Volunteer Midwife Helps Women In Sierra Leone
Zoe Vowles, a British midwife working in remote Sierra Leone, has just been shortlisted for Cosmopolitan's Ultimate Women of the Year awards.
The night Zoe Vowles cradled a dying woman in her arms is not one she will easily forget. The Somerset-born midwife, who had spent the past 10 years working with the NHS in Peckham, London, watched helplessly as her patient slipped away in a hospital in one of the remotest corners of Sierra Leone.
“By the time I found her, collapsed on the steps outside, there was little I could do,” says Zoe, 32.
“She needed oxygen, but it took time to get the emergency generators turned on. She was given what antibiotics we had, but the more advanced drugs were not available. They did everything they could to bring her back, but she deteriorated and passed away right in front of me. It was really hard. She lost her life because of where she lived.”
For Zoe, however, this single death was the spur to even greater efforts to help the women of Bombali, a distant province of the world's third poorest nation region, Sierra Leone. With only one other midwife available for hundreds of miles, Zoe has been called on to make hundreds of such life or death decisions.
"Mortality is so high here. It's just a really different life. There's no electricity. No running water. And for me, no friends or family. But it can be such a lovely life, too. I'm helping to train a new force of midwives, women that will bring real change and hope to the area."
Just a few months earlier, Zoe had won the first ever Vodafone "World of Difference" competition, which funded a dream charity job for one year. “I’ve always been adventurous,” she admits. “And I’d always wanted to go and volunteer in Africa. I heard about the competition from a friend and just wrote off. To my surprise, I won!"
She took a one-year job with the British health charity, Health Poverty Action, which works to support health rights and health projects in over a dozen countries. In fact, Zoe was no stranger to death or hardship, having spent six months previously in Sierra Leone with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). "I was able to help plan and set up a new antenatal clinic on that previous visit. It was fantastic for staff morale and has helped thousands of women since with their births.”
Travelling hundreds of miles out in the bush, Zoe has since battled disease, massive flooding and harsh jungle terrain to reach tiny villages where women birth in traditional huts with no pain relief or medical help.
"We visit traditional chiefdoms, to help train the traditional birth attendants. Most have little or no training, and it's common for women to spend three, four or even five or six days in labour. Some will walk or be carried 20 or even 30 miles on peoples' backs to the one hospital we have in the region.
"As a result, many develop fistulas - holes between the rectum and vagina - which leave them incontinent and in pain. The stigma is immense. They're often abandoned by their husbands and shunned by the rest of the community. It's so rewarding to work with these women: we had one lady who had suffered for 33 years before she had an operation. She couldn't believe she'd been 'fixed'! It was amazing to see her face."
With the roads often more like rivers, and her driver frequently forced to machete their way through the choking vegetation, she admits that she has questioned herself at times. "You have to sleep rough, eat around cooking fires - there's no shops. Nor electricity or running water."
Click here for the full story:
By Nick Ryan
More About Sierra Leone on AWR