On the Spot: CNN Hero of the Year Robin Lim

Midwife, mother, and CNN Hero of the Year, Robin Lim doles out unconventional maternal wisdom.

(SPOT.ph) Soft-spoken and slight, Robin Lim makes for an unlikely hero. But since 2003, she has been helping Indonesian mothers, most of them too poor to afford the expensive maternal care being offered in hospitals, give birth through her Yayasan Bumi Sehat ("Healthy Mother Earth Foundation") clinics. The passion in her midwifery work earned her a place in last year’s CNN’s Heroes of the Year, making her the second person of Filipino descent to earn the honor, after 2009’s Efren Peñaflorida.

 

The daughter of a manghihilot and an American serviceman, Robin has grown up to be a passionate advocate of midwifery and the daily miracle of giving birth. "When I had my first baby, I had my baby at home, very easy, very beautiful," she tells a group of reporters assembled for a press conference organized by Anvil Publishing last April 30. "And I just gazed into that new baby's eyes and I could not believe that this wasn't the biggest news event of the century. And then I realized, all the mothers are doing this! Why isn't this front-page news?"

 

Fielding all the reporters’ questions, she holds forth on a variety of views, challenging the dominant perspectives we have on childbirth and child-rearing.

 


Robin Lim in a press conference hosted by Anvil Publishing

 

It was reported earlier that you planned to bring your project to the Philippines...

You know how Filipinos are, they love their home. My mother was born and raised in Baguio. So, of course, the first thing I think of when I think about opening a similar project for the Philippines, is the pilot should be in Baguio. We also have a lot of problems with maternal and infant mortality as you get higher in the mountains, so a community-based clinic where childbirth can happen and pre-natal care [is] free for the women is a real priority for the Baguio area. There's also a plan for one in Quezon City, very close to where the [Payatas] dump is, where the women really need this kind of help.

 

What are the difficulties you anticipate in starting this project here?

I think the most difficult thing with any kind of project is we want to make it sustainable, and sustainable means that when I'm no longer the Hero of the Year, we still need support. For example, we've been doing this for more than fifteen years now in Indonesia, and the support has grown and gotten better with this award and with other awards, but we need to keep the ball rolling. People don't stop having babies. In the next generation and the next generation, we need to sustain, so that's going to be our biggest challenge.


What principles does your organization stand up for?

The organization stands on three feet. One is to have a good strong foot in the science of what we do-but that's easy, compared to the trust in nature. That's very important. Childbirth is a natural process, but as we've changed our food and gotten away from good, nutritious food, we have to get back to the natural process. So we have to stand on science, and nature, and then we have to stand on the foot of culture, which means we need to respect the religion and the culture of any of the peoples, wherever they're coming from. And that's the beauty of being community-based; you can welcome everyone right where they live.

 

A CNN video on Robin Lim’s clinics

 

The maternal mortality rate in the Philippines is also considered high. What do you think should be the role of the government when it comes to addressing this issue? In the Philippines, there's been a lot of debate about the reproductive health bill, and they're saying it's one of the measures intended to bring down maternal mortality.

Well, the fact that there's even a reproductive health bill in discussion is a really good sign. We need this. You have to look again at what are the roots of the problem. And the roots of the problem are the business of "Why are people poor?" and "Why are they malnourished?" and "Why are the poor and the malnourished dying in childbirth?" And they're not dying when they're old and sick, they're dying at the prime of their lives, doing the most natural thing: having a baby.

I don't know how many of you have looked at the statistics, but if you Google it, you'll find that the conservative, underreported estimate of the number of women who die on earth every day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth is 981 per day. 981 mothers per day, every day. While we talk here, people are dying. Now, if two 747 airplanes fell out of the sky everyday, it would be the thing that you'd write about, it would be front-page news. If it happened every single day of the year, how many of you are going to get on an airplane and go somewhere? 834 passengers would be dead. That's less than the maternal mortality rate. So why isn't it in the news? Why? I think that needs to be front-page, every day.

 

Robin Lim gives a speech in an independent TED event, TEDxUbud

 

So how can we reduce this mortality?

If you want to lower the infant mortality rates, support breastfeeding in every way you can. You can't make money off of it, but lives will be saved by the hundreds of thousands. Statistically, a baby who is fed infant formula is 300 times more likely to die than a breastfed baby.

What are the gains? Every time a baby is breastfed, this child is going to be more intelligent, is going to be happier, socially. When you support breastfeeding, you are defending the mother-child relationship. This strengthens families, and families are what make up society, and societies are going to make peace or war. A baby with an intact capacity to love and trust is going to be a peacemaker, a steward of our land and our air and our water. Peace begins with every child.

 

Why is midwifery important?

