As the winds and waters of one of the worst tropical storms in history whipped and smashed through the impoverished coastal villages of the Philippines, as thousands perished and, later, as the odor of death permeated the splintered shantytowns, life struggled to begin anew with the birth of thousands of infants.
In the month since Typhoon Haiyan struck the southern islands of the Philippines, an estimated 12,000 babies will have been born there, many arriving underweight and sickly, many in unsanitary, unsafe conditions or, at best, in the makeshift health care tents set up to replace the health clinics and hospitals that washed away with the storm.
Also lost in the Nov. 8 storm were many of the islands’ doctors, nurses and midwives. A Bloomberg News story recounted the terror of a pregnant woman whose contractions and hemorrhaging began shortly after Haiyan hit the city of Tacloban. Her husband could find no midwife to help.
“I think,” she told a reporter, “all midwives in our city died.”
This is what calls Michelle San Buenaventura Peixinho back.
Peixinho, a licensed midwife in Española, was born in the Philippines and spent part of her childhood there. Her mother, the late Steffi San Buenaventura, was a distinguished historian and professor of Filipino-American history at the University of California, Davis.
Peixinho is not one to shy away from challenges. She’s a wife, mother of four, motorcyclist, quilter, musician and a woman who for a decade of her 45 years kicked about homeless before finding her bearings. In 2010, she helped lead the effort to establish a midwifery clinic and birthing center, called Breath of My Heart Birthplace, in Española, a community bereft of many health services.
But the Philippines is a whole different level of challenge.
“I’m really not that kind of person to travel to these hard-hit countries,” she said. “I’m a little scared, to tell you the truth, about the horrendous conditions I will find there. But this is the Philippines. It’s where my family is. I’m a midwife. There is a need. I have skills. I can help.”
Haiyan made even worse an already dismal maternal and infant health situation. About 221 out of every 100,000 women who give birth in the Philippines die, according to 2011 United Nations health statistics. Filipino infants die at a rate of 22 babies out of 1,000 live births.
By comparison, New Mexico’s infant mortality rate in 2012 was a troubling 6.9 babies per 1,000, which exceeds the national rate of 6 per 1,000.
“Out there, the clinics are already stressed by the extreme need and yet work with so little,” Peixinho said. “I can only imagine how much harder it is now.”
Peixinho traveled to the Philippines with three of her children in January 2012 and remained for six months. While there, she worked as a midwife at a clinic run by Mercy in Action, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides midwives, pre- and postnatal education, outreach and other care for the poor in the Philippines. It was founded and still run by Vickie Penwell and her family.
“When I heard about the typhoon, I decided to email Vickie and ask if it would help for me to come out,” Peixinho said. “She said, ‘Yeah, you should come.’ ”
But not right away.
“There are still bodies washing up, and huge issues with septic systems,” she said. “As we speak, they are just starting to set up tent clinics. I can come in when they’re tired and need a break.”
She anticipates a departure date in January and expects that she will eventually land somewhere near Tacloban, ground zero of the typhoon destruction.
In the meantime, she is busy collecting donations of medical supplies and cash, which she will shepherd to the Mercy in Action clinic. So far, she said, she has been amazed at the generosity of both friends and strangers alike who have heard of her mission.
“It’s so hard thinking about all those people suffering so much, but it feels so good to be doing something about it,” she said. “This is our New Mexico representing in the Philippines, bringing what we have to offer.”
Speaking of good deeds
It’s time once again to nominate that unsung someone who deserves recognition for doing good deeds for the community. Deadline is Dec. 13. Send nominations to email@example.com; 505-823-3603; send a Facebook message to Joline Gutierrez Krueger or write Joline c/o the Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109. Our fifth annual Angels Among Us will feature the best of your nominees on an as-yet undetermined day near Christmas.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.