In 2013, medic student at King’s College London, Aqil Jaigirdar, travelled to Bangladesh to observe the national healthcare system in place. He wasn’t prepared for what he witnessed instead: a caesarean procedure gone wrong.
At the delivery unit, he saw a mother hemorrhage to death due to complications that could have been avoided and the newborn declared dead shortly afterwards. Aqil recalls the chilling cries of the husband as he was given the news.
It was that moment he realized that he wanted to use his medical contacts as a student to improve health and education for mothers in developing settings.
Upon his return to the UK, Jaigirdar founded the Maternal Aid Association charity (Maa), a volunteer organization that offers women in Bangladesh antenatal checks to help detect possible pregnancy problems in time. In Bangladesh, women are 21 times more likely to die from maternal causes than those in the UK. According to figures from their website, an estimated 90% of home deliveries take place without medical support or skilled workers.
Currently, Maa is in the process of extending their project to different countries.
We spoke to second year medicine student and volunteer Fatnin Mohd Fuad about her own volunteer experience at Maa.
How did you get involved with MAA?
I became acquainted with the charity through following their Facebook page and attending talks and events they host across the semesters. I decided to get involved in their overseas initiative Journey Maa to learn more about maternal health crises in Bangladesh and experience the healthcare in a different country.
What did you take from your time abroad?
In the first year of med school, I was that student who went on holiday two weeks before the end of year exams – I would cram all my knowledge in caffeinated all-nighters. Volunteering abroad over the summer helped me realise the importance of my role as a medical student. I wanted to begin my new year of med school with renewed vigor and remind myself the reasons for studying medicine – one of which is to help people like the mothers I met in Bangladesh. It’s so easy to lose focus on the reason you’re studying a subject when you have so many lectures and assignments to do, so projects like this are so important to help you find that focus again.
Did you receive specific training for these trips or did you just rely on what you learned in your medicine course?
It definitely helps to know how to take blood pressure and do basic observations on pregnant mothers. However, Maa encourages people without a healthcare background to be a part of the JourneyMaa team as well, we also deliver educational workshops to mothers and young girls within the health camps.
What kind of basic care were you providing in the health camps?
By basic care, we mean the essential health checks such as blood pressure, urine analysis, blood glucose and a fetal examination, as well as a consultation with a doctor. These checks help detect if the mother is at risk of high blood pressure or gestational diabetes and to establish if the mother is lacking in essential vitamins and nutrients. These checks all contribute to decreasing maternal mortality in these rural areas of Bangladesh.
Believe it or not, pregnancy in these areas are a complete taboo, with mothers often hiding their pregnancy from neighbours. As a result, they are not reaching out to access the basic health checks essential for a healthy pregnancy. Mothers would often present late to the hospital with symptoms such as seizures, abdominal cramps, and bleeding, all of which is indicative of eclampsia – a life threatening complication during pregnancy.
Are all expenses paid for the trip?
To be a part of JourneyMaa, you first need to fill out an application form highlighting why you want to get involved and the skills you have. The applicant is then invited to an interview day where they go through both group and panel interviews. The only expense you need to pay for is the flight ticket to Bangladesh. The cost of accommodation, transport, equipment and setting up the health camps is done through a fundraising target you have to reach before the trip – mine was £800.
Where did you stay?
This year, we stayed at hotels in Sylhet and Hobiganj. As the villages were so remote, we often had to travel a couple of hours to reach the villages where the health camps were held.
What moment struck you in particular?
Many of the women had lost their baby and some more than once through miscarriages.There was a baby we met at the hospital who was born 15 minutes prior to our arrival. I could tell something was wrong because the baby didn’t cry out, it was cradled in his grandmother’s arms unresponsive and still: we learnt that the baby was born asphyxiated (i.e. deprived of oxygen). The family were from a very poor background and had to beg for 1000 takas (i.e. equivalent of £10) for travel cost, hence they were delayed in getting to the hospital in time.
Tell us one of your most memorable experiences
On the second day, I was at the blood pressure station when I met an elderly lady who was accompanying her pregnant daughter. Even though I could not speak a word of Sylheti, nor could she speak English, I shook her hand and offered her a seat. She would smile at me and link arms with me whilst I did my observations. She even gifted me an Amra which is a sour fruit with chilli powder and lemon juice sprinkled on top. She was one of the last to leave because she wanted to say goodbye to me, and she ended by saying a prayer for Maa’s success. Every day, I was exhausted and sweaty from a busy workday at the health camp, but moments like that one made it all worth it.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
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