Dr. Robert Walley, who founded MaterCare International, will be honoured with the Catholic Civil Rights League’s Archbishop Adam Exner Award in Public Life on June 19. Photo courtesy of MaterCare International

Dr. Robert Walley honoured for work of MaterCare International

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  • June 10, 2017

Dr. Robert Walley will never forget the moment when he watched a pregnant woman die.

“I went to Africa for the first time in 1981 ... (and) I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said. “(It was) the first time that I was ever at a maternal death. I actually, and this only happened to me once in my life, was holding her hand and I probably felt the last heart beat.”

Not only did the mother die, but so too did the child she was carrying.

“If we were really quick we could have done a cesarean section there in the bed and delivered the baby,” said the obstetrician. “(But) we had no gear to do a post-mortem cesarean section. After a few moments the (unborn child’s) movements stopped.”

The experience was life-changing. Walley, a British ex-patriot who moved to Newfoundland in 1973 when pressured to perform abortions, vowed to make a difference in maternal care.

His work and dedication has been recognized with the 2017 Archbishop Adam Exner Award for Catholic Excellence in Public Life by the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL).

“Since 1981 I’ve been doing something about the number of women who die in Africa” due to a lack of access to “essential obstetrics,” said Walley, who earned his medical degree in London in 1964. “Where one or two would die in Canada per 100,000 live births, there about 790 per 100,000 would die. That is a horrendous difference.

“Over there, they don’t get anything. (Often) they deliver in their village and if they are lucky they’ll get a non-trained traditional birth attendant, that means a woman in the village. There is usually no way of getting to specialist care or trained care.”

That was until Walley established MaterCare International in 1995, an organization whose stated goal is “to carry out the work of Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life) by improving the lives and health of mothers and babies.”

“MaterCare was set up because many of us knew that we were under pressure,” said Walley, who had also served as an advisor to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers for 15 years. “We look after mothers, especially those in rural areas.”

MaterCare conducts workshops and training worldwide, as well as operating ongoing clinics in Kenya, Haiti and Ghana.

For the MaterCare team, who Walley said “could do a lot better for themselves” by working in urban areas, government-funded hospitals, looking after these women and children is more than just a job or the right thing to do. It’s a calling.

“For a lot of us, medicine is a vocation,” he said.

CCRL president Philip Horgan said that not only is Walley’s work in the third world admirable, it also upholds Catholic values in the wake of what he called a “radical shift undertaken by the federal government in terms of foreign policy on extension of abortion services.”

“Dr. Walley’s engagement there quite frankly shines a light on the opposite approach that has been undertaken by the current Liberal government to promise $650 million in support of Planned Parenthood and other agencies on the international scene,” said Horgan, “and away from maternal health initiatives that had been agreed to by the G7 and G20 arrangements by the previous government. Dr. Walley has been in the field for more than 20 years doing that good work (and) we could have honoured him many years past.”

Humbled by the recognition, Walley said he won’t accept the award for himself.

“It is for all of those who work and support us, MaterCare,” he said. “Once you see one maternal death it changes your life.”

Walley will officially receive the Exner Award during the CCRL’s annual Spring Dinner on June 19 in Toronto.

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