- - Friday, March 6, 2015

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala – Manuala Tum, 25, cannot read or write. She lives in a dusty one-bedroom house with eight family members on just a few dollars a day. But that’s not stopping her from saving lives in her community.

For the last six months, she has been working with the global poverty-fighting organization CARE as a volunteer community health promoter. Her job is to help pregnant women prepare for the birth of their children. In Guatemala, where Manuala lives, pregnancy can be a death sentence: a mother there is five times more likely to die while giving birth than a mother in the United States.

We met Manuala last month when we traveled to Guatemala to learn how the U.S. government and nonprofit organizations like CARE are expanding access to health services and education in order to reduce high maternal mortality rates. Maternal mortality is a global problem: more than 800 women die from child birth every day.

Our visit to speak to healthcare volunteers like Manuala and a group of expecting mothers hit close to home. Long before we became elected Representatives, we dedicated our lives to building healthy communities. As nurses, we know firsthand the challenges around tending to the wounded, caring for the sick, and helping patients recover so they can live longer, happier lives.

We met Manuala at one of her community health sessions on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango. This area, known as the Western Highlands, is one of the poorest regions in Guatemala. Among the indigenous Mayan population where Manuela is from and works, nearly half of the children under 5 are chronically malnourished. When we asked expecting mothers what their families normally eat, they tell us rice and beans for both lunch and dinner and an egg a week for protein.

Our nursing experience in the U.S. taught us how to cope with emergency complications for expecting mothers—but the situation is even more daunting for mothers in rural Guatemala. It’s a struggle every day to access basic health services and education. Women, for example, lack transportation to get to a doctor or the money to pay for the ride. The nearest hospital is two hours away.

To solve this problem, Manuala and groups like CARE are bringing health services and education directly to these women in rural communities. Research has shown that many of these pregnancy complications are preventable with better nutrition, hygiene and planning. For example, Manuala helps mothers coordinate with the midwives to ensure they are getting monthly check-ups. She assists mothers in crafting an emergency plan that includes reliable transportation and savings, so that when the time comes, the mother can get to a hospital and afford the appropriate medical care.

In her role as a health volunteer, Manuala instructs women to eat more diverse and nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables when they are expecting. After the baby is delivered, Manuala encourages mothers to breastfeed and teaches them about personal hygiene to reduce the chances of infections. She also helps women plan their next pregnancies a few years apart so that mothers are healthy enough to give birth again.

We’re often asked why it is so important to devote time and attention to health programs in countries so far away. As two nurses with experience in the health realm, we can confidently state that it’s because we know what works. Proven interventions such as educating mothers on the importance of proper nutrition and timing and spacing of pregnancies can make a difference. Our time in Gautemala showed us that many of these interventions are both simple and inexpensive. Further, by equipping these communities with the tools they need to sustain themselves, we can actually reduce our long-term foreign aid costs and create an environment where mothers and fathers want to build a life for their families.

By investing in women like Manuala we are helping women build stronger families and lifting communities out of extreme poverty. As we continue the fight to end maternal mortality, we can look to leaders like Manuala to take charge in their own communities. Her role as a health volunteer caring for the poorest of the poor is not easy, but she does it with determination and pride. To us, she is a hero. With powerful leaders like Manuala and smart, targeted U.S. investments in maternal and child health, we are confident that a world where all mothers can deliver their baby safely is well within reach.

Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) and Diane Black (R-TN) are both nurses.

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