“When a mother dies, the family is usually shattered.” – Dr. Sarah Akite

When Dr. Sarah was a little girl, the Lord’s Resistance Army took control of the area where she lived in Uganda. She and her family had to leave home and lived in a camp for internally displaced people. In the camp, she watched as humanitarian aid agency vehicles drove by. She saw doctors helping her neighbors and thought that one day, she’d like to be a doctor like them. It is thanks to her mother that she was able to achieve this dream. Today, Dr. Sarah is dedicating her life to saving mothers in refugee settings in Uganda. We were able to sit down and interview her about her work and background. This is her story.

What is your name? What do you do?

Sarah Akite: My name is Sarah Akite. I’m a medical officer by training. I work with Medical Teams International, but I was born in northern Uganda – in a place called the Lepton district. That’s an area that’s recovering from the two decades of the Lord’s Resistance, a rebel war against Ugandan government that culminated in loss of lives and property, abduction, and displacement of thousands of a civilian population, including our own family. So, I had my early education there.

Dr. Sarah at work at the Maternal Health Ward in Kyangwali Health Center in Uganda.

Were you a refugee in your own country?

SA: I was an internally displaced person in my own country.

So, this setting is not new to me because our home was actually submerged by the internally displaced camp. People were relocated to our area and our home was submerged cause that was allocated to other families as well. I was about eight years old when that all started. And I recall around 11 years, I was in about primary six. That was when I was relocated about 300 kilometers towards the capital [of Uganda], Kampala.

How did you get from that environment to getting your training to saving lives here today?

SA: That decision was purely family. It was our mother who actually decided that no, she will go for safety and further education. And that explains a lot because my other colleagues couldn’t make it far. My other friends at school because they remained there, they were subject to all the sequel of war. So, I was able to thrive better because of that.

So, your mother was the pillar of your family that got you out of a bad situation. What did she do specifically? What was different about her?

SA: Well, for her, she was an exposed person. She was a community worker. She worked for the water and sanitation project. So, she knew the value of education and the significance of educating a girl in particular. She was quite serious about that and made every effort to ensure that we attained the best education in the best way.

Was she an inspiration to you?

SA: She was, she was. Ultimately, she was. I wouldn’t have made it far without her. Yeah, unfortunately I can’t tell her this. She didn’t witness my graduation. She passed. She was an inspiration to me. I remember she did almost everything. When I was around five or six, she took me to school. I remember her holding my little finger and taking me to school. And while I was excited jumping around, she was like, “What do you really want to become in future?” I told her “a doctor,” so she was really impressed. She knew who I wanted to be, and she worked towards that. Up to the very end when she couldn’t.

Thanks to her mother and her own hard work, Sarah became what she dreamed of being as a little girl – a doctor serving people in similar situations to what she came from. A doctor saving the lives of mothers and children.

So for you, there must be special resonance in saving a mother’s life.

SA: It is. Every mother, every female – little or old – is my friend. I’m very passionate about it, and I hope to help them better.

Because if a mother dies, what happens to the children?

SA: In our community, the mother is the pillar and the one who does most of the chores. The mother is directly involved in supporting the family even financially because the roles have changed. The roles have evolved. Men currently, in our setting, are fully aware of empowerment that has been brought to women and so they know that a woman has equal responsibility of taking care of the children, not only giving life to them, as it was in the past.

So, when a mother dies, the family is usually shattered. The family process is shattered and so the children are likely to feel most of the impact of that situation. That’s why it is important to us as doctors who are here that every mother remains alive.

We are trying as much as possible to maintain the dyad. To ensure that when a woman comes with a fetus, they progress to the next stage of being a mother and baby. We are trying to preserve that pair as much as possible by giving these life-saving interventions.

Can you tell me about some of those life-saving interventions?

SA: So, saving lives of mothers and babies is a routine that we do here. Because this is a remote setting, we don’t have most of the equipment that we need – sophisticated equipment to do the relevant investigations. As doctors here, we rely mostly on clinical assessment of the patient, which has to be done well and good. Meticulously. In a way that the mother is able to receive the services best. We examine her as quickly as possible, take her to the operation room, if she meets the criteria for operation, and then we’re able to conduct the delivery. After delivery, we monitor her and that both the baby and the mother are well before discharge. However, in most cases we have mothers who come when they really lack blood. Mother bleeds from home for an unknown reason. That could be the delay in making a decision to come to the facility and thereafter. Sometimes, we don’t have blood in stock because blood is scarce, but we always try as much as possible to explain to the mothers, obtain the informed consent, and also weigh on the situation because the next hospital is over a two-hour drive from here. Because it’s a matter of life and death, as doctors, we have to decide whether to refer her. In which case, she has two hours to receive the same service or try as much as possible to minimize blood loss on operation table and work on her. Then, we refer when the bleeding has been controlled, and the mother and the baby are safe. So, this is our daily challenge that we encounter.

So, when you save the life of a mother, you save a family?

SA: When you save the life of a mother, you save the family because a mother is at the center of the family. She is the one who gives life to the children and also provides support to the rest of the family members.

Whatever affects a mother affects the entire family, the community and the country at large.

Most mothers usually have problems related to pregnancy and childbirth for which we think most of those are preventable. With respect to childbirth, we have mothers who succumb to injuries arising from difficult deliveries. So, as Medical Teams International, we are very passionate about this. First to prevent as much as possible by giving timely medical services, but also we think it is possible to repair these mothers.

Meet Florence – one of the many mothers who Dr. Sarah has helped. Days before we sat down to speak with Dr. Sarah, she operated on Florence to help safely deliver her baby.

What gives you your greatest sense of joy, doing what you do?

My passion for humanity gives me a sense of gratification. Saving lives, watching people thrive and live harmoniously in the community is one of the things that inspires me every day of my life. It is an interesting job, also rewarding because you deal with quite a number of people who are actually in need of our services, and at the end of it all we are able to provide the services expected of us. So, I’m grateful and I’m honored to be working with Medical Teams International.

What breaks your heart about this work?

What breaks my heart is being unable to save someone because she has come just seconds away from death. In the past, we had a mother who matched, she had prepared to have a normal birth. With all the finances that she had invested, she still couldn’t afford transport to travel from the village to here, so she had to wait an entire night up to down when they were able to get a car to come move on. By the time they arrived, she took her last breath right in front of my staff. So that was quite sad for us because we just couldn’t reverse what had started already, but we hope we can prevent it for the rest of the mothers.

Why do you believe the work Medical Teams does is important?

Every person matters because we live in a global village and we contribute to who we are, our society. No single person is able to accomplish each and every thing. So, that’s why we need a joint effort to be able to, as much as possible make the world a better place to live in for everyone else. Because life is dynamic, unpredictable, you just can’t tell who someone will be tomorrow.

I was a little girl watching humanitarian agency vehicles moving around, driving and then today I’m here serving. I didn’t know I would be here but because you can’t tell tomorrow – only God can tell tomorrow. It’s important to save each and every person for tomorrow. Like my mother was an inspiration to me, I hope and I think I am an inspiration to many girls to follow my path.

Thank you for sharing your story with us. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

As a little girl, I grew up in a setting where our home was within the internally displaced persons by government program, and I observed how other people were able to impact on the lives of others, how the humanitarian agencies provided aid including medical care to us at the time. Through that I was able to develop passion for saving lives. With the help of my mother, I was able to consistently perform well at school to become the person who I am today. That is one reason why I’m very passionate about saving lives because I believe that every person matters and it is important that every life is saved, because we just can’t tell who that person will be tomorrow. Might just be like the little girl I was, and so today, that person might be able to save someone else.     

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