Saturday, August 09, 2008

What would the village midwife do?

My village is not an ordinary village. It has long busy roads, with lights at intersections and 40K zones outside schools. It has freeways that become very busy and clogged at certain times of the day. There are people and cars and trucks, buses and trains everywhere. It's the 'burbs of Melbourne. (I avoid the city if I can!)
So why do I call it a village?

The title 'village midwife' was given to me years ago when I was employed part time by RMIT University to provide supervision and mentoring for midwifery students at Birralee Maternity Unit (Box Hill Hospital). A hospital midwife discussing care of a woman with one of the students asked,
"What would the village midwife do?"
When the students and I sat down to reflect on the day's work in the afternoon, that question became the focus of our discussion. I was delighted to see the 'village' concept applied to a midwife's decision making. In today's globalised world, with amazing technology and communication, the challenge to give birth in harmony with nature's wonderful processes is the same as it has always been. Just as many of us value food grown in our own gardens, local grocers, schools, or clothes made in our own country, the village concept is readily applied to birth and nurture of our babies. "What would the village midwife do?" becomes a guiding question for me and others who are working to promote normal birth, whether they are out there in the 'village', or working in big modern hospitals.

My village is small, not in physical area, but in the number of mothers I can attend at any one time. This month I have three births booked. Those three women and their families become my neighbours for a brief period, and I join their lives in a special way as the midwife primary carer during their birthing experience.

Yesterday the mother called me in the morning and told me she was having 'niggles'. We spoke again after lunch, and she said nothing much was happening, but she knew her baby was coming. We anticipated the possibility of a rapid birth, as her first baby had been born minutes after I arrive at their home. I assessed the time it would take for me to get from my home to hers, up to 45 minutes, and we agreed that I should go to her home and wait. I put my gear in the car, with a MIDIRS journal to read, some wool and knitting needles, and an apple to eat on the way home (an excellent pick-up for a weary midwife), and headed out.

After a couple of hours the mother decided to have a rest in bed. Whether it was from tiredness or boredom, I don't know. The father went to his computer to check emails, and I nestled into a big red bean bag with the MIDIRS journal. The house was quiet. The bedroom door was ajar.

At about 4.30 the mother got up. Her waters had broken.
After listening to the baby's heart beat I noticed the wet undies on the bathroom floor.
"There's meconium in your baby's amniotic fluid" I said, and explained that this is a reason to consider transfer to hospital for monitoring.
However I was reluctant to cause unnecessary disturbance in this labour, which I expected to be strong and very demanding. It would take us about 30 minutes to get to the hospital, and then another 15 to settle in to a hospital birth room, if there were no delays. I decided to see what happened over the next 15 to 30 minutes - how the baby responded to contractions, and how the labour progressed. If there was fetal distress, or if the labour did not establish quickly, we should go to hospital. I called Katrina to come for the birth, and got my gear ready.

Soon the sounds coming from the bedroom were unmistakably those of strong labour. Contractions became long, with little resting period before the next contraction began. I listened again to the baby, and the heart sounds were strong and reassuring. What would the village midwife do? I was quickly confident that we needed to stay at home - that it would in fact be more harmful to try to move to hospital in this labour. The stress and anxiety of the trip, that would be added to a very demanding time of labour, with the potential for a birth in the car or in the hospital lobby, were more of a threat to this mother and baby than the meconium.

The bedroom was unlit, with a little light coming from the hallway. At about 5.30, only an hour from the time the waters broke, a beautiful baby boy lay on the floor under his mother. I untangled the cord, and wiped the fluids from his face. He was pink, but lay quietly, and I felt his chest - a good heart beat. With a bit more tactile and verbal encouragement he joined us with a lusty cry.

Katrina had just arrived, and heard this from outside the bedroom window. After a few minutes she knocked on the door and I went to bring her in.

As often happens with a very powerful labour, the strong contractions continued, and placenta came soon after. I was once again impressed with the ordinary-ness of an extra-ordinary event, as mother and baby rested in bed, with the proud daddy supporting and watching closely. I got on with the paperwork, and Katrina made a cup of tea and washed some dishes.

The village midwife today has the best of both worlds. When birth is spontaneous and normal, the home is the best place to give birth. When illness or complication is present, the village midwife links in with the team of experts in managing difficult births, and works to get the best possible birth for that individual woman and baby. There are, of course, grey areas. If in this instance I had felt anxious about proceeding with birth at home, because our guidelines say meconium stained liquor is an indication for referral, the birth of this particular baby would not have proceeded in the uncomplicated and undisturbed way that it did at home. This is the duty of care of the midwife - not just the village midwife: every midwife.

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