One of the first things you notice about Lois Belsey is the joy she finds in everything.
The Midland woman is always laughing.
She has a disarming way about her that is fitting when you learn that she’s a nurse, a midwife, and that she’s lived and worked all over the world as an international worker.
“I went oversees as a missionary nurse, now they call us international workers,” explains Belsey.
She tells stories about her work with the Indigenous people in Papua, Indonesia with the love of a mother.
Belsey spent more than 45 years teaching Indigenous people medical skills and passing on enough of her knowledge about midwifery that she can’t count how many babies she’s caught, or how many lives she’s helped save through her life’s work.
She’s quick to point out that she trained others how to bring a child into the world.
“I did not personally deliver a lot of babies,” she clarifies. “I was teaching others to do it. It used to be that women would give birth to 10 babies and lose five (in rural Papua, Indonesia). That’s half their children.
“In my time working there, I can say the ratio of those that live to those that die has changed. Many of them can now say that all of their children are living.”
After living and working in the jungles of Papua, 400 kilometres from the coast, Belsey is not easily fazed by a challenge.
“You didn’t see the runway until you were almost on it,” laughs the eternal optimist. “It looks like you’re going to land in the water or on a mountain.”
She also says she knew she was close to the place she called home for most of her life by the red of the poinsettias that grew wild all over the mountainside.
Being immersed in the beauty of the jungle must have helped Belsey find the humour in impossible situations.
“We joked that we had to schedule our medical emergencies before 9:30 in the morning, because that’s when the wind would pick up and the planes couldn’t land,” she says with a laugh about the rugged setting she worked in for so long.
Belsey can’t say for certain how many people she trained, and guesses that it’s probably over a hundred.
“It started with basic medical training,” she says, which she wrote in simplified medical manuals in Moni, the rural dialect the villagers spoke. Teaching midwifery came at the end of the training.
Working mostly with women, she says she was teaching them something “they always had to do, but didn’t know how to do.”
“They would do things like push on a mother’s stomach” during labour, she explains, demonstrating that they did not understand some fundamental things about labour and delivery that seem obvious to someone with an education from a developed country.
“I taught them how to get the baby to breathe. To remove fluid and whatever else was in its mouth and nose. They lost a lot of babies because they didn’t know what to do.”
Tapping babies on the bum or back to help them take their first breath — an antiquated practice now — was a new idea for tribal people living in the Indonesian jungles of Papua.
One woman gave birth to twins under a banana tree, and one of them was breach. She laughs saying the conditions were not sterile. Mother and twins all survived with her help.
When she first started working there in 1977, Belsey says, “We didn’t turn babies in the womb in Canada, but you do things over there to save lives.”
Belsey says many mothers died from hemorrhaging, because people didn’t know how to massage the uterus so it would harden and reduce blood loss.
She grows sombre while retelling one birth.
“The mother was bleeding quite heavily before she was ready to push. It was seven o’clock in the evening. The only thing left to do was pray.”
The mother survived to the morning so she could be airlifted to a hospital, but the baby did not. Belsey says it was the power of prayer that saved that woman’s life.
Many teams from Canada visited Belsey over the last 15 years in the area she worked that spanned about a 50-mile radius and was home to approximately 25,000 people.
“Many visitors would say that it was very obvious from what they could see of the people that there was a difference. When people are well, you can see it in their face.”
Belsey, who calls herself a risk-taker, says when you come to the end of your knowledge, you turn to God.
God is also why she looks back on her time in Vietnam in 1974 without remembering the sound of bombs or gunfire.
“I knew I was going to a war-torn country. I prayed to God to help me not to hear the bombs and guns going off,” explains Belsey.
“I know I did, but I have no memory of hearing or seeing guns or bombs.”
When she arrived she worked at a leprosarium in Dalat, and was studying the language so she could teach the rural communities basic medicine and midwifery.
“Personally, it was peaceful for me,” says the 72-year-old with resolve.
This was her first stop in Asia, in the middle of the Vietnam war, and she found peace in her work, and in the people.
“We were evacuated in the night, and couldn’t say goodbye to our friends,” says Belsey. “That was the most difficult part for me, when I knew the people I loved had to stay.”
Her family and their church eventually sponsored a family that came to Canada in 1979 when the Canadian government sponsored one refugee for every privately sponsored refugee.
She kept in close contact with some of her Vietnamese friends over the years. Some evacuated, and some she lost touch with.
Belsey also lived and worked in Thailand for a time after she was evacuated from Vietnam, and still has friends there.
She has lived through one of the worst wars in modern history, worked in places so remote that lives hung in the balance, and she did it all with love and grace. It’s easy to see how she had friends all over the world.
“There is nothing better you can do in life,” she says overflowing with gratitude, “Who would want to stay in Canada if you can live almost anywhere else. I would do it again.”
“For me, it was following the call of God in my life. I’ve heard people say ‘Don’t send me to the deepest darkest jungle.’ For me, it was the best thing. Living was difficult from time to time, and I got to trust God all the time and grow and learn.
“You learn as much from them as you give them. The bottom line for me was giving them an abundant life, the best life here on Earth.”
Lois Belsey taught people how to deliver babies in Indonesia until her retirement three years ago.
She lives in Midland, and is still active at the Midland Alliance Church. You’ll find her most days walking with her dog Azu, whose name means my boy in Moni.