By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
LITTLE SILVER – As an obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Nina Seigelstein has helped countless women in the Two River area become mothers. This year, Seigelstein began a new trend: Raising funds to help mothers in Sierra Leone, Africa.
Seigelstein founded One World Women’s Health, a nonprofit organization, and is working with Africa Surgery, Inc. to build a maternity ward at Holy Spirit Hospital in Makeni, Sierra Leone.
In 2006 Seigelstein, who has volunteered and worked in places such as Kashmir, Ghana, and a Navajo reservation, left her position at a lucrative ob/gyn practice to help women in Sierra Leone, a place with no running water, where residents were recovering from a civil war, and where many women suffer from debilitating and life-threatening conditions such as fistulas, pelvic masses and ruptured uteruses. Many had never seen a doctor, much less a gynecologist.
With a little courage and a big heart, Seigelstein, along with two friends who are also doctors, spent two weeks visiting two Sierra Leone hospitals, treating ob/gyn patients and performing surgeries.
“This was right after the war and we didn’t know what we were walking into,” Seigelstein says.
The doctors’ visit was so unprecedented, it warranted a mention on the radio in Sierra Leone – there are only five ob/gyns in the entire country. Patients came from rural villages miles away and lined up for hours, suffering from everything from fibroid tumors to prolapsed uteruses.
Many of the women were having trouble getting pregnant; they had been raped multiple times, had sexually transmitted diseases and were infertile. Some had endured prolonged labors resulting in obstetrical fistulas. Almost all had lived through physical and emotional pain and grief.
Mindful to be sensitive to various Christian, Muslim and tribal beliefs, and with the help of translators and gestures, the doctors communicated with a variety of languages, including English, Portuguese, Creole, Pidgin English and multiple tribal languages.
At Holy Spirit Hospital in Makeni, Seigelstein found medical personnel willing to help and women in desperate need of care. “The hospital was well run but dirt poor,” she says. “There was no maternity ward.”
Within a year Seigelstein had formulated the plan to build a maternity ward.
After establishing One World Women’s Health, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, Seigelstein, who now works as an assistant surgeon for ob/gyn surgeries at Riverview Medical Center, spread the word to raise money for the building project. She also enlisted other medical professionals to accompany her on ob/gyn missions to Makeni.
“We come in for two weeks and operate on as many people as we can safely,” she says.
During her most recent mission in January, Seigelstein, Dr. Michael Karoly, an ob/gyn with a practice in Little Silver and Hazlet, and Danielle Yoos, scrub technician from Riverview Medical Center, performed 22 life-altering gynecologic surgeries in 12 days. They repaired severe uterine prolapses, removed fibroid tumors and performed perineal reconstructions, among countless other procedures.
While volunteers travel at their own expense, Riverview Medical Center donated all the surgical supplies.
Life is not easy on these missions – there are malaria precautions, unfamiliar dishes and limited cold showers – but the work is rewarding. “None of us slept well,” Seigelstein says. “We’re out of sorts, jet lagged, wrapped in mosquito nets at night.”
However, she said, the discomfort is worth it “because you feel like you can make a change.”
The visits can put a strain on the hospital when the doctors arrive because the new patients fill the wards.
“We pay for the surgeries and the electricity that we use,” she says. “We don’t want to bankrupt the hospital.”
The afflictions that these patients suffer from are a far cry from the cases the doctors treat in their everyday U.S. suburban practices. “These women have far worse problems, and they’ve been living with them for years,” says Seigelstein, who has treated women suffering for 20 years from severely prolapsed uteruses, a condition that occurs when the pelvic floor muscles and ligaments stretch and weaken, providing inadequate support for the uterus.
Since she’s been involved with Holy Spirit Hospital, Seigelstein says there has been slow progress. Water is still pumped from a well, limited electricity is run on generators, but there’s hope. The hospital now can accommodate doctors who arrive on a rotating schedule to perform reconstructive surgeries, treat orthopedic injuries and war injury burns.
With the help of Inger Nielsen, a Danish midwife from Massachusetts, the foundation has built a relationship with the Midwifery School of Makeni, which just graduated its first class. The new midwives will be a welcome addition to the maternity ward. In addition, arrangements are being made with Tufts Medical Center in Boston, to establish a program to bring rotating ob/gyn residents and medical students to the hospital.
In the meantime, Seigelstein has shared her stories and photos of the women of Makeni and One World Women’s Health with many area residents who have made donations. The first phase of construction of the maternity ward is beginning and Seigelstein looks forward to her next visit.
“It takes courage for these women to come to a hospital that you don’t understand and have strangers operate on you,” she says.
The women, who live in leaf and mud huts that wash away every rainy season, often live continuously with pain and loss. “There’s a feeling of resignation among the women.”
Seigelstein says she watched mothers who have just lost their newborns struggle only briefly. “They’re so used to death being a part of life. They know you’re just supposed to move on.” Women in Sierra Leone suffer from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
“I know I’m looking at them through Western eyes and I see a lot of strength,” Seigelstein says. “It feels very good to help them.”
For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation to help make a life-changing difference in a mother’s life, visit www.oneworldwomenshealth.org.