital, after 8pm fathers have to leave. It would help if the hospital would make it more home like and allow loved ones to stay as it is a sacred, blessed time.”
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