Melissa House: one mum’s quest to help other mums give birth safely | HerCanberra

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Melissa House: one mum’s quest to help other mums give birth safely

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This is the story of a Canberra maternal health charity, the generous community of Cairns, and one mother’s quest to help other mothers survive childbirth before her own life was cut tragically short last year.

Melissa Nielsen was a lawyer and mother of one when she first heard her friend and fellow lawyer Naomi de Costa tell her about a fledgling Canberra charity called Send Hope Not Flowers, which was hoping to raise funds to help women in developing countries access safe births.

The connection between Canberra and Cairns was Naomi’s mum, Dr Caroline de Costa, the first woman to become a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology in Australia. She is also a colleague and friend of Send Hope co-founder Professor Steve Robson in Canberra. Both have a passion for promoting women’s maternal health in developing countries such as PNG.

Melissa was also drawn to the cause, and immediately taken with the idea behind Send Hope, which raises money through a website and encourages donations to safe birth programs instead of sending flowers to the maternity ward when someone has a baby.

The new mum receives a card telling her that a donation in her honour will go towards providing a safe birth for another mother somewhere in the developing world. Because flowers die, and women giving birth should not.

Melissa and Naomi took it to their law firm Miller Harris as a charity worthy of fundraising.

In 2013, the first Miller Harris Send Hope Not Flowers luncheon was held and the Cairns community rallied to raise funds for projects in Papua New Guinea, where women face one of the highest risks of dying in childbirth in the world.

In some of the most remote parts of PNG, one in 20 women can expect to lose their life due to complications as a result of pregnancy. Here in Australia, that figure is closer to one in 20,000.

Melissa became a driving force in holding the fundraisers each year and would invite speakers from Send Hope to address the massive crowds of business people, health professionals and community members.

One of these speakers was Dr Barry Kirby, a legendary Australian doctor who has devoted his professional life to helping the women and children of PNG.

Barry was 40 years old and working as a carpenter in PNG when he assisted a gravely ill woman by the side of the road. She would later die, and at that point, Barry made a life-changing decision—to sell everything he owned to try and get a place in medical school back in Australia so he could one day return to assist the people of PNG.

He succeeded and graduated at the age of 52. Dr Kirby headed straight back to Milne Bay Province, one of the most remote parts of PNG, where he has spent decades performing life-saving maternal outreach, flying his own seaplane in and out of tiny villages to get women to their nearest health facilities.

Dr Kirby spoke at two Miller Harris functions, most recently in 2018.

Melissa’s passion for the annual event saw former Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce address the luncheon in 2019.

But the teams from Miller Harris and Send Hope were devastated to hear the news in May 2020, that Melissa had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour known as glioma.

It was a brutal battle and Melissa died just four weeks after her diagnosis. She was 38 years old.

She was remembered across the Cairns community for her enthusiasm for her work, community, and her own children, Harrison 10, Jasmine, 8, and Edison, 4.

But she was also recognised for spearheading more than $150,000 in fundraising for Send Hope—all of which has been directed into maternal services in PNG.

The day she died, Send Hope opened a fundraising page dedicated to Melissa on its homepage. Friends, colleagues and strangers alike donated in her honour until almost $25,000 was raised.

The Send Hope Board then asked its partner organisations in PNG to tender for an appropriate project which would honour Melissa’s memory.

It was only fitting that—after all the plans and costings had been approved—Dr Kirby’s planned ‘Melissa House’ was given the funding last fortnight.

The project is a much-needed waiting house at Walagi, on Goodenough Island, which was selected as Dr Barry’s seaplane base to service the surrounding islands and a population of around 10,000.

Walagi has around 160 deliveries a year and 12 medivacs on average with a severely run-down, semi-permanent mothers waiting house recently built to cater for long-distance mothers. The existing labour room is tiny, just 3 x 2.4m, and can accommodate one delivery bed only. The adjoining post-natal ward has only three beds.

With funding from the donations made in Melissa’s honour, Dr Barry and his team will upgrade the facilities to so that the labour room can accommodate two delivery beds and the post-natal ward can accommodate six beds. Women will be able to wait safely at the new Melissa House until they are ready to give birth, and they will have access to medivacs if complications arise. The new obstetric wing will have its own water and solar lighting.

The project had the blessing of Melissa’s beloved parents Ken and Robyn and husband Rudy.

Melissa’s dad said, “Dr Barry Kirby is a hero as far as I’m concerned. We would love to at some stage, to travel to PNG and witness the house named after Melissa”.

Meanwhile, Melissa’s boss and partner at Miller Harris Sean Walsh said, “I can assure you that Melissa, while probably a little embarrassed about the attention, would have been honoured by the naming of new facility at Walagi, ‘Melissa House’.”

“Melissa strongly believed in the work and mission of SHSF and, as with all things she supported, she devoted herself tirelessly to assist in any way she could.   While she never expected anything in return, I know she would have been thrilled and at the same time, humbled by this gesture.”

“I can’t help but think of this as yet another enduring legacy and tribute to Melissa for the person she was. All of us at MHL could not be happier about this accolade.”

The author of this story is co-founder of Send Hope Not Flowers and worked closely with Melissa in their shared passion of helping more women survive childbirth. If you would like to donate to Send Hope Not Flowers, please go here. All donations over $2 are tax-deductible.

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