Sister Betty meets us in the middle; right smack in the centre of the hospital wards. She’s a nurse at the Kawolo hospital in Lugazi which is about forty-five minutes from where we’re staying. Sister Betty looks like she’s come straight out of a 1950’s movie, her crisp uniform white against her dark skin, a small cap nestled against her short hair.
The Ugandans have all been welcoming, and Betty is no exception. She greets us warmly, and my dear friend Katherine asks if she can take some photos. Katherine explains that we want to show these photos to people back home, so that we can tell them the stories of the women we see in the hospital.
Sister Betty takes us down the outdoor hallway, down to the maternity ward. Laughing, she says, “The maternity ward is at the very end because of all the yelling. And many naked women.” We laugh too.
Pregnant women are scattered throughout the doorway, and the long, narrow hall. Many are seated close together on a wooden bench, waiting to be seen. Some are here for their first visit, but most are very pregnant and are preparing to deliver.
Katherine explained to me earlier that it is incredible that these women are even at the hospital. Many live in villages far away and are unable to afford transportation. They end up having their baby at home with a traditional birth attendant from their village. This is much more dangerous, because if there are any complications they have no way of making it to the hospital.
I wave to some of the women, and a few of them wave back. Most of them look like they are in a lot of pain, clutching their swollen bellies. I think of all the new life that will soon emit from this hospital ward.
I can hear some babies crying from down the hall, some only a few hours old. Their mothers look exhausted but happy. We ask one woman, Eunice, if this baby is her first. She laughs with disbelief and replies, “Oh, no. My fifth.” She hands us a large smile and adds, “And my last.”
Henry, her two day old son, looks strong and healthy, and majority of these women are doing very well. But not all of them.
Sister Betty takes us to the labor and delivery room and shows us their water system. They have only recently in the past few years had running water in this hospital, and Betty is extremely proud. I can hear a woman behind the curtain in front of us moaning, and for a few minutes I feel disrespectful about being in the same room while she is about to give birth. The midwives around us don’t seem to mind.
Betty starts to tell us about a woman who gave birth on Saturday, just three days ago. She had a baby girl, but then quickly started to bleed too much. She was hemorrhaging, Betty told us, and the hospital had to do something fast. Her blood was O+, a fairly common blood type, but the hospital had no blood left in their blood bank.
They needed to send her to the larger hospital in Kampala, which is two and a half hours away. When they went to place her in the ambulance to send her to the other hospital, there was no fuel left in the vehicle.
The mother died.
Her baby girl will never know her.
The fuel would have cost less than twenty-five American dollars.
I look at Betty as she tells this to us, and I don’t think I am hearing her correctly. No blood left? No fuel in the ambulance? A tragically young mother died because the hospital could not afford gas?
“What is the cost of a life?” Katherine muses to me later. Turns out in this case it’s a vile of common blood and a few dollars; the latter of which is currently burning in my wallet.
We drive away from the hospital, and this is what I can’t stop thinking: our gas tank is full.