Maya families in Guatemala’s western highlands recently gathered to break open piñatas and eat cake. In this isolated region, where maternal and infant mortality rates are almost twice the national average, first birthdays are cause for celebration.
“When (my baby) was born, he weighed 3 ½ pounds,” said Angelica Escalante, whose one-year-old boy was among the guests of honor at the party. The mother and son were invited by staff from Project Concern International’s Casa Materna, where they had spent nearly two months recovering from premature birth and delivery.
“They teach you how to care for your baby, how to have good hygiene,” Escalante said of her time in the program, which also taught her about the benefits of skin-to-skin contact with her baby. “Little by little, [my son] regained his weight with the Kangaroo Mother Care method, and now he’s with me.”
In Spanish, Casa Materna means “maternal house” and for those who have had the opportunity to enter the space in Huehuetenango, it’s been a refuge of hope, learning and healing. PCI established the facility nearly two decades ago to provide reproductive, maternal and child health services for Maya families with little access to high-quality health care.
Every year, PCI trains hundreds of community health workers, including traditional birth attendants, to identify women with high-risk pregnancies and refer them to Casa Materna for care and monitoring. The Casa serves as a 25-bed “maternity waiting home,” where family members can visit the mothers-to-be until they are transferred to the adjacent hospital to safely deliver their babies.
“I live far away and it’s the first time I leave my community,” said Aurora Gómez, a 41-year-old mother of three. She has given birth five times at home with the help of a midwife but lost two babies due to preterm complications and the absence of emergency medical assistance.
After learning that the baby she is currently carrying has a weak heartbeat, staff at Gómez’s local health post referred her to the National Hospital of Huehuetenango. Once she was stabilized, the hospital sent her to Casa Materna, which is housed in the Ministry of Health’s facility next door. Although she was hesitant to be in an unfamiliar place at first, far from her home in the rural community of Libertad, Gómez said she found comfort in the company of other pregnant women who were also waiting to welcome their babies and needed special care.
“I like that in Casa Materna they are constantly checking up on me,” Gómez said. “I am sure that my son will be saved this time.”
After their deliveries, many mothers return to Casa Materna to recover and receive education and support until they are ready to make the long journey home.
When Sulmy López gave birth to her son Axel, he arrived two weeks early and weighed only four pounds due to malnutrition. Like other patients at Casa Materna, López and Axel are from a municipality in Guatemala known for extreme poverty.
With support from Casa Materna, López learned how to better care for her son through breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact that ensures he gets the food and warmth he needs to survive and thrive. Axel continues to grow stronger every day.
“Casa Materna provides so much help in saving the lives of premature babies. I did not know how beneficial it was to kangaroo my baby, or how to do it, but they taught me here,” Gómez said. “I am going to share my experience in my community so that no more children die.”
Bal Maria Gutierrez, Samuel Lau, Karla Salvatierra and Nery Sosa contributed to this story.
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