As we approach the 5 year anniversary of our presence in Guatemala, we took the opportunity to sit down and chat with our Guatemala Program Director Jessica Oliveira. Jessica lives full time in Guatemala, so we were excited to catch her on a recent brief visit to NYC to hear about the work that she has been doing and her unique experiences living amongst the indigenous Mayans in the rural Lago Atitlan region.
Jessica Oliveira, a Mount Sinai trained physician's assistant, has been working with Saving Mothers since its inception in 2009. After visiting and volunteering at a few maternal health clinics that catered to low-income populations, and observing the work of the traditional Mayan birth attendants known as comadronas, she realized that there was a great need for maternal health education among this particular subset of providers. As she learned more about the spiritual and leadership role of the traditional birth attendant in the Mayan community, Jessica realized the potential that teaching and training these unskilled birth attendants could have on maternal health in this community. With this realization, the Saving Mothers School of POWHER (Providing Outreach in Women's Health and Educational Resources) was born!
To say that recruitment among the secluded Mayan population was difficult would be an understatement. It took years of outreach and trust-building to be able to form the first School of POWHER class. Dedicated to the cause of maternal health and the Mayan community, Jessica had been traveling between the U.S. and Guatemala for nearly 4 years when she realized that her short visits would not be enough. So she left everything she knew to live full time in Guatemala last December. She realized that "if I really wanted to help, I would have to be there full time and really set up something so that we could create some sustainability in our program."
Of course the transition from living in the United States to immersing herself in the indigenous Mayan community was frightening, but when she saw how effective the School of POWHER was and how much it helped the community it motivated her to leave everything she's ever known behind. "The comadronas were coming to me and seeing that they were learning and they were actually taking this knowledge out into the community and using it. So I was like 'Alright, I don't want to be in New York anymore.'"
After conducting countless lectures, prenatal care visits, and births with the comadronas, Jessica has come to realize that although she is teaching the community about important medical interventions, the community is teaching her as well. Without the equipment and resources of a fully functional hospital, Jessica has learned from the birth attendants how to use and trust her senses to monitor a pregnant woman. According to her, despite the fact that "the comadronas don't have the education and the background of skilled birth attendants, they have learned from watching a pregnant woman's body, from listening, and from their elders. And it is amazing how much they actually do learn without any formal education."
When asked about her most profound experience thus far, Jessica immediately began to recount the story of the first time she was allowed to observe a traditional Mayan bath. In the Mayan community, it is tradition to give a mother and her newborn baby a soothing bath in a tub filled with rose petals to cleanse the soul and facilitate healing. The water that is used to bathe the newborn child is then used to bathe the new mother. It is a sacred tradition in the Mayan community and is often performed by a single comadrona behind closed doors. So when Jessica was invited to participate in her first ceremony she was overcome with emotion. "We sat in this little room, which was their house. And it's just a cement floor, a bed and one window... And so the midwife would pour the water onto the mom, and she washed her ... my responsibility was to sweep the water out of the bedroom, and we ended up getting into this rhythmic pattern. I felt like I was part of this. And it made music and I felt really connected to something I didn't even understand... I just felt all these different things. And I started to cry. Guatemala definitely has an effect on me. I will always go back."
Thanks to the dedication and passion of Jessica Oliveira, Saving Mothers' School of POWHER is continuing to grow, reaching more and more women; empowering, educating, and saving mothers. Thank you Jessica!