CNN Hero of the Year Ibu Robin Lim: mother, hero

JP Alipio

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She shares her story -- from the mountains of Baguio all the way to Indonesia

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – Heroes are not born, they are crafted through hard work and passion. For Robin Lim the road to becoming one of the world’s heroes has been a long one and one not without any difficulties.

She is a product of two worlds, Filipino and American, a citizen of the world yet in touch with her roots as an Asian, and more importantly, a mother. Impassioned by the death of her sister from a mismanaged childbirth, she started on the path of giving infants an opportunity to live, and mothers a way of childbirth respectful of their own traditions and culture — one that was not only humane but in sync with the earth.

Yayasan Bumi Sehat (Healthy Mother Earth Foundation) was crafted from her passions and the need of the people around her in Bali, Indonesia. Since 1993 Yayasan’s clinics have treated over 113,000 people completely for free.

Ibu Robin is what the locals now call her, “Ibu,” which means mother — an appropriate title for one who has been the mother of thousands and has influenced maternal practices across the globe.

In 2011 CNN awarded her the honor of being named its “Hero of the Year.” A mother to all and an inspiration to millions, she deserves every accolade.

In one of the brief moments she has been able to take away from her patients she shares with us her experiences from a childhood growing up in the mountains of Baguio, to the influences of her work, the struggles along the way and dreams of bringing Yayasan’s programs to the mountains of the Philippines.

Here we let her tell her story in an interview with JP Alipio. This is the story of an Asian mother.

NEW LIFE. Robin Lim helps deliver a new baby.

JP: What was you childhood like? I understand you grew up in the Philippines as well?

Robin: Yes, I was an Army brat, growing up all over the world, with three brothers and my wonderful sister. As the eldest of five, it was a crazy joyful home. My parents met at the old Igloo in Baguio City, which was a “watering hole” after WWII, where the GIs at Camp John Hay would hang out. My mother’s family owned the Igloo. They went on their first date at Burnham Park. My Mother was a shy and brilliant, Catholic School graduate. My father an ungainly red headed soldier. They were married at the Baguio Cathedral. So my deepest roots are in Baguio. You may find out some of my family stories by reading my Novel: Butterfly People, published in the Philippines by Anvil.

JP: Your father was in the military and often away on assignment. What was it like growing up in a female dominated household?

Robin: Well the BEST was when my Lola, Vicenta Munar Lim, an amazing Hilot, was living with us. She very much shaped my life, and her spirit encouraged me to become a midwife, a birthkeeper. My mother was a soft as she was strong. Though I had some rough teen years, feeling misunderstood by my parents, as they were very strict, I feel I got Blessed to have such a mother. There was always something wonderful cooking, chicken adobo being my favorite. There were flowers everywhere, as my mother loved to garden. I learned to be strong in LOVE from my mother and my aunties and my Lola.

JP: Did growing up in a military family influence your path in life?

Robin: I loved the travel, living in Okinawa and the Philippines gave me the best possible adventurous childhood. I learned to fear and loath war. My father was in Vietnam, a war I protested against. It caused tension in the family, I was a student protesting the war, promoting peace, and my own father was an officer in the US Army. I saw how deeply the Vietnam war damaged him. I felt that in order to make young soldiers fight against the Vietnamese, the US Military leaders promoted racism against Asians. You can imagine how this felt, being torn between a traumatized American father and a Filipino~Chinese mother. It was only the deep devotion and love between my parents that kept their marriage strong after Vietnam. In this environment, a family impacted by the tides of war and history unfolding, that I vowed to do my part to create Peace on Earth. I take that childhood promise quite seriously, even now as a midwife and a writer.

JP: Before walking this path you now follow, what was your profession?

Robin: First I became a teenaged mom, my daughter ~ the one I would call my “Guru” for all she has taught me, is now 35 years old. She was born gently at home, with midwives. I was making little bits of jewelry to sell at Art shows and swap meets in Santa Barbara, while a mom and a student. Later, I became an author, while still selling my handicrafts. This allowed me to be a stay at home mom while supporting my children. For many of those years, I was also a single mom. Then I became Poet-in-the-Schools for Maui County, Hawaii. This was part time, so I still made handicrafts, and wrote articles and worked on my books, while being a mom.

By the time I moved to Bali I was remarried. My husband was a widower, with two small children. I was divorced again, with four children. We took a huge risk, throwing two broken hearts together to make a family. Soon we were living in Bali, a blended family, I was teaching and pregnant with Wayan Hanoman. All during this time I was studying to become a midwife.

JP: What led you on this path of caring for mothers and children?

Robin: Twenty-one years ago my own sister died from a complication of her 3rd pregnancy. She was in the USA, she had medical insurance and was under the care of a specialist. I feel that as a Filipina mestiza married to an Asian, the medical system allowed her to slip through the cracks. When she tried to ask her doctor why she felt unwell, he had no time to give to her. I often wonder, had she been under the care of a midwife, who would then force the medical system to take notice of her risk factors; Would my sister be alive today? Would her Baby have grown up? I feel my sister is an angel, who is with me all the time. Sometimes I get a very strange feeling, that something is not right with a mother or her baby, and I feel my sister’s presence, as if she were telling me to ‘pay special attention.” When I do, a life is saved. This happens enough o make me believe I have a special guidance, from Christine.

JP: How did you start Yayasan Bumi Sehat (Healthy Mother Earth Foundation)?

Robin: In Baby steps. In 1993 my son was born at home in Bali, with the help of my husband, I did not have a midwife, because I could not find proper care at that time in Bali. Soon after that the people if the surrounding villages would come to me asking for help with their births. I found the midwives were in need of help to increase their skills and support with the medical system.

