You’re in one of the remotest places on earth, in the middle of a dusty desert and it’s pitch black from a power cut.
The temperature is 40C, there are mosquitos everywhere and the only light is from a torch on your head.
Now imagine there’s a young girl in labour and you’re delivering her baby.
In a world as far removed from a modern, hi-tech maternity unit as you can get, those were exactly the kind of conditions experienced when two West Norfolk midwives gave up their annual leave to go and save women’s lives in Africa.
Senior midwives Jane Barley and Carol Sorrell, from Lynn’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, have recently returned from the Afar region in northern Ethiopia, where women have a one in ten chance of dying in childbirth.
They travelled there to work in a remote 20-bed medical centre set up by former QEH consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Margaret McDougald in November 2011.
The nearest hospital is more than four hours away, and pregnant women face a journey on foot, camel, donkey or taxi, if they can afford it, to get there.
“The working conditions are difficult, but you just have to get on with it as you never know what’s coming through the door,” said Jane, 53, who has worked at the QEH for 22 years and lives near Swaffham with husband John.
The mother-of-two fulfilled a life-long ambition to volunteer in a third world country when she first visited the centre in 2012. She took a career break and spent three months there, returning for a month last year and again in January.
She said her and Carol’s work focused on teaching midwives who were lucky if they’d delivered two babies in training before getting a job – compared to around 40 deliveries in training here.
She said: “It’s very much back to basics. They know what they are doing but it’s all theory based. They just need help putting it into practice.”
She described delivering two premature twins, born at 30 weeks weighing little more than 2lb each. The boy died after 48 hours but the girl survived.
“I spent four days teaching the mother to express milk for her daughter, but she got it and has now taught another woman in the same situation as her,” she said. “It’s incredibly rewarding, and the little successes like that seem mammoth.
“It’s lovely to give something back and there’s always the realisation that if we weren’t there, many women would just die.”
Mother-of-two Carol, 53, lives in West Winch with husband Ed and has worked at the QEH for 14 years.
Inspired by Margaret and Jane, she visited the centre for the first time in January and spent three weeks there.
“Women would sometimes travel for two hours to get to our hospital, by any means possible,” she said.
“By that time they could have a prolonged or obstructed labour, and we helped the midwives there to recognise this and teach them the best way to deal with abnormal labours.”
She described the whole experience as “very challenging” but one of the most amazing in her life.
“When I first got there I found the conditions very harsh and the equipment very basic, but it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The people there are just so appreciative of what we were doing, and everyone was so friendly and welcoming,” she said.
“This was my first taster session but I definitely want to do something like it again.”