Do you know that in the United States, as a certified professional midwife, what I do is a felony in 11 states. Midwifery is nearly dead in the United States. As a result of the CNN Hero Award and Ina May Gaskin, who is another midwife, 40 million dollars was appropriated by the government for midwifery just a few weeks ago in Washington. Never happened before. For free-standing birth centers, to support mothers, especially those in the welfare system, [and allow them] to use midwives instead of doctors. Women get better, more personal, more complete care at the hands of midwives than going to OB-GYNs. So it's changing.

And I know this government supports midwifery and supports breastfeeding, so you guys are a good giant leap ahead of the United States. The status of women here, believe it or not, is better than in Indonesia. It's changing and getting better in Indonesia, fast. Do you know that Indonesians hold Filipinos in high regard? There's a lot of little boys running around, especially in Java, named Rizal.


A CNN Heroes Tribute

 

You talked about breastfeeding and midwifery. What are other myths and misconceptions about childbirth do you want to address?

One of the big myths, and it's really driven by the scare tactics of modern medicine, is that if technology in childbirth was the answer, the United States would be number one in having the lowest mortality rate in the world, because the United States spends more on birth technology than any other country. The United States just fell to number 50. It's safer to give birth in 49 other countries than in the US. If you're pregnant in the United States, I would suggest that you go to Latvia or Croatia. For sure, go to Holland, because they're really good.


Again, they're spending a lot of money on a lot of unnecessary technology. Everybody thinks that they go to their OB-GYN and they get an ultrasound religiously. But we haven't looked at the fact that, since ultrasound, we went from having 1 in 1,000 autistic to 1 in 88 in America. There's something wrong with this system. And if you're having an ultrasound and you really don't know what effect it will have-we really don't know yet, there's not enough research-if you're doing that just because you want to know if it's a boy or a girl, that's foolish. Don't do it.

There's a routine medical practice of immediately clapping and cutting the umbilical cord of the baby. This is really efficient, this gets your doctor right back to his golf game. He doesn't want to be messing around with you and your baby. It's about efficiency. But guess what? The way the hilots would do it was they'd hang out with the family. She doesn't even think about the umbilical cord until she's leaving or when she comes back the next day. There's no hurry. And guess what happens when you don't hurry? The baby gets his or her full blood supply.

This is important. What is the leading cause of marginal retardation in the world today? Newborn anemia. What causes newborn anemia? The immediate clapping and cutting of the umbilical cord. This is the biggest rip-off of the children of our times. Can you imagine if we all reach our full potential of our intelligence because we get all of our blood supply? The other thing is, your biggest infusion of stem cells in your life is going to be at birth, from your placenta-or not. Who needs their stem cells in this day and age? All of you. Get those stem cells and give them to your child. If someone at a hospital tries to cut your child's cord, you hold that cord and say no. Because even waiting two to three minutes makes a significant difference in the iron supply.

 

What is your favorite book?

There's this poet named Kenneth Patchen, very obscure. Tiny little one book. He lived in pain, but he really lived for love, and I think he said something like, "Did you ever wonder why the windows in God's house are all broken?"

I met at the PEN Conference many amazing Filipino poets and I brought home their books. I try to choose a different poem every day, and I'm always blown away. There is an amazing tradition of literature in this country that is so excellent and so worth being proud of. Marjorie Evasco is one of my favorite poets. She gave me a book in 2010 at the Philippine PEN Conference that made me cry. It was her first collection of poetry, but what she didn't know is when I was a young single mother living in Hawaii many years before I moved home to Asia, this book was my favorite book, and I had lost it. And so, when she handed me the same book...I didn't know who she was. She said, "I wanted to give you a gift." And I just had to cry because it was my favorite collection of poetry.


Robin Lim advocates midwifery in her Anvil press conference

 

What is the greatest Filipino attribute that you embody?

Besides loving good food? (laughs) My husband's so sad because I could choose one person to bring with me on this trip, and I chose my daughter instead of my husband, and he loves Filipino food. I really have to tell you, Filipino food rocks, maybe because I was raised on it, but it really is, for me, the best cuisine in the world.

 

I think a Filipino attribute that I really embody is love and respect for my mother and my father. They weren't easy, believe me. A mixed marriage? You know what they told soldiers in Vietnam? This is shocking, and it's in my book-that you can kill as many Asians as you want, because they don't have souls. That was in the government reel-to-reel film that they showed every soldier coming into Vietnam. So, even if you're Asian and you're sitting there, they show you that. But if you're sitting there and you're married to an Asian and your children all look like little Asians, and you come back from Vietnam, and you look at them, and you cannot relate. It was really hard on the marriage. When my mother would move in bed, my father would end up with a choke hold around her, and almost killed her, because she might have been the enemy. He suffered from Vietnam Stress Syndrome until the day he died, and she never gave up on him. So I used to say that their marriage is a bridge of peace.

 

Photos by Lio Mangubat

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