In February I travelled out with Save the Children to Nepal, a country with one of the weakest health systems in the world, to find out how mothers struggle to access healthcare. I visited the rural district of Nuwakot, 60km north-west of Kathmandu, which is reported to be one of the affected areas outside of Kathmandu. The scale of damage is unknown because our staff are still struggling to access the area.
Parts of Nepal were greatly inaccessible even before the earthquake hit on Saturday. During my visit, our plane had to circle in the sky above Kathmandu for hours whilst we struggled to land due to the morning fog and we experienced hours of standstill traffic as we tried to navigate our way through the city slums. The terrifying, winding roads outside of the city centre with 100 foot cliff drops on either side meant that we unable to reach some of our destinations. And the hopeless telephone networks resulted in hours and days instead of minutes or seconds to arrange meetings and visits with hospitals and health clinics.
But it still shocked me when I heard yesterday that it took a Save the Children colleague in Nepal four hours to walk from the airport to the Save the Children offices in Kathmandu, a walk that took me just five minutes just two months earlier.
During my visit, I saw first-hand overcrowded hospitals and clinics, so mothers have to sit outside on the dirt floor, cradling their sick children and women give birth in the corridors on make-shift beds. The hospital wards were freezing cold and there wasn't any bedding or heating provided. Food was overpriced and mothers couldn't afford to feed themselves and their children too, so went without food for days. Too few staff to deal with the number of patients or to properly clean the wards, meant stale blood remained on the walls and in buckets in the delivery room, waiting to be cleaned up. Hospitals lacked equipment and electricity, so midwives delivered babies at night in the pitch black, with torches held in their mouths between their teeth. These were all everyday problems, even before Saturday's quake.
I worry for the mothers and their children I met during my visit who all live in houses built on steep hillsides in remote villages. The only form of transport for Sushma, a 21 year old mother I met, is by foot, up a steep, dirt track for her to reach town where she buys food for her family and takes her baby daughter Rakshya for check-ups at the health clinic. When we met, Sushma told me that when she went into labour with her first child, her father-in-law had to carry her up the steep, dirt track, in a wicker basket for two hours to get to the health clinic in town. She didn't reach it in time, so had to deliver her baby on the side of the road without a health worker present. Her baby didn't survive and died of pneumonia a few days later.
This story isn't a one-off, I met too many mothers in Nepal with the same story to tell. In the face of their hardship, they remain resilient, but I worry for them - have the homes that they so kindly welcomed me into survived the earthquake? Are the mothers who showed me such kindness and generosity trapped inside their homes and unable to get out or are they hurt and are unable to walk the long distances they need to get help? I also worry if the one doctor that works in Sushma's district and serves over 50,000 people has also survived. The odds are not strong.
My worst fear for Nepal has become a reality - much of the already weak infrastructure has been destroyed. Hospitals and clinics in the capital have no space, and in dire need of equipment and emergency supplies. I know that aid agencies and the UK and other foreign governments with expertise in search and rescue have dispatched help to Nepal to support the government with its efforts. And I urge the British public to help. Give what you can to the DEC so that mothers like Sushma, who may have been affected by the earthquake, are able to get the immediate life-saving help such as shelter kits and clean water that they need for themselves and their children to survive. We need to help them in their hour of need.
To make a donation to the Nepal Earthquake Appeal visit http://www.dec.org.uk, call the 24 hour hotline on 0370 60 60 900, donate over the counter at any high street bank or post office, or send a cheque. You can also donate £5 by texting the word SUPPORT to 70000.