Fear and not enough materials are putting mothers-to-be at risk in Libya’s rebel capital Benghazi, where midwives are stretched thin by delivery complications blamed on the stress of conflict.
“We have a shortage of beds, instruments and antiseptic,” said Fairuz Sahed, who heads the team of midwives and gynaecological nurses at Al-Jamahiriya hospital.
She considers the risk of HIV and hepatitis contamination to be “high” because of the shortages.
The women are divided into three rooms — deliveries, miscarriages and caesarians — and the beds in each are all full, so some women sit on chairs instead.
The lack of resources means nurses and midwives are also doubling up as cleaners.
“We had a patient with HIV but we didn’t discover this until after the delivery, then we cleaned and sterilised all around her,” said Ms Sahed.
Hospital staff say antiseptic supplies are reserved to sterilise operating instruments and that sanitising the birthing environment is impossible because they have run out of delivery kits that include blankets, gowns and gloves.
On average, before demonstrations against Libyan strongman Muammer Gaddafi deteriorated into an armed conflict between rebels and loyalists, the gynaecological department received between 30 and 40 women per day.
“Now we get as many as 62 — it is not normal,” Ms Sahed said.
The increased workload is attributed to the closure of several private clinics in Benghazi, as well as the need to cater to pregnant women from Ajdabiya, a ghost town after fierce fighting, and women evacuated from Misrata.
But the exhaustion of the nurses and midwives is eclipsed by the frightful spike in caesarians, premature births, intra-uterine deaths and miscarriages the staff have witnessed since February 17, when things turned violent.
“Since the start of the events, miscarriages have skyrocketed,” said Basma al-Qutraini, 36. “Beforehand we dealt with one or two cases on a normal day.”
The hospital has dealt with 450 miscarriages since mid-February, an average of eight a day, compared with just two previously when “bad days” registered four to five cases “at the most.”
The nurses have also observed and documented an increase in pre-term deliveries which, like the miscarriages, they blame on the anxiety consuming women with husbands on the front line or who sleep to a soundtrack of gunfire.
“Many women deliver early at a time of war because of fear,” said Maria Tesi Genesi, 45, a midwife from the Philippines who decided to stay put in Benghazi, come what may.
“Too many women are crying, crying. I ask them: ‘Does it hurt?’ They reply: “No, my husband is far and fighting’,” added Ms Genesi.
Many women arrive at the hospital fully dilated because they were too afraid to leave home. Others simply deliver at home and then come in for a check-up.
Bulging bellies start arriving in the early morning, because women due to deliver avoid travelling at night and risk crossing paths with “Gaddafi’s troops” rumoured to be hiding in the desert.
“I came as early as I could but I still had a miscarriage,” said Aisha Mabruk, 31, perched on the edge of a hospital bed occupied by a second woman tossing and turning after suffering the same fate.
Qutraini said: “They all want to be home. Sometimes I do an evacuation and half an hour later the woman wants to go back. They are scared they’ll run into Kadhafi forces on the road.”
Only a handful of the women are lucky enough to have male relatives waiting for them in the shade of a tree outside the hospital, seeking shelter both from the sun and the howls of women in labour.
Most husbands are at the front or contributing to the broader efforts of the “revolution,” unaware that the moment their children will enter the world has finally arrived.
“I’m so tired and I haven’t seen my husband…he is at sea taking supplies to the rebels of Brega,” said Nadia Mohammed Bashir, 42, a mother of eight with bulging varicose veins and a bulging tummy ready for the scalpel. Agencies