Yesterday, the ten SBA participants, their nursing instructors, two representatives from One Heart Worldwide, and I all celebrated the final day of the program, during which the students received official certificates testifying to their new status as skilled birth attendants. The newly-minted SBAs were thrilled to receive their certificates, and, with many speeches and much fanfare, eloquently expressed their appreciation for the program to the One Heart staff members. Despite the atmosphere of excitement and the copious amounts of sickeningly-sweet cake, though, the day was not without a hint of sadness, for it marked the last time that the ten young women, women who started the program as complete strangers and finished it calling each other “sister,” would all be together.

The SBA participants had invited me to the huge goodbye party they held at their hostel the previous night, a dinner and sleepover (with very little actual sleeping) complete with chicken curry, traditional beaten rice, endless amounts of Fanta and Mountain Dew, Nepal’s strangely saccharine version of wine, giggle-filled games of Truth or Dare, and Bollywood music blasting until two in the morning. Sitting on the roof under the midnight stars with my students, listening to their infectious laughter as they exchanged humorous stories about their suitors, boyfriends, and husbands, sounding for all the world like any group of twenty-something American girls hanging out after a long day at work, I contemplated how far these women had come in the past two months and all that they had been through together.

Throughout June and July, these ten women shared their meals, their chocolates, and their beds, their laughter and their tears, their sadness when a patient presented with a stillborn baby, and their indescribable anguish when a hemorrhaging postpartum mother that they had taken turns caring for suddenly died after experiencing a ruptured uterus and a botched emergency laparotomy. They shared homework answers and midwifery expertise, clothes and bangles, mehendi (henna) and nail polish, photos of their parents, boyfriends, and children, songs and secrets, hopes and dreams. I am incredibly fortunate that they so readily accepted me, a complete outsider with little knowledge of Nepali language or culture, and shared all of this with me, as well.

I was exhausted on the day of the closing ceremony, having stolen only a few blessed hours of sleep in between rounds of slumber party games and dance lessons. Perhaps because of my fatigue, everything about the celebration seemed, if not quite sacred, just a little more precious than usual. The students, dressed in beautiful kurtas and glittering scarves, seemed bathed in a golden glow as they, one by one, proudly accepted their certificates of completion from the One Heart Worldwide administrators, and the small training hall practically burst with joy as the women lit the crackling fireworks that topped the two massive cakes, then smeared frosting on each other’s cheeks in celebration of their successes. At the end of the afternoon, after endless rounds of applause and countless group selfies, my ten former students all hugged me goodbye, squeezing my hands, kissing my face, handing me gifts, and promising to stay in touch via Facebook and social media. And then they hugged each other and slowly walked away, heading off in separate directions in groups of twos and threes, returning to their distant workplaces via Kathmandu or their respective villages. I watched them go, these shy, gorgeous, unexpectedly funny, intelligent women – some daughters, some wives, some loving mothers, some playful teenagers with a refreshing innocence when compared to the teenage patients I work with in America. All, now, official skilled birth attendants. In a moment of clarity, I realized that, in many ways both figurative and literal, the future of Nepal, or at least of the nation’s mothers and babies, now rests in their capable, mehendi-adorned hands. And this is as it should be. With tears in my eyes and warmth in my heart, I smiled and waved goodbye