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"Watching a mother die when I was 10 years old made me want to be a doctor."

3 March 2021
Dr Lucia Barreto attending to a client at Becora Community Health Center in Dili, TImor-Leste. @UNFPA Timor-Leste, February 2021

A crowded health facility is a common sight in Timor-Leste where on average one health worker serves 1000 Timorese – well below World Health Organization’s recommended lower threshold of 2.3 for every 1000 population.

However, for Dr Lucia Barreto, a 34-year-old medical doctor, she is undeterred by the overwelming pressure from multitude of patients and clients seeking her services on a daily basis.

As recommended by UNFPA and the World Health Organization, it is critical to safeguard reproductive rights by ensuring that there are functional public health and health-care facilities, goods and services, as well as programmes in sufficient quantity.

Unlike many of her peers, Dr Barreto is a beneficiary of the International Comprehensive Rights Based Training for Mordern Contraceptives, sponsored by UNFPA, and held at the National Training Institute for Health (INS) in Timor-Leste in 2017.

The training aimed at improving capacity of medical doctors and midwives to support communities to end unmet need for family planning and improve access to appropriate family planning options.

She is currently supporting midwifery trainees at Becora Community Health Centre, and offering family planning services to clients while also working full-time at the National Hospital in Timor-Leste as a general medicine practitioner in the emergency unit.

“In Timor-Leste most doctors and midwives do not have specialized training in family planning. I was lucky to participate in a three-week training in Competency Right Based Family Planning held in Indonesia, sponsored by UNFPA and Indonesian Government. It enhanced my capacity to better serve clients and families who need access to modern family planning methods.

“I was also able to assist in training other doctors in family planning while also helping clients to make informed choices.

“We need to continue training new doctors and midwives to ensure that they are well equipped to address modern challenges.

“With COVID-19 travel restrictions, access to antenatal care medication has been hampered -- even as number of births increase. This calls for improved family planning services,” observed Dr Barreto.

At Becora Community Health Centre on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon in Dili, Timor-Leste, Dr Barreto is attending to a client -- while two nurse assistants observe keenly.

Across the room -- devided in four cubicals -- another nurse assistant is steralising medical equipments for a family planning implant proceedure. Her undivided-attention to her client is evident as other patients expectantly wait for their turn. 

What now seem routine for Dr Barreto was born out of a childhood dream that parmanently transformed her life and career. She is a role model to many aspiring midwives and doctors – a true manifestation of passion and leadership through service. With over six years experience as a medical doctor, and three as a trainer -- the sky is the limit for the soft-spoken doctor who spent most of her childhood in Becora.

After successfully graduating from SMP Becora Highschool, Dr Baretto was offered an opportunity to study informatic engeneering at National University of Timor-Leste.

A year later however, she received two scholarships from Cuba to either pursue studies in informatic engeneering or medicine – declining the first option to follow her childhood dream. Her desire was fullfilled as she accepted the scholarship to study medicine in Cuba in 2005 -- and successfully graduated from Enrique Cabrera University General Hospital in 2012 through an exchange program with National University of Timor-Leste.

But what inspired her to pursue medicine as a career? Unlike many girls her age who would be happy fantasising on mythical stories like “Cinderella”, she dreamt of becoming a doctor to help cure the sick and restore good health.

The Cuba-trained doctor witnessed a harrowing experience – as a 10-year-old girl -- that left her wondering what she could do to help. Despite her tender age,  Dr Barreto was certain that she wanted to be in a better position to assist in future.  

 “When I was ten years old, I witnessed a neighbour die of excessive bleeding after delivery. I was deeply saddened by the experience because I could not help as a young girl except to watch helplessly.

“I was disturbed by the experience -- and wondered why the woman had to die in such circumstances. Though I had no immediate answers, the grief strenghthened my resolve and dream to be a doctor. I knew that is what I wanted to do as a career.

 “I was also greatly encouraged by my aunty. Every time I shared with her about my studies she encouraged me not to drop out of medical school, and to successfully complete my studies,” Dr Barreto said.

“Helping people is my passion. I dreamt of being a doctor from a very young age, and I am glad that I am now able to help many mothers and prevent infant mortality while also advising clients on best family planning options that suit their needs,” Dr Barreto said.

UNFPA is committed to working with the Ministry of Health in Timor-Leste and other partners to build capacity of health workers as a contribution to sustainable health systems that promote availability, accessibility, acceptability, quality and effective coverage of health services for all.