Q & A with Sr. Vivien Okereke

Sr. Vivien Okereke, standing right, talks to expectant mothers; her health education classes on Wednesdays and Fridays are attended by about 70 people.

Port Harcourt, Nigeria — Sr. Vivien Okereke is medical director of Our Lady Health of the Sick Hospital in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Working with women is her passion. Health education for expectant and new mothers is a specialty.

Okereke, a member of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, urges women to bring their husbands to her “safe motherhood” classes and to find ways to set aside money that they can spend themselves on their own healthcare.

What led you to consider the medical profession?

My father, a World War II veteran, inspired me to become a health practitioner. When I was growing up, people in our village came to our house to have my dad nurse their minor injuries. My dad had acquired basic clinical skills while in the service. I developed interest in the help my dad rendered. I began helping my dad dress wounds when I was in elementary school. My mother encouraged me to learn to help the sick. This was how the interest began and gradually it grew into my being a medical doctor.

In fact, I trace my call to the religious life to this altruistic character that I found in my father. The desire to relieve people of discomfort, pain and suffering associated with ill health led me to embrace a life of total commitment to the Lord, with the intention of relieving human suffering. Forty years ago, I made my first profession in the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. And I have been a doctor since 1982.

What aspect of your medical profession are you most passionate about?

Working with women has been my passion. I have always worked closely with expectant mothers. Women, pregnancies, children are culture bound. A worrying aspect is the value that the culture places on the girl-child. Because of cultural bias that favors the male, a woman with only female children tends not to be settled. She is prepared to go to any length with her body in order to have a son, even if it means having 12 or more pregnancies! Multiple births take their toll on women’s health as well as their lives.

Here, gender education is most needed. Unfortunately, some women die in the process of trying to “produce an heir.” Maternal mortality rate in this part of world is very high. For this reason, I have made prenatal, natal and post-natal education, or what we call “safe motherhood,” a special part of my practice. Sisters and nurses who work in the maternity section of our hospital are part of the Safe Motherhood project.

My small team of educators provides health education every Wednesday and Friday morning. On average, 70 pregnant women attend our ante-natal lectures every week. First and foremost, we highlight the fact that women must value their bodies. They must value their lives.

We let them realize that even if society (patriarchy) pays insignificant attention to the girl-child, without women there will be no society or patriarchy. In fact, we encourage expectant mothers to sometimes bring their husbands along to the health talk sections.

Husbands need to be educated on women’s health as well. We have succeeded in having some husbands participate in the birthing process. They confess that the experience had a positive impact in their relationship with their wives and helped them to appreciate women in general.

We emphasize nutritious foods, plenty of water, exercise and basic hygiene as well as an enabling environment. Regular medical checks as well as improved nutrition during pregnancy are critical in curbing the maternal mortality rate. Caesarian sections have also lessened the rate, but this option is not available to women in the rural areas, where there is a higher maternal mortality rate. Sadly, for some women, pregnancy forebodes death.

What economic alternatives do you offer your ante-natal women?

Money matters are the most important part of the problems associated with the maternal mortality rate. Poorer women are more likely to suffer most. When wives are beholden to their husbands, they lose control of their own lives. We see this very often.

Such is the case when a woman depends totally on her husband for her financial needs. In not a few cases, a critical life-saving procedures are delayed with fatal consequence because the husband, who holds the purse, is out of town. Thus, we have made economic empowerment part of our health talks. Under the patronage of the Blessed Mother, Health of the Sick, our program continues to yield positive results. Participants consistently enjoy safe delivery.

Through the economic empowerment initiative, we continue to sensitize women to be financially independent. For those not so well educated as to find a salaried job, petty trading is a good source of funds. Personal savings, no matter how small, can be a great asset in pregnancy and post-natal management.

Indeed, these “woman talks” extend beyond the confines of the prenatal/antenatal/postnatal clinics. Religious sisters and sister advisors to the various Catholic women’s groups (like Diocesan Council of Catholic Women Organizations in Port Harcourt) have become apostles of “safe motherhood” across the diocese.

How best can religious sisters continue to help reduce the maternal mortality rate?

Almost every family has a sad tale of a woman who died of pregnancy-related circumstance. According to the World Health Organization records, Nigeria’s maternal mortality record is among one of the highest in the world. I believe women religious in this country can take up for a period of time, the reduction of maternal mortality as a special ministry. Secular organizations spend much time and resources on family planning with less corresponding attention to safe motherhood. So sisters can make safe motherhood a theme for their national conferences. The sisters will take their enlightenment programs through towns and villages to the very people who need the education.

Women’s reaching out to women is a significant part of the evangelization of which Mary’s visit to Elizabeth remains a model par excellence. As vowed women, we take seriously our call to be present to the “least of my sisters and brothers.” Expectant mothers are the most vulnerable. In addition to bringing forth the next generation, women overwhelmingly support the church both in numbers and in material resources. It is therefore pertinent that we, the sisters, offer service that keep our women healthy and help them continue to thrive. An Akan (Ghanan) proverb puts it succinctly, “Without women, a lineage is finished.”

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]

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