Thursday, July 16, 2009

dar a luz

It was about 11:30 pm. I was home alone in the giant ex-hacienda when I heard pounding on the front door. As soon as I saw her standing there with a flashlight, I knew: there was an emergency.

Micaela Soliz, one of our UAC-CP Nursing graduates, works at the local health post here in Carmen Pampa. Considering her line of work, there is only one reason she would come to our house late at night. "Sarita, you know how to drive, no?" she asked. "Ummm...sí," I responded--partially afraid of what the emergency might entail and partially relieved that I purposely bought a car with manual transmission two years ago so I could learn to drive stick shift...anticipating this type of scenario.

"Que milagro!" Mica exclaimed, obviously relieved to have solved her transportation conundrum. A woman is in labor, she said, and needs a ride to the hospital in Coroico.

Logistics-wise, the baby picked perhaps one of the worst nights to decide to enter this world. In addition to the fact that the entire College is on winter break, it's also a two-day holiday (in honor of La Paz's bicentennial) and it's Carmen Pampa's annual multiple-day fiesta. With the UAC-CP completely desserted and the locals preocuppied with their party, I was Mica's only hope for a dark and rainy midnight ride to the emergency room.

It's important to note that while I drive the Toyota land cruiser nearly every day, I only drive up and down between the two campuses. Not a fan of driving in general, I've intentionally chosen to stay off the relatively narrow, dirt road that connects my village to the mid-sized pueblo of Coroico located about 40 minutes away on the other side of Cerro Uchumachi. Why, I wondered, must my virgin voyage to town be a late night emergency situation?

Side door panel of our ambulance. The vehicle, donated by former UAC-CP volunteers, is also used for public health visits to surrounding communities.

Prior to this occassion, I had only driven the ambulance once (a non-emergency), and wasn't a fan of its loose handling, its sensitive clutch. Last night, bumbling along in second gear, Mica pointed out that the bumpy ride was not only painful for our patient, but might also help induce labor. "You don't want the baby born on the road!" she laughed. I freaked. On cavernous, rural Bolivian roads there isn't much one can do to ensure a smooth ride and my clumsy, nervous abilities made it all the worse.

We drove the first part of the way in silence, interrupted only by the pregnant woman's groans as we took on potholes like ocean waves. "You aren't sleeping, are you?" Mica called out from the back. As if I'd be dozing off at a time like this, I thought! To assure her and the mother-to-be that I was, by now, wide awake, I annoyingly sang aloud in Spanish: "We will be at the hospital soon! We will be at the hospital soon! Just wait a little, baby. We will be at the hospital soon!"

My heart sunk a bit when we finally pulled up to the hospital and found the entry closed off by a giant gate. A hand-scribbled sign indicated that because of the two-day holiday, few staff was available; they would only attend to "emergencies." I've heard enough stories of babies born in taxi cabs and elevators to know that I wasn't going to attend to a live birth just outside the gates of a hospital. As Mica jumped out to talk with the guard, I mentally prepared to argue that this, indeed, constituted an emergency. Thankfully, the guard agreed and let us in.

I parked the green beast outside the emergency room. Sitting in the driver's seat while Mica went off to call a doctor, I turned to the young woman grimacing from pain. "Your first?" I asked, in a lame attempt to make conversation, hoping to fill the awkard silence. She gave me a blank stare and said nothing until finally she nodded her head. Yes.

Like the stereotypical father, I paced outside the emergency room in my pajamas and slippers and made chitchat with the night watchman who seemed happy to have the company. Inside, I could hear the two doctors, interns begrudgingly working the holiday shift, give Mica a hard time for having brought the woman to the hospital. She should have had the baby in the Carmen Pampa health post, they said. But Mica, an experienced midwife, calmly argued that because of her age, she was afraid the patient could potentially suffer from life-threatening complications.

In our small community, I know most everyone. But this young woman I hadn't recognized. Just Mica and I on the early morning drive back home, I started prodding for answers to questions I had refrained from asking earlier. Who is she? What is her name? How old is she? Where is she from? Why is she alone?

Her name, Mica explained, is Jovanna. She's the 17-year-old younger sister of a UAC-CP Nursing student. The father of the baby wants nothing to do with her or their child and, afraid to tell her parents about the pregnancy for fear that she might be beaten or kicked out of the house (a common reaction to young, unwed mothers), Jovanna came to live in Carmen Pampa with her sister--far from anyone who might know or recognize her.

"Ella está muy solita," Mica said sadly. She's all alone. 

Dar a luz. The Spanish phrase meaning "to give birth" literally (and beautifully) translates to: "to give to light." Last night, as I crawled into bed at 2:30 am, both exhausted and wired, I couldn't think of anything other than Jovanna--a young, single mother all a new light to the world. A little baby who might someday be told the story of the dark and rainy night s/he was born...the night the gringa piloted her first trip to town.


Nathan said...

What a post! You'd be better revving up to write your own memoirs one day Sarah :-)

sarah mechtenberg said...

For all those who have wondered and/or asked: It's a healthy baby girl. She was born the following day in the early afternoon. Mom and (yet-to-be-named daughter) are doing well.

Brooke said...

Thanks, Sarah, for a great story. As one of the ambulance donors, I am thrilled to know that it is being used as intended.