VIM’s Volunteer Certified Nurse Midwife Linda Baxter Provided Critical Care to Pregnant Refugees in Greece
By Nancy Fernandez Mills
For Linda Baxter, offering her time and skills to treat female patients at VIM Berkshires is a rewarding and meaningful volunteer job. But this nurse midwife has considerable global healthcare experience and travel is in her DNA.
“My family moved a lot because my father was in the Army,” said Linda. “I didn’t really have a home town in my childhood. I like travel and I’m used to diversity in my patients, since I started my career in Brooklyn at Downstate Medical Center.”
Linda has a Masters degree from Columbia University in maternity nursing. After 17 years working in New York, she moved to the Berkshires to start a maternity clinic at Fairview Hospital. She continued that work at Community Health Practice, raised three children and also volunteered in Namibia, Nigeria and Tibet. After her retirement in 2014, she spent a year in Rwanda.
“When you come home, you feel grateful but you also see how wasteful we can be in this country, “ said Linda. “But volunteering overseas is a great experience. I’ve met so many wonderful health professionals from all over the world who are doing the same work.”
In October, Linda answered a call for help from the Syrian American Medical Society. She traveled to Greece, where thousands of refugees running from war in the Middle East have landed in their quest to reach an ultimate safe haven in Europe.
“There are about 40,000 refugees in Greece today, most from the war in Syria, “ said Linda. “I was sent first to Thessaloniki in northern Greece, but most of the camps there had closed and people had been moved into in-town refugee centers. So I was asked to go instead to the Vial Camp on the island of Chios.”
The Vial Camp has been called “Europe’s dirty secret,” according to The Guardian newspaper, for its deplorable conditions. The Independent says the camp, isolated and surrounded by razor wire, “makes a prison look like a five star hotel.”
“The Vial Camp was built for 700 refugees and there are now more than 2000 people housed in shipping containers in a fenced-in area,” said Linda. “There’s a big tent as well, with rows of bunk beds and many people living in smaller tents.”
“One shipping container was set up as a women’s health service. There were two doctors and some Greek nurses to help us. But language was a big issue, as there were only 15 interpreters for the entire camp.”
Linda said some mothers from Afghanistan spoke Farsi and the Syrians spoke Arabic, but the interpreters could only translate into Greek. So understanding the needs of her pregnant patients was very difficult for Linda, who speaks only English.
While Linda was working at the camp, 30 refugee women were pregnant and getting prenatal care in the camp. But babies were delivered in local Greek hospitals.
“The Greek health system has been overwhelmed by the thousands of refugees who cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey. They have been stuck there for months, waiting to be allowed to settle in another European country,” said Linda. “It’s a very challenging situation, with limited medications, a lot of chronic illnesses like asthma and hypertension, many injuries from hazardous travel and mental health issues like PTSD, anxiety and depression.”
Linda Baxter was on Chios in October, when the weather was good, with warm days and cool nights. She lived in a small apartment about 20 minutes away from the camp. Linda says she hopes to return to Greece in the spring to continue the work that she and others have started there.
“I felt I made a good start in helping the women I saw and in helping to set up a better service for the midwives coming after me.”
According to TIME, December 13, 2017 :
There is no formal tracking of the number of babies born to refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, but the United Nations refugee agency estimates that approximately 54,000 babies were born to Syrian refugees in Europe in 2016.
While local NGOs and national health services do the best they can to help vulnerable populations, it’s likely that few pregnant asylum seekers received adequate care in the months leading up to their deliveries.
Indeed, a recent survey of 14,000 refugee women in Greece by the medical charity Doctors of the World revealed that medical care was inadequate or non-existent for 72% of their health problems. Less than 47% of the women had access to any reproductive healthcare before they arrived at one of the project’s clinics.