By Kate Garraway
Lying in her hospital bed, Zewdit Mekonen looked up at me with a bereft, haunted expression that I will never forget.
I listened as she recounted how she had gone into labour at her home. But then, sensing something was going badly wrong, she had started on the three-hour walk to her nearest hospital.
She was expecting twins and as she walked the first twin began to emerge. Zewdit feared he was dead as he was so quiet. In agony and terrified that she had already lost one baby, she staggered on, desperate not to lose the second.
Emotion: Kate holding Zewdit’s hand on the ward
After her horrific ordeal I hoped that the doctors at the Dessie Hospital in Ethiopia had been able to save at least one of Zewdit’s babies.
But no, all that awaited her at the end of her journey was heartbreak.
On top of that, medics said she may have to endure an operation which would prevent her from having any more children.
I felt compelled to take her hand and, via an interpreter, tell her I was a mother myself. We looked into each other’s eyes and she squeezed my hand.
It was as if we were saying to each other: “Our lives are so different but in our hearts we are the same.”
Except, of course, I could never really know what she had gone through.
True, I have given birth to two children, Darcey, seven, and four-year-old William. But when I think of all the things I fretted about before my first labour, they seem so shamefully minor compared to what Zewdit had to deal with.
Struggle: Cardboard in intensive care unit
My children are healthily thriving. I can’t help but think that if Zewdit’s had been born in a developed country her two babies would have had a chance too.
During my visit to Ethiopia for ITV’s Daybreak and Save the Children, I saw the horrendous circumstances in which some children are brought into this world – and how quickly they can leave it.
This corner of Africa is one of the most deprived in terms of the medical expertise, staff, resources and facilities we take for granted in Britain.
The Dessie Hospital serves seven million people and simply cannot cope. Every year, 28,000 Ethiopian babies don’t live more than 24 hours. Across the globe, that number is one million.
Even more heartbreakingly, a report from Save the Children, called Ending Newborn Deaths, shows it’s possible for the number of these first-day deaths to be halved.
The biggest danger comes from complications during labour which can be avoided if mothers and babies have greater access to free healthcare and skilled midwives. Save the Children is now calling on world leaders to commit to a blueprint for change which would start to provide the resources.
The scale of the problem was obvious when I visited the hospital in the Amhara region.
Even if an infant isn’t one of the 1.2 million who are stillborn around the world every year, they are at serious risk in those first few hours. It is not hard to see why.
In the intensive care unit at the hospital the few cots they have are clad in old cardboard boxes, the only thing available to help keep these vulnerable babies warm.
There are no incubators – staff make do by putting old plug-in radiators between the cots. Yet, despite the lack of resources, the staff are dedicated and the mothers who come into the hospital are inspiring.
At another maternity facility, the Kelalla Health Clinic in the Kelalla district of Amhara, I asked male midwife Gashaw Geleta if pain relief such as epidurals were available. He grimaced and said: “I’m the only midwife looking after up to 25,000 women. We don’t have enough hygienic mattresses let alone pain relief. But the women don’t even ask.”
I found that amazing. The women here are so focused on doing the best for their babies they tolerate the pain. Despite the overwhelming number of patients, the dedication of staff is amazing.
And so is the gratitude the patients show – often in the face of huge adversity.
In a nearby village I met Asamenech Hamid, who was just 18 but had already become pregnant three times.
She became pregnant aged 11 and lost her first two babies when she went into labour as she walked to her parents’ home for help. Such prolonged labour, a result of not having services nearby, is a major cause of death for mums and children.
When she finally got medical help through a Save the Children-backed centre, Asamenech had her third baby safe and sound, and now encourages all mums to push for the help they need.
We hear a lot about tiger mummies in this country but women like Asamenech seemed to me to be the real tiger mummies. Surviving against the odds – fighting fiercely for their unborn babies.
One of the most emotional moments in my week-long trip was meeting a group of expectant mums, many aged 15 or 16, who had been abandoned by their partners.
They all said they were scared but they’d walked, often for miles, to get help. All of them would have been helped by education – by people being taught simple things such as washing hands to prevent infection, or how to extract a baby at the correct angle to prevent injury to mother and child.
In Ethiopia just 10% of births take place with skilled help and, around the world, some 40 million women are denied this.
I recall how scared I was to be 38 and having my first baby, even though I had the support of family, doctors and midwives.
I gave birth in a birthing pool for the first stage. My husband had made a CD of relaxing tunes, yet it was still terrifying and very painful. In Ethiopia my experiences would be a dream.
It’s a lottery there as to who survives and who dies. Yet people refuse to see their situation as hopeless.
At a farm in Kelalla I met 43-year-old Bahirnesh Legasse, who was 12 in the terrible famine of 1984. Most of her family died, but she miraculously survived.
She observed that the people who fared best when “the rains didn’t come” as she put it, were the ones who were educated.
So she vowed to strive to educate herself and her kids, and now is proud of the farm she runs for her family. She also trained as a birth attendant and volunteers to help others – proof that countries like Ethiopia can and do want to help themselves.
But they face difficult challenges and, for now, what they need most is our help. Save the Children wants us to put pressure on the world’s governments to act.
We might also, even though times are tough here, see if we can donate something that may be a sacrifice to us but might have made all the difference to Zewdit and her poor lost twins.