Pamela Putney: Making a difference
Pamela Putney's job is not an easy one to pinpoint. Although her West Tisbury home serves as her "sanctuary," she is often out of the country visiting places such as Bolivia, Egypt, Nepal, and most recently, Mexico and the Dominican Republic where she consults on public health programs.
Her eyes light up as she lists the organizations she has worked, a blur of acronyms running together, US-AID, DFID, PRO-COSI, interspersed with single sentence descriptions of her work there which could be the source for a novel. Her phone rings constantly, and between calls she explains that she is offered multiple consulting positions every week in places like Pakistan and Zambia.
"I love what I do, but it can be rough. I remember bouncing around in the back of a jeep in Zambia thinking, I'm too old for this. It can be really hard, really exhausting, especially dealing with a lot of the corruption and witnessing the terrible conditions people live in. But then, you have a very firsthand account of the difference people can make. It can also be very rewarding."
First and foremost, Pamela Putney is a midwife. After obtaining her master's degree and certificate in nurse-midwifery in 1977, she worked in the United States assisting births. In 34 years, she estimates she has assisted in over 3,500 births. But her true calling came when she expanded her involvement to the international level.
"I work in all areas of the field. I work at the smallest, grass-roots side, going into villages, assisting births and talking to people in the community about their health needs. I will talk to mothers who have lost babies, or if a mother dies in childbirth, I will talk to her family about what went wrong, and what they need. I will work on the next level and visit clinics, talk to people working in the programs, doctors, nurses. And then I go all the way up the chain, dealing directly with government organizations overseeing multi-million dollar projects.
"This is 2009, and we could save almost every mother and newborn baby, most of them with basic medical supplies and for a minimal cost. But, for some reason, it isn't a priority for most governments, and it obviously should be. This is a human rights violation, and it needs to be made a priority."
After witnessing a first traumatic delivery as a nursing student, Ms. Putney decided the birthing process lost something important by being taken from the home and into the hospital.
"Of course there are times when medical attention is needed, and one of the things I work towards is making it available, everywhere. But, birthing is a natural, beautiful process women are very capable of going though. Midwifery humanizes a process that has sadly become very medicalized."
She understands she has an important role in being able to navigate the often complex bureaucracies surrounding government health programs.
"There is a shortage of experienced professionals who have both the medical understanding of the birthing experience, and are capable of project development and imputation. Basically, what I do is I help governments entering heath programs fulfill their potential and assess whether their programs are working."
She describes a recent job in Mexico where she was pleased to find the program running smoothly and effectively. "It was such a joy! Every clinic I visited, people were doing wonderful things. It really was making a difference, which was easy to see. Everyone I talked to seemed really inspired with what they where doing and the effect it was having in the community."
She says, "Cambodia is definitely a bright spot in the area of development. It has had a terrible history to overcome. When the Khmer Rouge took over, there were over 25,000 doctors and nurses in Cambodia and barely 300 by the time they were overthrown. But the programs there have really worked remarkably."
One of the programs in which Ms. Putney was the Reproductive Health Advisor, was a US-AID funded health program designed to strengthen the capacity of the private and public health sectors to improve the quality of reproductive health and child survival.
"The country is still desperately poor, but the midwives are still attending births and working day and night to help women and their families," she says. "Their resilient hearts are a remarkable testimony to the triumph of the human spirit, and you can really see the difference it has made."
Another success story Ms. Putney has taken part in is as a long-term advisor for Pro Salud in Bolivia. Pro Salud is a US-AID funded, 15.5 million dollar project which focuses on improving the access, quality, coverage and sustainability of health services to low-income and under-serviced communities in Bolivia. She worked there full-time for more than four years, and part-time for two years after that.
"Pro Salud is something I am most proud of taking part in. I still do work for them sometimes. I would say it is one of the most successful programs the United States has ever financed. It really has made a huge positive impact."
These programs rely heavily on the dedication and persistence of the people who work for them. When asked if one person can make a difference, she is quick to name a few - she calls them "saints"- with whom she has worked: a midwife in Zambia who works in horrible conditions; a doctor in Egypt who forgoes a profitable private practice to provide health care to people who can't afford to pay.
"What I do, it just really needs to be done," she says.
Katy Plasse is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.