In the year 1990, childbirth claimed the lives of 128,000 Indian mothers.
This is the story of one such mother who did not bleed to death that year.
Rajakumari is the supervisor of Blue Mango, an income generation program for women in rural Tamil Nadu. Her leadership, strength of character, and wisdom have touched hundreds of other disadvantaged women. I shudder, thinking that she could have died at the age of 23. That’s how old her first born son is today.
Married to a poor Dalit alcoholic in Tamil Nadu, Rajakumari had already coped with three miscarriages and years of unhappiness. When her fourth pregnancy made it to term, she was elated. Clad in a new sari and armfuls of tinkling bangles, she traveled to her mother’s little hamlet in the mountains of Kerala for the delivery.
After a night of early labor, the family hired a Jeep to take Rajakumari to the local Primary Health Centre. As they bumped along the jungle road, the rear tire blew. Since he had no spare or cellphone, the driver abandoned ship and went for help.
Rajakumari’s pains were coming stronger now. After several worry-filled hours, the driver returned with a tire. Rajakumari reached the Primary Health Centre around noon and was delivered an hour later by forceps.
It was a boy! Her mother called the man in their village’s Ration Shop who passed on the news to the relatives. A large group caught the only bus and came to visit. Laughter, chocolates, smiles. After an hour, the lot of them returned home by the same bus, the last one of the day.
After lying for hours on her back as instructed, Rajakumari was finally allowed to roll onto her side. To everybody’s horror, an enormous lake of blood was spreading across the sheets. The nurse called the doctor’s residence, but he had left for another clinic. His wife was also a doctor, but she was eight months pregnant and inexperienced with such emergencies.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do,” the doctor said. “She can’t stay here. She has to go to the Mission Hospital in Kattapanna right away. We lost one like her last month.”
There were no ambulances and all the local Jeeps had been commandeered for election propaganda. With each passing minute, Rajakumar’s life continued to ebb.
“Do something!” Rajakumari’s mother began to cry “I don’t want my little girl to die!”
“There’s not much more we can do,” the nurse said. “She’s lost so much blood all her veins have collapsed. I can’t even start an IV.”
A patient who had just given birth that morning spoke up.
“We have a Jeep,” she said. “I’ve asked my husband to take you to the Mission Hospital. And he’s a doctor too.”
The young physician lifted Rajakumari, bloody sheets and all, and placed her gently in his Jeep. Rajakumari’s mother and aunt climbed in beside her. The vehicle sped through cardamom estates and arrived several hours later at the hospital.
Rajakumari doesn’t remember much of this ride or what happened later. The hospital personnel moved quickly, somehow establishing an IV line and whisking her straight to the operating room. While the team struggled to control the bleeding, Rajakumari could hear the tinny announcements on the hospital’s PA system.
“We urgently need ‘AB positive’ blood. We have none in our blood bank. Please, if anybody has this type, contact the nurses. We need to save a young woman’s life.”
Rajakumari faded in and out. Finally around midnight, she was brought to the ward, a bag of dark blood dripping into her veins. Her bleeding had stopped. She hardly noticed the relatives who were crowding around to support her.
Ten long days later, Rajakumari went home with her little son. She was extremely weak but very much alive.
Several months passed. One day while Rajakumari was traveling on a local bus with her mother and baby, a man rushed towards them.
“How are you all? How’s the baby?”
She wondered who he was and why he was so forthright.
“Don’t you recognize him?” her mother said. “Why this is the doctor who saved your life. He’s the one who left his wife’s side and brought you in his Jeep to the Mission Hospital.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I guess I was too ill to get a clear look at your face.”
He nodded kindly.
“And that’s not all,” Rajakumari’s mother said. “Remember that you desperately needed blood and they couldn’t find a donor? Guess who was ‘AB positive’? This man is the one who gave his blood that you could live.”