Then Dr. Inne Susanti came to visit me, and showed me the study she had conducted for UNICEF, it showed that hemorrhage after childbirth was the leading cause of death on the island. These were women dying in the prime of their lives, not elders, or sick people, just women becoming mothers. I found the dukun bayi, the traditional midwives and hilots of Bali were afraid, as the mothers began to hemorrhage to death after the indigenous red rice of Bali was changed to the high-yield ‘Green Revolution’ rice introduced by the US scientists in the 1970. The Philippines also got this ‘New’ rice, which fills the belly but does not have nutritional value. The American scientists did not take into consideration what the long term effect of changing the staple food of Asia would be. While they were able to combat hunger, they introduced a recipe for disaster in pregnancy.

20 years ago our small village had no automobiles and few motorbikes, women in labor could not get to the hospitals in the city, even though many were high-risk. Some walked to the midwife in Ubud, through the Monkey Forest, others stayed home and gave birth unattended. Most families in our village and the surrounding villages had stories of women they had lost in childbirth. Dr. Susante urged me to do something about it. When a woman I became friends with, just across the river, hemorrhaged to death having her baby, before her family could find help, I decided to try to organize a solution.

JP: What difficulties did you experience along the way?

Robin: Many difficulties and many blessings. Funding for such a project is always a challenge. We sold our home in Hawaii to build the clinic. In the beginning the medical authorities did not really trust the gentle birth protocols that Bumi Sehat (Bumi means Earth Mother and Sehat is healthy) Foundation clings to. We insist on a gentle culturally appropriate style of natural childbirth. Now the Bumi Sehat midwife to mother care protocols are world famous, but at the time we were considered a threat to the status quo. Over the years the OBGYNs came to see the reason behind our style of care and the government here began to mandate “normal birth” (if at all possible) and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of babies’ lives. Sometimes being trailblazers is not so comfortable.

JP: What was the initial response of the local people of Bali when you opened your organization or started your work?

Robin: They LOVE it. Just three days ago I delivered the baby of a young woman who I delivered into this world. Her mother and grandmother are dear friends. I have now helped two generations of their family, which is so rewarding for my heart.

JP: How do your own children and husband fit into the work you are doing?

Robin: They do a bit of everything. After the tsunami my husband and the elder children came along on the disaster relief team. this means they did everything, well salinity testing, digging pit toilets for the survivor camps, construction of the clinic, even body recovery. Now they do media support and everything they can. My husband and sons are musicians, they do fundraising concerts. I am very blessed with a super creative and supportive family.

JP: What future directions would you like for your organization as well as the healthcare services for women and mothers in the Southeast Asian region?

Robin: First we need to build a new home clinic in Bali, the one we are in is on lease, which is finished in less than 4 years, plus it is dangerous in earthquakes. My bigger dreams include helping the women in the Philippines set up similar community health and childbirth clinics. This is a cost effective life saving model of care. Baguio is my mother’s hometown, and I would love to begin there, especially as the mountain region has many many families who need these services.

JP: What does it feel like to see the babies you have saved grow into a mature adults?

Robin: Well, I recently saw a 16-year-old boy on a motorbike, racing down the road without a helmet. When he was born, I did CPR to help him breathe. I said a prayer that he would be safe, and I later went by his house to remind him of how important it is to wear a helmet.

JP: Many women owe their lives and their children’s lives to you and your organization, what personal favorite stories of the women who come into your clinic can you share with us?

Robin: Five years ago a young mother named Kadek, term pregnant with her second baby, came to Bumi Sehat. She had not had any prenatal care previous to this first visit. Sadly, the midwives could find no fetal heartbeat. Kadek’s baby had died, one week before his birth. After the stillbirth of Ibu Kadek’s baby boy, we visited her at her home. The family lived in a hovel. They ate one or two small bowls of white rice with coconut oil and salt per day. Neither Kadek nor her husband had jobs.

In getting to know this mom, we found out that she had been trained as a seamstress, but that following the Bali bombs, she was let go, as her bosses’ business was no longer lucrative. Some of us at Bumi Sehat and Ibu Brenda of Bali Buddha (an Ubud area healthfood store), bought Kadek a sewing machine. Today she has more work than she needs. It took courage for Kadek to try again to have a baby. She came regularly to prenatal care, she took the free vitamin supplements we provide, she joined prenatal yoga classes…In 1998 I was in Baguio, and I was blessed to deliver my cousin’s new grand baby. It was amazing, to receive a Lim into this world. I have also been blessed to be the midwife for my own daughter, and my own daughter-in-love. Imagine having your own grandchildren born into your hands!!

JP: Do you still remember the first mother and baby you have saved?

Robin: I remember ALL the mothers. Since they started operations Yayasan Bumi Sehat has given over 4,000 women the opportunity to become mothers and now has two clinics based in Bali and in the tsunami center in Aceh. And what started as a one person operation has now grown to 71 health workers, working seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Education is now also a large part of their work with two youth education centers to complement their health care clinics, as well as recycling and organic farming projects. They also support many students in schools to become midwives, teachers, and nurses. The awarding of the CNN hero in 2011 with a grant of $250,000 will allow them to continue their work and expand their operations in the area to accommodate more people and give better services.

When asked how the experience of becoming one of CNN World’s heroes and now one of the most recognizable figures across the globe had changed her work, she had this to say, “I am still kneeling on the floor, delivering babies! And I love it.” –


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