I had settled into my room at the expat house, unpacked and was having a cup of tea. The next day was to be my first at the hospital. It was a pleasant afternoon and I sat on the verandah, watching the hoopoe birds on the lawn.
Suddenly Lisa, the head nurse, put her head out the front door. “You are wanted at the hospital,” she says, and by her tone, I know it is urgent.
I duck back into the house to grab a headscarf, and then we go speeding in the van to the hospital – a trip of about five minutes. It is all new to me, but I don’t think the driver realises this. The high gates of the hospital open as we approach, and we drive into the yard. We stop at an open door at one of the buildings, and I deduce that this is the place I am wanted. I enter the short corridor and at first see no-one. But, like maternity units all over the world, it is a case of ‘follow your ears’ to the labour room, which I find at the end of the corridor.
I walk in, everyone looks up and immediately they know who I must be. There is a drama at one of the delivery beds, on which lies a young woman, struggling to give birth to her baby. The attendants around are loudly encouraging her efforts, and one nurse is frantically pushing on the woman’s abdomen to try to help expel the baby, while a second nurse has cut an episiotomy, also to aid delivery as quickly as possible.
I am given a rapid outline of the case. She has travelled three hours from an outlying unit where she had been in labour for a day. On arrival at MSF Peshawar, she was finally close to delivery, but now the baby’s heartbeat could no longer be heard. Just as I was about to apply forceps, the baby suddenly delivered. A perfect baby boy was born dead. Everything went quiet.
The woman’s mother-in-law, who was at the bedside, was distressed and wept. The baby’s mother, in contrast, was calm, seemingly indifferent, turned her head away and closed her eyes, too exhausted from the trauma of the labour and birth to care about anything but that the pain was over. I couldn’t speak her language. I held her hand briefly, and patted her shoulder.
I gave the mother-in-law a hug; our eyes met and we both shook our heads. We understood each other. My mission had started with loss of life.