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Aiding mothers and babies in Papua New Guinea

Alumni News

Curtin nursing alumna Sara David founded her own charity to improve the outcomes of mothers and babies during childbirth in the remote villages of Papua New Guinea.

Sara David is someone who follows her heart. While waiting to study physiotherapy at university, she worked at an aged care facility to support herself. Through her work she discovered a love of nursing and changed her direction, enrolling to study nursing at Curtin instead.

She overcame several obstacles to get into university but once she was in, she immediately shined, receiving an award for high achievement in her first year of study. During her study, she was an active member of Student University Nurses, kickstarting her love of advocating for people and services.

Sara always knew she wanted to volunteer in a developing country. After graduating, she was invited by the Churches of Christ leaders in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to provide midwifery training for village birth attendants in the remote village of Yamen. She accepted without hesitation.

While she was there, with the aid of interpreters, Sara heard the stories of men, women and birth attendants in the village and was deeply moved and terribly saddened by the things she saw and heard. Mothers were dying in childbirth due to a lack of health services in the area. There was also a high death rate for newborn babies.

Sara realised that with some simple education, the village birth attendants could help mothers deliver their babies safely and reduce the risk of mortality of both mothers and babies.

She managed to gain trust quickly with the villagers and that trust continued to grow as the village birth attendants saw her methods working. On the first trip, Sara provided training on how to give immediate care to a newborn, including placing the baby on the mother’s abdomen, drying and stimulating the baby with a clean cloth and, if the baby wasn’t crying, scooping out any mucous from its mouth, then allowing it to breast feed as long as possible.

In the past, the villagers had put newborns on the ground until they showed signs of life, then picked them up. They’d also been discarding the first milk, colostrum, which is rich in antibodies, because they didn’t know it was good for the baby. When Sara returned, they were thrilled to inform her the “new training” had saved many lives of babies at birth and they had gained confidence in the information they’d been taught. As they saw the training saving lives, their trust continued to grow.

Sara providing training to villagers.

But mother and infant mortality wasn’t the only problem the villagers wanted help with. When Sara asked if there was anything else they’d like information about, a woman fell at her feet, hands held high in prayer and, in her language, cried “spacing babies” (family planning). The women informed Sara that they were having between 9 and 12 children if they survived childbirth and desperately wanted a break from pregnancy.

At the end of the trip, she agreed with a chief elder that a system of qualified midwives for the area should support the village birth attendants in every river system.

Back in Australia, she knew she’d need an organisation to deliver her vision, and also be accountable for donations provided for the work. She contacted charities in Perth that worked in countries like PNG, but none seemed able to provide assistance.

She persevered, driven by the joy she had witnessed during her first trip.

“A matter of the heart,” she says.

Her charity, Living Child Inc, was registered in 2013 with a mission to provide midwifery training to traditional birth attendants and health workers in remote PNG, and improve community access to family planning. Living Child volunteers travel through the Keram River local level government, Angoram District, helping the 48 villages dotted along the Keram River.

“The team that volunteers with Living Child are a source of great encouragement, inspiration and strength,” says Sara.

“I’ve seen hope ignited in the villages through the training and other interventions we’ve introduced. It’s spurred me on to keep going.”

Sara says the volunteers she works with are a source of great encouragement, inspiration and strength.

The work is rewarding, but has many challenges. The areas are remote and have no roads. Transport is by boat on the river systems. Swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitos are a common occurrence, the climate is hot and humid and there’s no power, fresh running water, telecommunication or any other modern conviniences in the villages.

So vast are the challenges working in these areas that help is often hard to find. Sara recalls knocking on the doors of offices for health and no one would answer. Sometimes her teams of volunteers would thrive and work out wonderfully, and other times they would struggle under the stresses.

But Sara’s determination paid off in 2017, when after five years and nine training outreaches, she returned on her tenth trip to fantastic news. A community feedback session revealed that in the 48 villages that received Living Child training, no mothers had died since the training. They had fewer infections in mothers and babies since using the clean birth kits provided by Living Child Inc. Their mothers were also happier since Living Child Inc introduced contraceptive implants for family planning.

It was a proud moment for Sara.

“It’s a privilege to serve the people of PNG. There are many challenges that keep me on my toes, but my heart beats for the women in the remote areas.” She says. “I love spending time with them – their tenacity, perseverance and strength are a true inspiration.”

A community feedback session revealed mothers were happier after their training.

Sara’s efforts with Living Child Inc won her a Curtin Alumni Achievement Award last year and, earlier this year, she was one of the 76 Western Australians recognised in the Australia Day 2020 Honours List for exceptional service or achievement.

She hopes to use these achievements to continue advocating for the needs of women in PNG.

“Currently there is a shortage of 5,000 midwives in PNG. Access to family planning continues to impact the health and wellbeing of childbearing women. Access to basic care during pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period is severely lacking,” she says.

“There is a wonderful opportunity for well-qualified Australian health professionals to support nurses and midwives in PNG.”

Looking to the future, Sara continues to follow her heart. She has ambitions to teach midwifery in Perth, preparing midwives for work in low-income countries where there’s desperate need for quality care. She is also looking to write a village birth attendant training manual for use in remote villages of PNG.

“I am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have, and hope to share my knowledge, skills and abilities with others, especially those less fortunate than me,” she says.

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