Valentina, a midwife in the only Catholic hospital in East Jerusalem
The clock strikes midnight. In delivery room number one, Melwin tinkers on the computer. He is looking for his favorite song to play for his wife Precilla, who has been in labor for more than a day. They are Indian Christians who emigrated to work in Tel Aviv, and are tonight expecting their first child. Even though they do not have much money, they have been accepted onto the maternity ward at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, the only Catholic hospital in Jerusalem. As Arabs staff it, it is considered a Palestinian hospital. Sister Valentina has been beside Carol for more than three hours. She tries different techniques and exercises to help her have a natural birth. From time to time, the doctor on duty peeps in, veiled, not hiding her skepticism. It was late at night when Sister Valentina gave up. She accompanied Precilla to the operating room to proceed with the Caesarean section. The father waits outside. It takes another half hour before he can finally see his little Eitan.
Just time enough for a caress and Sister Valentina takes the newborn in her arms. She quickly walks down the corridors shrouded in silence and places her little bundle with a colorful woolen hat in the crib ready awaiting the new arrival. It is almost four o’clock in the morning, but Sister Valentina shows no signs of fatigue. Her clear eyes shine in the half-light in front of the row of dozing infants. On the cribs many Arabic names and a few Hebrew names. It is a surprising fact in a Palestinian hospital in the heart of Sheik Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood that became a symbol of the Gaza conflict last May. The daily miracle of coexistence and reciprocal knowledge in the maternity ward of Saint Joseph Hospital has been generated by female tenacity, under the patient guidance of a woman with a double vocation, midwife and religious.
Valentina Sala, a 45-year-old, from Lombardy, was happily engaged when she retired to finish her thesis in obstetrics to a strangely named nuns’ vacation home, the Congregation of St Joseph of the Apparition. It is while here that something never experienced before happened to her. In the prayer and on the faces of the nuns she perceived the strength and the concreteness of a Presence next to her, calling her. This instant of total correspondence was followed by fear. The torment was painful, both because of the burning desire for a fruitful life, and without making a mistake. With this surrender, came peace in her heart. Sister Valentina was ready, like Saint Joseph, to follow God’s dreams.
In Italy, until 2013, she dedicated herself into youth ministry, when the Congregation asked her to leave for Jerusalem, where the Maternity Ward of Saint Joseph’s Hospital, owned by the sisters, needed to be set up. She was introduced to the entirely Arab staff as a midwife, which she continues to be to this day. However, no one there imagined she was completely lacking in ward experience. This was also her first community experience serving an institution. The nuns’ house - of which Valentina was the only Italian - was inside the hospital. Without knowing either English or Arabic, she entered the new world on tiptoe. She could not communicate, but she could observe. Sister Valentina toured the delivery rooms, including those of other Israeli hospitals. As she does so, she noticed a certain aggression in the management of midwifery care, where the majority of medical personnel rendered woman passive during childbirth. The summer of 2014 marked an initial turning point. During the two months of war with Gaza, Sister Valentina also experienced the violence of the conflict. She felt that her contribution to this battered land was to remove the violence, at least at the moment of birth.
The task was difficult, because it was a question of changing the way of caring, which was rooted in the cultural and social system. To this shift, it was not only the nurses who resisted, but also the women themselves. In particular, the Arab women, who arrived in the delivery room with their mothers. It was inconceivable for them to consider the mother an active participant in the child’s birth, so much so that they could share the choices of the midwives and doctors who used suction cups and caesarean sections all too often. Sister Valentina almost could not believe it when she saw a young Muslim woman giving birth on all fours, freely and naturally, without any other constraints.
One of the midwives on the team had the idea that would make the hospital famous across the country. She was pregnant and wanted to give birth in water. No one was using this technique in Jerusalem as yet. Sister Valentina found herself pioneering it, despite herself. The hospital engineer, who had procured the swimming pool used until then only for labor, asked that his wife be allowed to give birth to their third child in water. For Sister Valentina, it was the first experience to assist a water birth. The first phone calls started to arrive from Jewish couples, including observant ones, asking to give birth at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Prior to this moment, it had never happened before in Israel that Jewish children came into the world in a hospital considered Palestinian. A first close contact not only for the Jews, but also for the Arab staff. At first, the midwives were afraid to have anything to do with the Orthodox Jews, who spoke another language and sometimes had special needs. In addition, there was the daily humiliation for female workers to deal with as they passed the increasing number of barriers at Israeli checkpoints.
The hospital was located a few hundred meters from the Esplanade of the Mosques, the scene of the bloody clashes that triggered the war with Gaza last May. Sister Valentina was shocked when she saw, along with the stretchers of the wounded Palestinians, some Jewish couples arriving to give birth. She feared that her midwives would not be able to handle the tension. The answer came in the form of a phone call in the following days: a young Jewish woman who had just given birth thanked her for having felt welcomed, without any discrimination. Sister Valentina thought that if the war had not broken this trust, it meant that something significant had really happened in her hospital for Jerusalem, a city in perpetual torment. God had fulfilled her dream.
by Alessandra Buzzetti
A Middle East correspondent for Tv2000 and RadioinBlu.