To Dr Jemimah Kariuki, the recipient of the 2021 Global Health Award by WHO in recognition of her contribution to advancing global health, is a major win for her, but all pregnant women globally.
Thanking Director-General Dr Tedros Abraham for conferring the Award to her Dr Kariuki, says it is also a recognition that maternal health matters to the World’s health body. This, she says, is a way of spreading the message that – no woman should die in the 21st Century while giving birth, worse of it dying alone in the house due to restrictions of Covid-19.
“I am excited beyond imagination as I never dreamt or saw anything like this coming in acknowledgment of something humble that I started only a year ago, out of the frustrations that I felt for the many mothers who lost their lives and babies because they couldn’t access a health facility,” Dr Kariuki told The Standard in a telephone interview. It can only be the hands of God, who sees when His children are working to save humanity.
The doctor says that the idea of starting an organisation that would make a difference in the lives of pregnant mothers especially during the pandemic, because of the restrictions that limited their time to access health facilities.
She says as the pandemic progressed, every time she would go to a hospital, she would notice that the number of women coming to the hospital was getting fewer, but the number of those coming in with complications was shooting up.
“I was particularly shocked by a story appearing in The Standard about a woman who had died alone in the house due to Covid-19 scare and restrictions. I was like; excuse me, this happening in 2020? I knew I had to do something,” says the Obstetrician-gynaecologist.
In a matter of days, Dr Kariuki had an idea, especially after reading about the woman who had died alone followed closely by another where police had beaten a motorbike driver to death after he transported a woman in labour to hospital after curfew hours.
“Kenya does not have public ambulances and I knew the answer to the escalating problem of losing mothers in labour was to provide not only a transport service but also a call-center that they could reach out to – one that was easily accessible to pregnant women – Wheels for Life,” she says.
It has been one year since the establishment of Wheels for Life, and Dr Kariuki draws inspiration from the Award and recognition, which she says is proof that the outfit is a problem solver. To feather her cap, she is on the list of BBC’s 100 Women of 2020.
How the service works
Wheels for Life is a free ambulance service for mothers in labour after dark. The programme has a call center, which receives calls from pregnant mothers in duress, offering them services ranging from having a doctor talk to them, encouraging them through the pregnancy journey, or providing an ambulance to take them to a clinic.
Dr Kariuki’s selfless service towards expectant mothers during the Covid-19 pandemic has been acknowledged as the figure behind Wheels for Life, through which several mothers have been facilitated safe delivery.
“While birthing Wheels for Life, I just tweeted to reach out to many Kenyans out there who would like to offer any assistance where possible to women in labour and couldn’t access the hospital, and the response was amazing leading to the inauguration of Wheels for Life on April 28th, 2020.
One year later, she says, the organisation has received more than 100,000 calls through which many lives have been saved. She is grateful to all the colleagues, partners, volunteers, and funding organisations such as AMREF, UN, European Union, Kenya Healthcare Federation, Rescue Ambulance, and all others who have made this journey possible. “This award is a win for all of them in recognition of their efforts,” says the doctor.
What the award means
Dr Kariuki says at a personal level, the Award inspires her to forge to greater heights. “The sky is the limit, and I would like to see myself growing and pushing to spearhead the establishment of many such initiatives,” says the Obstetrician-gynaecologist, adding that she looks forward to helping as many pregnant mothers to bring their babies safely into this world.
Her next focus, she says, is addressing the issue of teenage pregnancy. “It breaks my heart to see teenage girls become mothers out of sexual abuse, early sexual debut, and other vices, and I would like to spearhead a movement that can deal with these teenage issues,” says Dr Kariuki.
The future is bright for this remarkable doctor who says she is looking forward to working with global bodies such as the UN and WHO as they would provide a launchpad for implementing the changes she advocates for a healthy country, Africa, and the world.
For Wheels of Life, Dr Kariuki for-sees the organisation as a global organisation in the next 50 years. She dreams of a time when the organisation will be integrated into the country’s health sector so that no woman has to die alone, or die at all when giving birth.
For now, she says, she is happy that the organisation, which is spearheaded by a team of dedicated doctors, drivers, and receptionists among others, is providing a platform for pregnant women and mothers to know that they are not alone in their walk. “They need to know they can safely deliver in clinics, despite the pandemic and that they have help at hand,” she says.
Dr Kariuki says that winning the award is a testimony that teamwork can make a huge impact in a community and affect anyone, especially one’s neighbour. “Let us be open and ready to help as this is the only way to eliminating major issues even beyond health.
“Wheels for Life is ready and willing to work with anyone who wishes to support or contribute in any way,” says the Award winner who is also the founder of Peace Club, an organisation started in response to post-election violence in 2007. Dr Kariuki is also the founder of the Public Health Club, which is dedicated to the prevention and awareness of cervical cancer.
“Who knows, she quips, “you could be talking to a future WHO Director-General,” she confidently says.