When Dr. Josefina Coen passed away last month, I paused and prayed for her peaceful journey. But I know if she were at my side, there is another prayer she would ask of me, of us: “ojalá que llueva leche materna en el campo. “
These are the favorite words that moved Dra. Coen and us and her colleagues working around the beautiful country of Dominican Republic. I was privileged to work with her there as the UNICEF Representative from 1993-1995. It meant much to her. It was her passion, her mission, her personal aspiration for her country and the world.
Always on the go, Dra. Coen was indefatigable. She had little patience with any bureaucracy, unforgiving of hospital administration that stood in the way of pushing the baby and mother friendly hospital initiative. But she had infinite sweetness to little newborns, their moms and the would-be mothers – teaching them the value of breast milk and the virtues of breastfeeding for both mother and baby. Not just once but she delivers her message to them over and over.
The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) flourished during her time as Vice Ministry of Health and President of the National Commission for Breastfeeding. There ware scanty resources: little money, not enough qualified health professionals, inadequate communication materials. These were all the time scarce. But there was Dr. Coen’s singular voice enjoining hospital administrators and the media to join the worthy movement. My colleagues in WHO and UNICEF lent our energy and our platform to the lady. We believed in her leadership and her genuine crusade to have every child in the island breastfed.
“Ojala que llueva en el campo” is from the lyrics of a Juan Luis Guerra’s famous songs. When I asked Dra. Coen whether JLG would mind if we use the words as a rallying piece in the certification of Hospital San Juan de la Maguana as a BFHI institution, she said that if it is good for babies, JLG would be happy. I think she meant everything that advances BFHI was okay with her. We never heard any opposition from the celebrated singer to us using a part of his song in our campaign for universal breastfeeding in the island.
Dra. Coen was a herself an institution. There was no corner in the DR where she was not greeted by her former medical student. They deferred to her with the loving respect of students who understood the mission and dedication of a teacher who taught medicine, pediatrics, and love for the little creatures. And in an uncompromising manner: Dra. Coen was capable of scolding her students for any gap she observed around caring for her constituents – mothers and their young children. She demanded that the doctors and other medical personnel love these “patients” like their own.
I took away many lessons from my two years in the DR. One is called the Dra. Coen simple mantra: love your work – be true to your mission and work, work, work. Never be beaten by any bottleneck. They are meant to be overcome. During her 78 years of life on this planet, Dra. Coen did just that.
Millions of mothers and children in the island will remember her frail, almost tired look in her last years of public service. Her physical challenges were there for a long time but she never surrendered until it became impossible for her to move around. Even during those years, I am sure she kept whispering: “ojalá que llueva leche materna en el campo”. Now that she is where the rains are created, she might just be behind the clouds blowing them towards where the maternity hospitals are.