Midwives cradle hope amid disasters
They have seen many first looks, heard many first cries, and have been integral to one of the most joyous occasions in the lives of many women – the birth of a child.
Charmaine Reid, 66, and Iris Vassell-Murray, 64, are retired midwives who have each conducted more than 250 home births, primarily in the parish of St Mary.
As Jamaica grapples with the new coronavirus, Vassell-Murray recalled that she was among the team of healthcare workers who assisted the country in overcoming the second phase of the poliomyelitis crisis in the 1980s.
“All primary-care midwives had to go out into the communities and immunise everybody with the oral polio drops, whether they had gotten the vaccine or not. I delivered about four to six babies because during that time of the year, summer, we didn’t normally have a lot of deliveries,” she recalled.
Delivering babies during the crisis was no different.
“As midwives, we practise with universal precaution. We treat everybody and ourselves as carriers of any virus that is around, and so we would use our protective clothing, like our masks, gloves and gowns, and ensure that we change them at appropriate intervals,” Vassell-Murray said.
Reid was on leave in 1982, preparing to give birth to her third child.
Prior to receiving two years of midwifery training at the Kingston School of Nursing, Reid did several jobs, including being a pretrained teacher.
She was eventually assigned to the Windsor Castle Health Centre in St Mary, conducting her first delivery in 1979.
“We were not supposed to deliver mothers who were primigravida, that is somebody who is pregnant for the first time or mothers who had five children already. They were to be delivered in hospital,” she recalled.
The mother was 15 years old and transportation did not frequent the rural community.
Reid’s assessment of the teenage mother showed that she would not make it to hospital in time.
“Her mother and father were in a different room, and when they realised that the baby was born was when they heard the baby cry. There wasn’t a sound from their daughter,”she said.
Reid said in her early years of practice, more pregnant women opted for home births rather than hospital births because of the undivided attention they got from midwives.
She recalled that a records clerk who worked at a hospital in Kingston was intent on having a home birth and travelled home to her parents in St Mary one evening.
The woman’s father showed up to Reid’s home in the night requesting her services.
“That night, it was an ordeal because it was a night when we had a flood – it was a June flood. Where they lived, there was a T-junction and a footbridge, and the stream that runs under the bridge, the rain was so heavy that it covered it.”
Reid did not have a bottle torch or batteries for her flashlight “but the good God in Heaven caused the lightning to flash, and each time it flashed, he told me, ‘Anywhere you see me step, you are to step,’ and that was how we got over the bridge,” she recounted.
In her 34 years in the profession, she had no fatalities, but a few near-death experiences.
Reid noted that being out in the field to conduct home births required a level of independence and innovation. She recalled a couple who moved to a St Catherine community when the parish’s midwife was on leave. The woman went into labour the same night, and by the time Reid got to the home, the woman had self-delivered and the baby was not breathing.
“I wrapped the baby and put the baby aside and attended to the mother. When I looked across, I realised that the baby made a gasp,” she said.
Reid asked the husband to ride his bicycle to the neighbouring Guy’s Hill Health Centre, which had an ambulance, so the baby could be taken in for treatment.
“The baby was born with a hole in the heart. That baby was treated, and recently I saw that young man. He is almost 30 – such a sweet fellow,” the retired midwife said.
Each delivery is unique and some present more challenges than others. One, she recalled, is another woman who had also self-delivered before she got to the home. The newborn was almost lifeless.
Reid made a makeshift incubator using empty glass bottles and hot water. She poured the water in the bottles, wrapped them individually in towels, and padded them around the baby.
“There was no way that little child could go out in the cold air so I had to stay there all night. I went home in the morning, got something to eat, and came back and spent the whole day,” she said.
When asked about late-night calls, she burst out in laughter, as those were very frequent.
“There were times when you have what is called crop season – every week, two or three births continuously,” she told The Gleaner.
“It is one of the greatest professions. ... You start to monitor that pregnancy until birth, and even after that, I watch the children grow,” Reid said, glowingly.
For Vassell-Murray, the 1988 Hurricane Gilbert is etched in her memory for more than one reason. When Jamaica was issued the hurricane warning, all expectant mothers who were not in labour were released from hospital.
A first-time mother was among the patients who were released, and according to the policy, they were not to be delivered at home.
“With the scare and everything, she went into labour. At the height of the hurricane, I was called and I had to go because we must answer all calls. Her stepfather came for me and led me to the house. I went out and conducted that delivery without complications,” she recalled.
“I couldn’t come home until daylight, but luckily my husband was home with the children. When day break on the Tuesday morning and I saw where I walked to go to that delivery, it was amazing. Trees were down, rivers were overflowing and there was a small gully I had to go over. It had to be a miracle!”