Wednesday, January 19, 2005

One birth at a time saves a culture

Express Staff Writer

A mother and her newborn baby. One of the images taken by Barbi Reed on her excursion to Tibet to document the hardships of Tibetan birthing practices. Photo by Barbi Reed

No one aspires to be an unsung hero. A super hero, perhaps, but a shadowy one is something no one really considers as a career choice.

However, passion incites people to commit themselves to causes others might consider overwhelming.

Dick Grace, a long time supporter of the Sun Valley Wine Auction and owner of Grace Family Vineyards, hosted an event in 2001 called "Unsung Heroes of Compassion." The Californian ceremony was presided over by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who gave his blessing to people for their unnoticed acts of a heroic nature.

Arlene Samen, who was singled out for her work with women and children in Tibet, was selected as one of the unsung heroes.

A nurse practitioner in Salt Lake City, Samen is the founder and executive director of One H.E.A.R.T., in Medrogongkar County, within the Lhasa Prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region. One H.E.A.R.T. is an acronym for Health, Education and Research.

She established One H.E.A.R.T. in 1998 with a mission to reduce Tibet's mortality rate for mothers and newborns, and incidence of disease.

Samen is making a presentation Thursday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m. at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ketchum. Featured in her talk is a slide show of photos by Ketchum resident and gallery owner Barbi Reed, who went to Tibet last year at Samen's request. Also featured is a short video by filmmaker Dianne Vicari. Ketchum resident and One H.E.A.R.T. supporter Ann Down hosts the event.

The organization's programs include midwife training, patient and village outreach, and physician training. Samen lives in Lhasa for three to four months of the year, overseeing the education of trained birth attendants and community outreach.

Tibet is one of the few societies in the world without a community or village birth attendant tradition. On average, 325 women in Tibet die for every 100,000 live births. It's considered one of the most hazardous places for expectant mothers in Asia.

Among the obstacles to safety and health are traditional Tibetan beliefs and superstitions about birth and pregnancy. One belief holds that a woman who is pregnant will incite jealousy in others who may then wish the expectant mother harm.

Some Tibetan women also consider the blood from childbirth to be polluted, so they deliver in a dirty place such as a shed or storage room to prevent contaminating the main house. Some avoid hospitals because they are also considered polluted.

The vast majority of births take place at high altitude, in a cold environment and without access to electricity or health care. Women, often alone in a shed, will cut the umbilical cord with whatever is handy, be it an unclean knife or sheep shears. Cords have been traditionally tied off with filthy Yak hair, which can infect the baby.

Consequently, loss of blood is the leading cause of death of women in childbirth, but often these deaths can be prevented with the assistance of a trained birth attendant. Babies that don't automatically begin to breathe have often been left for dead.

"It's not uncommon for the babies to die from basic things like not cleaning their mouths out to breathe," said Samen. "In surveys we've done, more than 50 percent of babies that died were born alive. This is due to a lack of education."

"The Chinese government was at first skeptical. But with time and persistence they came to realize we had pure intentions," Samen said. "To help the women and children."

Twice a month One H.E.A.R.T. sends staff into the county.

"Community leaders and the women's federation know when we're coming," Samen said. "They round up all the women to get training on maternal and newborn survival skills. Pregnant women get a birth kit with a clean cloth to deliver the baby on, a clean razor to cut the cord, clean string to tie off the cord, three flannel blankets, a newborn beanie, prenatal vitamins, and three life saving tablets to stop bleeding. The tablets, which cause the uterus to contract, come with very detailed verbal instructions."

Samen's efforts are clearly paying off. "Six women in 2003 bled to death," she said. "In 2004, two nomadic women in the isolated countryside died."

It has been acknowledged, blessed and sung, and Samen's heroic pursuits continue to affect lives in ways beyond comprehension. This hero literally saves lives.

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