Although he retired in 1993 after 30 years as an obstetrician, Eamon O’Dwyer was inspired by John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae to get involved in setting up an international agency to help mothers in the developing world give birth to live and healthy babies.
In this Marian month of May, we think of the most compassionate and loving mother of all, the Virgin Mary. I have devoted most of my life’s work over fifty years as a Consultant Gynaecologist/ Obstetrician to caring for Irish mothers and their babies. Today, more than ten years into my retirement, my focus has shifted to caring for the most vulnerable of Africa’s mothers through my work with an international charity.
I retired in 1993 after more than thirty years as Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University College Galway (now NUI Galway) and delivering about 10,000 babies in Dublin and Galway. I expected to spend my retirement as a doting grandfather, tending to my garden and going on regular pilgrimages.
But Pope John Paul II made me review my retirement plans. More than a decade ago, I attended a conference in Rome to do with the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae and the Culture of Life. During the course of the meeting the Holy Father let it be known that he was unhappy with the response of the medical and nursing professions to
the needs of the developing world.
During a lifetime devoted to Obstetrics and Gynaecology, I espoused the pro-life cause and was actively involved in the defence of unborn human life for over twenty-five years. Naturally, I was attracted to Pope John Paul’s Encyclical when he released it on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1995.
In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul praised those ‘brave mothers who devote themselves to their own family without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in order to pass on to them the best of themselves… these heroic women do not always find support in the world around them. On the contrary, the cultural methods frequently promoted and broadcast by the media do not encourage motherhood.’
When in Rome delegates were challenged to act as prophetic witnesses by reflecting on the teaching and practice of contemporary maternal health care in the light of the gospel and its values presented in Evangelium Vitae.
It was this which induced me to become involved in the establishment of an international charity with the emphasis on providing mothers and babies in the developing world with care based on the highest medical and moral standards.
Six weeks after the meeting in Rome, on the initiative of Canadian gynaecologist Dr. Robert Walley, five gynaecologists from Canada, Ghana, Ireland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, together with a midwife teacher from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, met in Liverpool and set up a charity called MaterCare International. I was one of the founders.
We established an organization of health professionals dedicated to the care of mothers and babies – born and unborn – through new initiatives of service, training and research. The aim was to reduce the unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity especially in the developing world, in accordance with the teaching contained in the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
It was unacceptable to us that mothers in the developing world should experience unimaginable suffering and that 585,000 should die each year because of a lack of effective care during pregnancy and childbirth. The figures tell it all: the maternal mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa is 1,000 per 100,000 births compared to about 4 per 100,000 in Ireland.
We were particularly concerned that up to two million mothers in sub-Saharan Africa suffer the consequences of a preventable birth injury known as obstetric fistula but little was being done to relieve their suffering. Obstetric fistula occurs when women endure a long and obstructed birth. The baby usually dies and the mother, if she survives, suffers tissue damage causing an opening between the vagina and bladder or rectum. This creates a constant leaking of urine or faeces. The fistula survivors are rejected by their families and communities and lead isolated lives. Yet with adequate medical and nursing care, mortality and morbidity can be prevented.
MaterCare International has its headquarters in Newfoundland with subsidiaries in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Poland, the UK and USA. Each subsidiary is registered as a charity.
To date we have set up a West Africa Maternal Health Project based on a mission hospital in rural Ghana. As part of the project, MaterCare provided training courses for Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs). Over 80% of births in rural Ghana – as in other sub-Saharan countries are conducted by TBAs. More sophisticated training was organized for midwives at the hospital where a blood bank and a radiocontrolled ambulance was also provided.
Following the liberation of East Timor, MaterCare conducted an intensive training course to doctors and nurses in that country.
Inspired by the success of the Hamlyn Fistula Centre in Ethiopia and the work of Irishwoman, Sr. Dr. Ann Ward of the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Nigeria, MaterCare International decided to embark on the construction of a fistula hospital in Ghana in collaboration with the Cardinal Archbishop of Cape Coast and the Ghanaian Ministry of Health.
Construction of the forty-bed hospital is now complete through funding generously provided by Ireland Aid, the Italian Conference of Bishops, the State of Guernsey and other donors. The hospital is to be operated through the Archdiocesan Health Department. Once it is fully operational, hundreds of women will be treated at the hospital.
To the future
I have served as the Chairperson of the MaterCare International and currently serve on the International board and as Chairman of MaterCare Ireland. My commitment to the charity takes up about one day out of the week in corresponding with my colleagues in Africa and around the world. I have had the pleasure of visiting Ghana to review the progress of our work.
What of the future? I will continue my work with the mothers of the developing world particularly those who suffer from obstetric fistula. The World Health Organization refers to obstetric fistula as ‘the forgotten disease’. There are an estimated 80,000 new cases in sub-Saharan Africa each year. Tragically, a lot of work remains to be done.
I will continue to promote the fullness of human life including unborn life, through Christian principles that affirm the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the person.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.