Amid Destruction, Midwives Bring Life

Above: Ellen Rainsford breastfeeds her newborn son, Azer Nathaniel Rainsford, two hours after his birth. Ellen Rainsford was supported through her pregnancy and childbirth by Mercy in Action, a Filipino nonprofit.
Olongapo, Philippines

OLONGAPO, Philippines — The team of midwives had no choice but to ride on top of the ambulance because piles of precious medical supplies occupied their seats below.

The ambulance careened through the bumpy, debris-filled streets two weeks after the storm, on its way to the city of Dulag to deliver supplies and services to pregnant women who had no access to food or medical care after the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines last November.

Even babies began to starve when women who decided to bottle-feed instead of breast-feed lost their source of formula after supermarkets were either destroyed or looted.

That’s why the group of midwives was headed to the disaster zone with supplies to help mothers and children.

Jenifer Bunquin and Jannette Celeste dropped their everyday lives and missed Thanksgiving with their children and husbands to join a small group of Mercy in Action staff members traveling to Dulag. In the devastated city, they offered their midwifery skills to pregnant women using a grant supported by money from UCLA students.

Jenifer Bunquin, a midwife at Mercy in Action, prays with Loida Sison, an expectant mother, after a routine check-up. Mercy in Action provided prenatal care, childbirth support and general medical services in the disaster zone.

There were lots of complications (for the mothers). You can feel the trauma in their hearts. They were scared.—Jenifer Bunquin

When Bunquin and Celeste first saw the typhoon’s destruction on television from their home in Olongapo, Philippines, they immediately wanted to do something for those who survived the storm.

“There were lots of complications (for the mothers),” Bunquin said. “You can feel the trauma in their hearts. They were scared.”

UCLA students and Associated Students UCLA donated $4,000 to GlobalGiving. The international nonprofit, which connects donors to smaller organizations, gave $30,000 to Mercy in Action so that the midwives could take their operation to the disaster zone.

Vicki Penwell, the founder of Mercy in Action, smiles as she describes the happy memories from her team’s trip to Tacloban to aid mothers and children who had lived through the typhoon.

Days after arriving in Dulag, the team members set up their tent in a damaged elementary school with no ceiling and no clean water. From there, the donations helped them provide basic medical services, mostly to women and children.

They still remember their first patient: a young girl who was struck by a motorcycle the day after the typhoon.

Her parents had already lost two children to the storm when they brought her to the Mercy in Action team for stitches.

Soon after, the births started inside the elementary school, which frequently flooded when it rained.

Even before the typhoon hit, delivering babies in the Philippines presented challenges.

Jannette Celeste, a caregiver at Mercy in Action, takes a patient’s blood pressure during a standard prenatal screening. High blood pressure is a common complication among pregnant women in the Philippines, but proper preventative care can help reduce risks during labor.

The poorest women can’t afford proper nutrition, and medical services can be expensive, so many women miss out on important vitamins and checkups that could prevent dangerous conditions during labor.

Everything that could go wrong for a pregnant woman went wrong. They thought they were going to die.—Vicki Penwell

The premature babies and high blood pressure that are already common complications were compounded by the storm, creating new problems for expectant mothers, said Vicki Penwell, founder of Mercy in Action.

“Everything that could go wrong for a pregnant woman went wrong,” Penwell said. “They thought they were going to die.”

Mercy in Action's Services

Mercy in Action’s services are mostly performed at its clinic in Olongapo, but it often travels to patients’ homes. After Typhoon Yolanda, half of the staff traveled more than 600 miles to the disaster zone to provide the same services.

Maternal care
  • Pregnancy tests
  • Prenatal care (230-250 visits per month)
  • Temporary housing for women who will soon give birth
  • Lab work
  • Labor/delivery
  • Postpartum follow-ups
  • Birth certificates and documentation
Other services
  • Transportation to and from the clinic
  • Natural family planning
  • Breastfeeding support
  • Primary and emergency health care (when needed)
  • Helping rebuild homes after fires, floods, storms and other natural disasters
  • Midwife trainings
  • Natural disaster response classes
SOURCE: Vicki Penwell, Mercy in Action. Reporting by Byron Lutz, Bruin senior staff.

Mercy in Action members drove an hour to the city of Tacloban to partner with international organizations and a network of volunteers to feed malnourished children and pregnant women. They advocated breastfeeding for every new mother to ensure that food for newborns was always readily available.

Penwell said the organization’s local base gives it an understanding of the people and the ability to see how much recovery still needs to happen firsthand.

The small staff of nine split in half, sending four members to the disaster zone and leaving five to run Mercy in Action’s nonprofit midwife clinic based in Olongapo. The clinic prioritizes natural birth practices and educating local women on healthy prenatal and postnatal care.

Fernando Tison drove the Mercy in Action ambulance for 36 hours to bring crucial medical supplies to the disaster zone after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the island of Leyte.

For the three months following the typhoon, the team provided medical services to pregnant women who were battered by Typhoon Yolanda.

The group joined up with midwives from the area hit by the storm. Together they treated more than 3,000 patients and delivered 116 babies in 59 days.

Most women had difficult births because of the stress their bodies and minds underwent during their final trimester, Penwell said. Still, many walked away from the Mercy in Action tent with a new baby in their arms and an understanding of how best to keep their family healthy in post-Yolanda conditions.

“The burden in their heart is very big,” said Celeste.

Some patients still text her and Bunquin, sending updates about their babies, who are thriving despite the difficulties after the typhoon.

It’s been nearly nine months since Celeste and Bunquin left their relief work in Dulag, but Leyte remains a disaster zone in their minds.

The Mercy in Action clinic, located near the outskirts of Olongapo, Philippines, provides free care to expectant mothers and babies at any time of the day or night.

Mercy in Action’s relief strategy is long term, and the organization has no plans to leave the Philippines. Penwell and her staff still teach classes in the Tacloban area to help local midwives get their clinics up and running successfully. ■