Maternal Life International was started in 1997 by George Mulcaire-Jones, a physician trained in family medicine and obstetrics. After finishing his residency in 1984, he and his wife Mary joined Mission Doctors Association of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and worked for two years at Shisong Hospital in Cameroon.
Shortly after beginning work at Shisong Hospital, Dr. Mulcaire-Jones witnessed his first maternal death. A woman was brought to the hospital comatose. She had been having multiple seizures in a nearby village. When she arrived, her face was swollen, her legs full of fluid, and her pregnant abdomen silent. She did not respond to touch or pain—she was brain dead secondary to severe toxemia of pregnancy. It was a death that would have been completely preventable by early recognition and treatment with an inexpensive medication called magnesium sulfate.
Unfortunately, maternal deaths like this one were not uncommon in Cameroon and throughout Africa. Far too many women died from infections, from obstructed labor, or from uterine bleeding after delivery—all causes of maternal death that have been almost completely eliminated in the western world through basic medical interventions.
This experience left a lasting impression. After George and his wife returned to the U.S., they continued to correspond with the sisters and colleagues with whom they’d worked in Cameroon. After hearing of more maternal deaths, they felt they could not just sit back and do nothing. They formed a non-profit organization in 1997 called MaterCare International, led by a Canadian obstetrician gynecologist, Dr. Robert Walley. They later formed an independent organization, Maternal Life International (MLI).
MLI began its work by providing training in emergency obstetrical care that aimed to secure a “safe passage” for all mothers and babies: a pregnancy and birth free of death, free of serious injury, and free of HIV infection. MLI provided trainings in multiple countries, teaching emergency obstetrical care and providing essential equipment and medications for improving the delivery of maternal and newborn care. The program had great success and over time led to a change in understanding among those they served—a realization that women and babies did not have to die, that through training in emergency obstetrical care and with individual and institutional commitments to prioritize safe births, the lives of mothers and babies could be saved.
Building on the success of the “Safe Passages” program, MLI expanded its work to include HIV care and prevention through a parish nursing program and its “Faithful House” program, a couple-based program that builds marital communication and faithfulness, ultimately improving health and life outcomes for the whole family. The Faithful House was developed in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services in 2005 and was first introduced into Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia.
As MLI has expanded, our efforts have been guided by a simple principle: “Life is a teacher.” We have learned from our African and Haitian partners how critical it is to engage the couple as a focus of change and development. As couples work together, a wide range of positive health behaviors emerge: couples are faithful and less likely to get AIDS, women are supported and more likely to receive prenatal and intrapartum obstetrical care, children are educated, and families are more likely to emerge out of poverty. Our African and Haitian teachers include physicians, priests, religious sisters, midwives, and ordinary couples dedicated to their families and their local communities. With them, we look to greater things—to that day when the gifts of a safe birth and secure family are the province of all.