Vicki Penwell began setting up birth centers and numerous other charity medical works in the Philippines in 1995, where to date, more than 5,000 babies have been brought into the world, for free. Lorega, where this story is located, is a typical inner-city Asian slum where the poorest of the poor live in squatter shacks and hovels, surrounded by three graveyards and a slaughterhouse.
Around a corner and into a narrow side street a young woman walks, clutching the arm of her husband. It is night, but all around the streets are awash with flickering lights, candles and small fires burning, and the occasional bare electric light bulb hanging from a cord draped over makeshift poles. Crowds of children run and play, chasing each other down the dusty streets and dodging in and out of alleyways. Men squat beside the narrow street, their backs against the low wooden shacks that line the path, cigarettes gleaming red embers with each inhale. Mothers with babies in their arms or on their backs talk and laugh with each other, occasionally stopping to grab an errant child out of harm’s way. Old grannies watch the night in silence, and miss nothing.
The young woman walks slowly, for it is a heavy burden she carries. Past the slaughterhouse, stepping over rivulets of blood that run down the street. Pig squeals rend the night air, animal sounds of terror, but no one pays any attention—it is the every-night sound. Past the alley that turns into the cemetery where the living share space with the dead, she shudders as she passes, not knowing yet what the night will hold for her. She understands with lucidity her role in all that is about to take place, and in her mind she embraces the danger as well as the promise.
Down a slight decline and around to the left she advances, past the open food stall with pots of rice and pancit for sale, past the sari sari store with its meager display of candies, soda bottles and soaps all hung in strips dangling from the ceiling. Past the crowds of men who gamble in the streets and past the drug pushers, she slowly navigates her way, never letting go of the strong arm at her side. She notices everything and she notices nothing, for tonight her senses are focused on this strange new sensation, a rhythmic pulling and dragging down low in her belly. At times it causes her to catch her breath and then she continues, on down the street. She sees her destination now as she rounds the last corner—a square two-story building surrounded by a green cement fence. The lights are burning brightly here, sounds of activity float out the windows on the night air: a baby’s cry, a laugh, the happy sounds of people who are lucky enough to work and live together and like each other.
She comes to the gate and rings the bell. In the moonlight she can read the words painted in white: Mercy in Action Free Maternity Clinic. Kind hands reach for her, smiles and exclamations usher her in. Tonight’s the night! Welcome, welcome! A little while later, examined and reassured that all is well, she is ensconced in a tidy little room on the second floor, overlooking the street below. Bright linens dress the bed, white lace curtains billow from the window; a large oxygen tank stands sentinel in the corner, as medical supplies perch atop a carved wooden dresser.
The woman relaxes into the rhythm of the night, into the rhythm of pain. Two or three midwives stay with her now, never sleeping, keeping a constant watch—praying, nurturing, loving. Come the dawn, weary but oh so grateful, she will smile at her amazed husband and reach out her arms to receive a perfect little miracle.
And life begins anew in Lorega.