PHOTOS: PIH Celebrates Groundbreaking for Maternal Center of Excellence in Sierra Leone

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Partners In Health, government leaders lay first bricks for state-of-the-art teaching hospital designed to provide a new level of care for Sierra Leonean women and families

Posted on May 17, 2021

Dr. Austin Demby, Sierra Leone’s minister of health, and Dr. Paul Farmer, PIH co-founder and chief strategist, take their turns laying the first symbolic bricks for the MCOE—with Farmer taking a more hands-on approach. “This isn’t my first groundbreaking,” he joked. (Guy Tucker / for PIH)

Partners In Health’s mission to radically reduce global maternal mortality has entered a new chapter with the groundbreaking of the Maternal Center of Excellence (MCOE)—a state-of-the-art teaching hospital in Kono, Sierra Leone, that will not only provide a new level of health care to Sierra Leonean women and families, but also set new standards for what’s possible in women and children’s health around the world.

Leaders of PIH and the governments of Kono District and Sierra Leone gathered April 23 on the facility’s future grounds to usher in and celebrate the MCOE’s construction phase, after nearly four years of planning the facility.

Speakers included PIH Co-founder and Chief Strategist Dr. Paul Farmer and Sierra Leone Minister of Health Dr. Austin Demby, who shared a personal connection to the project.

“My daughters helped fundraise for the MCOE, collecting a little bit of money out in their neighbourhood,” he said. “I can’t wait to come home and tell them their work is helping build a 166-bed hospital, and that the people of Kono and of Sierra Leone say thank you.”

Attendees at the groundbreaking—an occasion years in the making—celebrated much more than a building, as the MCOE represents overdue progress toward feminist health care in Kono, across Sierra Leone, and globally. Here are some of our favourite photos from the event.

Members of PIH Sierra Leone’s 500-person staff pose for a group photo at the event. (Maya Brownstein / PIH)
A bulldozer clears land on the Maternal Center of Excellence site, near PIH-supported Koidu Government Hospital. (Maya Brownstein / PIH)
After leaving Freetown at about 4 a.m. to make the six-hour drive to Kono District, Dr. Austin Demby, Sierra Leone’s minister of health, praised Kono as “the beating heart of Sierra Leone,” telling the crowd that: “There is no place for mediocrity in the new Sierra Leone.” He said the MCOE will be a symbol of what is possible in the country, and of a new precedent for dreaming big. (Guy Tucker / for PIH)
One of the biggest hits of the groundbreaking: virtual reality goggles, providing 360-degree views of the MCOE’s structure and design. Dr. Paul Farmer tests them out, taking a look at a rendering of the facility’s future neonatal intensive care unit.(Maya Brownstein / PIH)
Left to right, Sierra Leone Minister of Health Dr. Austin Demby; Mary Fullah, chief nursing and midwifery officer for Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health; Dr. Paul Farmer; and TT Samba, chief medical officer for Sierra Leone, gather for a group photo at the groundbreaking. (Maya Brownstein / PIH)
Isata Dumbuya, maternal health manager for PIH in Sierra Leone, said: “Today is a dream come true,” in her address at the groundbreaking. She also shared the nickname she’s acquired in PIH circles, as one of the MCOE’s key drivers: “Mama MCOE.” (Maya Brownstein / PIH)
Left to right, Dr. Bailor Barrie, incoming executive director of PIH Sierra Leone; Jon Lascher, outgoing executive director; and Isata Dumbuya, maternal health manager, make their marks on the MCOE’s first symbolic bricks. “We did this!” Dumbuya said. (Maya Brownstein / PIH)
Two-year-old Esther Williams lays an MCOE brick with PIH physician Dr. Aramide Oteju, her babysitter for the day while her mother, Naomi, was in labour with her second child. Naomi delivered Esther at PIH-supported Koidu Government Hospital at age 15, and was an obstetric “near miss,” having suffered from eclampsia and postpartum hemorrhage. Clinicians saved her life, and Esther’s in turn—Oteju said if Naomi had died, Esther also “would likely not have made it past the first few months of life.” Today, Naomi is in care for seizures resulting from her complicated childbirth, and Esther and her new sister are both healthy. (Maya Brownstein / PIH)
Virtual Groundbreaking

With the safety of travel still in question amid COVID-19, PIH and supporters of the Maternal Center of Excellence gathered for a virtual groundbreaking ceremony, hosted on YouTube by longtime project partners John Green, Sarah Green (not shown in screenshot), and Hank Green. PIH Sierra Leone leaders Isata Dumbuya, Jon Lascher, and Dr. Bailor Barrie told the Greens all about the event, and answered viewers’ questions about the MCOE. And with a cheers to the momentous milestone, the group reflected on all that’s left to accomplish in Sierra Leone.

“We started this project two years ago talking about the importance of health care systems and how we often don’t think systematically when it comes to health care interventions, and that has resulted in lots of these vertical interventions that haven’t strengthened health systems in the long term,” John Green said. “This is an attempt to take a different way, to help fund a health care system in an ongoing way, and to see a stronger health care system in Kono. …If we can make the case in Kono, we can also make the case that we shouldn’t accept weak health systems anywhere in the world, and we don’t have to.”

The Green brothers and PIH Sierra Leone leadership were all smiles during the virtual groundbreaking event, to celebrate the MCOE and what it will mean for Kono District and Sierra Leone.

Article originally published on pih.org

Take a virtual tour of the planned MCOE to see what the centre will look like after construction is completed.

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