It’s coming up on two years since Ubud-based American midwife Robin Lim became CNN Hero of the Year. Rio Helmi talks to Robin at her home in Nyuhkuning about how life is, post partum 2011.
Rio Helmi : Since you became CNN Hero of the Year in 2011, has any of the attention it brought to you turned into something concrete?
Robin Lim: Oh yeah for sure. But a lot of people say “Oh, they got all this money, several hundred thousand dollars” But we need the donors to keep giving. The CNN money is going to building the new thing ( a new birthing clinic complex in Ubud, Bali) but it costs 800 dollars a day just to give 50,000 people a year basic medical care etc. And there’s wages and so forth that are ongoing. One of those 50,000 a year could be a kid with a fever, one could be putting a young woman through midwifery school: her tuition, her shoes, her transportation, food, everything.
RH: Has there been a real significant milestone that you have passed in terms of realizing this dream that you have of creating this new clinic? You have your building permit and the land…
RL: Yes we have that. But also now Dinas Kesehatan (the Health Department) is nicer to me, they still think we are a little weird but they are nicer to all of us. Outside of Bali, I was just in the Women Deliver Congress in Kuala Lumpur, the biggest reproductive health conference in the world, and the whole of Jakarta’s (national level) Dinas Kesehatan were there and they were hugging me and kissing me and sitting in the front row when I gave my presentation. And one of the doctors said “Let’s do a television show with your midwives, a docu-drama”. It’s nice for the midwives because they weathered the storm of being the weird midwives who worked for the gentle birth organization and worked for the poor. I figured out in this country people don’t respect you just because you are doing work for poor people, people respect you if you have a really nice car.
RL: According to the email we got from the architect the actual construction now has to be put up for bidding. I don’t really understand why we can’t just appoint someone but apparently for non-profit organizations it doesn’t work that way.
RH: Are you excited? You’re getting much closer…
RL: Yeah, it’s like a due date. You don’t get excited until you actually feel the contractions and have to start pushing out a clinic (general laughter). It’s a lot of people and a lot of time.
RH: Oh yes, it’s a big project. How many rooms are you going to have? How many people can you accommodate?
RL: A lot more than now. There’s going to be three birthing rooms plus a midwife check-up room which will double as birth room at night. Also a lot more privacy for families – which they may or may not like. (Now) it’s kind of fun to see a Hindu mom, a Muslim mom, a Christian mom and all their families altogether crashed out in the same recovery room and they end up exchanging phone numbers and become friends because their kids have the same birthdays. Isn’t that cool? Still my favorite thing is the women and the children, I love the babies.
RH: So the qualitative thing that has changed for you since becoming a CNN Hero is not so much the money but the recognition and acceptance?
RL: Well the acceptance from the health officials is nice. You know midwifery in this country and many countries of the world is considered kind of a dirty profession. People poop when they give birth, they vomit, you get amniotic fluid all over you, there is all this blood, etc. So the younger midwives, they just cry when they realize that all of them, their profession, is now being recognized as a sacred profession. I asked some of the young people “How many of you chose this profession yourselves?” And most of them answered: it was their parents who chose. You know it’s dirty, you have to stay up all night, work under really rough conditions, there’s the pecking order – the doctors pick on you… It’s just hard work.
RH: So with this CNN hero thing…
RL: They feel uplifted.
RH: And they are associated with “That” midwife…
RL: They’re so excited. You know how many times I have to get my picture taken with them, my teeth are dried out (from so much smiling). Have you seen that thing at the clinic? There’s like a life size cut-out photo of me, so that if some midwife comes visiting and I’m off the island they can have their picture taken with that (general laughter). We had a group from Malang come by bus for hours all the way just to have their picture taken with me. They were fasting – we took them home and gave them a nap, and then they went on their way. So if they had come and I wasn’t here they could have had their picture taken with the cut-out – it’s ridiculous. But, it (the award) really has uplifted the profession.
RH: What about outside of Bali, Indonesia, what has the effect been?
RL: Well in Kuala Lumpur at the world conference after my presentation five doctors from the biggest hospital in Beijing tackled me (asking questions). One of them was crying, she said “I’ve been an obstetrician for over forty years and I never thought of what babies and the mothers need and want”. To her it was just survival. Quality of care had not been an issue for any of those people at that conference. That was frightening to me.
RH: I always thought of this award in terms of the material benefit but obviously the boost to the morale and awareness is tremendous..
RL: Well – we still need to raise funds, I’m still running around in the cage begging (for funds to keep all the operations running) but people believe you more because “you’ve been checked out by Turner broadcasting”. But yes, more people are paying attention. We had an Italian doctor visit who wanted to check out “this CNN Hero woman”. There was a couple at the clinic who invited him to attend their birth. Now when (in most hospitals) you clamp and cut the cord immediately there is a tremendous loss of blood for the baby, nearly a third of the baby’s blood supply is cut off. It makes them anemic (here Robin explained a number of complications that arise later in life as a result). So that’s why our babies go immediately to the breast. The Italian doctor couldn’t believe it, he’d never seen a (newborn) baby so bright and in its body – just because his cord wasn’t cut straight away. But for example it clearly says in the lontar Bali (traditional Balinese scriptural texts) not to do that. It’s nothing new. We’re not asking people to do something new, we’re asking them to remember.
photos ©Rio Helmi