Shaken into action
Yvette Blanchette takes her midwifery skills to Haiti
Amid all the damage reports from Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake, Yvette Blanchette heard one thing loud and clear: 39,000 pregnant women were homeless.
My heart was in my hands.
“My heart was in my hands. That was the deciding moment for me when I started searching for an organization to head that way,” the Hood River midwife says. Blanchette, 48, has been working in midwifery in Oregon since 2005. She received a Ford Opportunity scholarship and attended the Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland from 2004 to 2008.
Since 2010, she has spent 10 weeks each year in Haiti. The country is still struggling to recover from the earthquake. But its endemic poverty is more tragic, she says, and going to Haiti opened her eyes to a basic need often taken for granted in the United States.
Blanchette had her first child in a hospital, where she felt there was too much intervention. Her second child was born at home. “Initially I came to [midwifery] because I wanted all women to have the option of a home birth,” she says.
Most women in Haiti don’t get to choose between hospital or home. More than 70 percent of Haitian women go unattended during their whole pregnancy and birth, contributing to high mother and infant mortality.
“Every woman deserves to be attended by a trained, compassionate person,” Blanchette says. “I realize that I can’t fix Haiti, but as a midwife I can contribute to the welfare of one woman and one baby and one family at a time.”
In August 2010, she arrived in Haiti as a member of a volunteer team of certified professional midwives with a nonprofit organization. They worked at a maternity clinic in Jacmel, next to a refugee camp, where there was no electricity and only one or two translators.
During her first 10 weeks, the clinic averaged 60 births a month.
“We worked from sunup to sundown and sometimes to sunrise by head lamp,” she remembers. “We were working fast and furious. There were sometimes 50 people coming for prenatal care each day.”
During one six-day period in 2010, Blanchette assisted in 21 births and one translator stayed with the midwives the whole time. After the deluge, Blanchette taught the woman several basic skills of her trade.
Since then, the focus of Blanchette’s work has gone from “catching babies” to training Haitian midwives so they can help after aid workers leave. Her first translator-turned-apprentice is now a capable midwife. Last summer, the woman stayed with Blanchette in Hood River while she sat for her North American Registry of Midwives exam. Blanchette is confident in her protégé’s abilities.
“She was assisting 50 births a month, whereas here a new midwife might only see four or five a month. When I was there last winter, she was a full-on midwife,” Blanchette says.
Blanchette is often asked if she sees improvement in Haiti. It’s a tough question and one her apprentice struggled to answer, too.
“I saw all the emotion roiling inside her as she was grasping for any way to speak the truth without sounding ungrateful,” Blanchette says. “In the long run, assistance hasn’t affected the quality of life on a daily basis. The lack of infrastructure is just crippling, keeping them from taking any strides forward.”
Her experiences in Haiti have inspired Blanchette to pursue more opportunities in international maternal health.
“This work connects what is most meaningful in my life,” she says. “I have a true desire to contribute to the quality of women’s health care in underserved communities, wherever that may be.”