Don’t let Rita Njiru’s demure nature fool you. She is a woman determined to improve the health of mothers and children. Whether it’s educating women about the benefits of family planning, protecting their unborn children from HIV or promoting infection prevention practices, Njiru gives it her all and has strengthened health services at Embu Provincial General Hospital and improved care for mothers-to-be.
The senior nursing officer at Embu Hospital—a position that she has held for the last five years—the 48-year-old mother of five children also is a midwife. She decided on nursing as a way to earn a living and learned something about herself during her training: “I realized a passion of working with mothers and that enabled me to embrace the profession.”
Njiru excelled at her studies and won a prestigious award at Nairobi’s Medical Training College in 1998 for her academic and clinical work.
In her very first job at a government hospital in Chuka, Njiru promoted policies that helped improve maternal health outcomes, including the establishment of an antiretroviral therapy clinic and community care center for HIV-positive clients.
Three months after she transferred to Embu Hospital, she was tapped to be the nursing officer in charge of the maternity department, and six months later she became the nurse in charge of the facility. Among her duties: managing services and care in the hospital and overseeing the welfare of the 254-member staff.
Njiru’s passion revolves around championing family planning services.
“I love children, in fact I am a mother of five, so the well-being of maternal child health is my priority,” Njiru explained.
In Kenya, partnerships such as the APHIA II Eastern project at Embu Hospital, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, are strengthening health facilities and systems, expanding the capacity of health workers like Njiru and establishing innovative ways and practices to improve the quality of health care for Kenyan women and their families.
At Embu, Njiru’s focus most recently has been educating women on the use of the postpartum intrauterine contraceptive device (PPIUD). Enrolled in a Jhpiego-supported training program in the use of PPIUD, Njiru has mentored more than 30 nurses in the facility in how best to educate women clients on the use of postpartum family planning.
As a result, more than 700 women have benefited from the method at the Embu hospital. The facility also encourages partner involvement and works with spouses and others to ensure a constant supply of family planning methods for continuity of services. Her work in this area has been a beacon for health providers outside Kenya.
“Other countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia (also) benefited when they came to visit our program to see what we do,” she said.
To ensure that the next generation of Kenyans is free from HIV, Njiru has been active in helping HIV-positive women protect their unborn children from infection. She has assigned two nurses in the maternity ward to conduct HIV counseling and testing of mothers along with their partners. She has also ensured that antiretroviral drugs are available for mothers who need them.
Her work in safeguarding clients’ health covers the spectrum of possible infection.
Mothers who deliver at the facility are advised to wash their hands before breastfeeding and after changing sanitary towels. They are taught personal hygiene and advised on proper diet to prevent anemia.
“Everybody in the hospital has embraced ideas of handwashing, use of disinfectant, segregation of waste materials and protective clothing for staff who handle waste material,” she said, adding that despite all this, there is still need for improvement.
Just like all other jobs, midwifery comes with challenges. “The fact that you are in charge of two lives with the many risks associated with childbirth causes a midwife to be apprehensive,” Njiru said, adding that witnessing a mother die from a preventable cause is most frustrating.
That’s why she has embraced a Jhpiego-supported performance and quality improvement process that has led to improved services at the hospital. Njiru said that after she trained her team in the process, they developed a strong sense of purpose in improving practices and strengthening systems. Mentoring of staff in handling obstetric emergencies, use of the partograph (a simple chart for recording the progress of labor) and management of eclampsia helped reduce maternal mortality by more than 50 percent, she said.