Hazel McHaffie

childbirth

The front line: then and now

Health Minister and Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, was the first member of parliament to be diagnosed with Covid-19. This was back in early March … at a time when there were only 382 reported cases in UK, only 6 people had died. Halcyon days, huh? Less than two months later, we’ve already exceeded 26,000 deaths!

The news about Ms Dorries triggered a memory: I’d read somewhere that she was a trained nurse, and intrigued, I’d bought two of her ‘nursey’ novels in a coffee shop on my way to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town a couple of years ago, stuck them on my shelves, and promptly forgotten about them – The Angels of Lovely Lane and Christmas Angels. Time, methinks, to dig them out and read them … a kind of tribute to the nurses today working so hard to care for people with the virus in a very different world.

I must confess neither the genre, nor the style of writing, are ones I’d normally go for, but there were aspects of these books that gave me pause for thought and sober reflection. These nurses were practising not long before I trained; their experiences resonated with me. Rather like BBC1’s drama, Call the Midwife.

Reading about and recalling those days made me so grateful for all that modern medicine and social care can offer today. How far we have come from those days when
– the NHS was in its infancy
– antibiotics were wonder-drugs
– women had limited career options
– smoking was the norm
– lecture notes were written on typewriters using carbon paper
– rubber tubing was boiled before being inserted into various orifices
– patients were lifted manually
– doctors were revered and all powerful
– women died or were imprisoned following illegal abortions
– ten days bedrest was de rigeur after a simple D&C; three weeks after childbirth
– nurses wore starched collars and frilly caps, always kept their hair off their face tucked inside their caps, lived in hostels with rigid rules, and were all known by their surnames
– silver buckles on petersham belts denoted qualifications
– the Irish were openly discriminated against …

Compare all that with communication, technology, medical expertise, opportunities, science, in 2020. What would have happened if the dreaded coronavirus has struck then?

In her fiction centring on Liverpool in the 1950s, Nadine Dorries has captured a world I knew, and for a few days took me away from the uncertainties and restrictions and anxieties of our present situation, to a bygone era. Memories both happy and sad. But overwhelmingly reasons to be devoutly grateful for what’s available to us today, and the amazing work our front-line staff are doing – and are able to do – to beat Covid-19.

 

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‘Calm down, dear!’

In a former life I used to be a midwife working in an extremely busy labour ward (I’m third from the right in this photograph). In spite of the fast turn-over, we spent long hours with the couples in our care, and often developed warm relationships. We were, after all, sharing one of the most special, intimate and precious experiences in their lives.  And for me certainly, it was always a privilege and a thrill as well as a relief to see the infants safely in their mothers’ arms. Indeed, I always said that, if it ever ceased to be a miracle, I would quit the job. It never did; I left for other reasons – good ones.

However, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. One day a mother registered a complaint against me with my boss. Why? Because apparently, I had exhorted her to ‘push into your tail end.’ It demeaned her apparently, reducing her to the status of an animal! Now this was fifty years ago, at a time when we’d never even heard the term ‘political correctness’, never mind become obsessed with the notion, but even so, I confess I felt mildly irritated. When you’re spending a good chunk of a day/night with a woman, encouraging, supporting, reassuring; working through official breaks and long past your shift-hours to deliver continuity of care, you don’t tend to doctor every word that comes out of your mouth. You’ve got more important priorities, I’d suggest. Especially if the woman hasn’t a clue what she’s supposed to be doing and has no knowledge whatsoever of the anatomical names for the parts of the body she’s employing for the mysterious but monumental effort of giving birth. But hey ho! I could only apologise and try to learn from the experience. Fortunately the Superintendent of the Labour ward was a no-nonsense, straight-speaking, hugely experienced woman who fully shared my values, and she generously let me know (without words) that I had her sympathy and confidence.

When I watch Call the Midwife on BBC1, I’m often reminded of those days, since the programme’s set shortly before the time I’m talking about. The Nonnatus midwives even use terms of endearment when encouraging the mothers in their care – ‘sweetie’, ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘darlin’!! Ppphhhwww!!! It’s some years now since real-life carers were told to eschew such expressions, lest patients/residents/clients, felt patronised, although I’m quite sure they were used in all innocence as terms of affection and engagement, not slights.

Nevertheless, all these decades later, I’m feeling a sense of disbelief. The Royal College of Nursing has just issued a document for its practitioners in which it advises against addressing women as ‘ladies’ to avoid causing unwitting offence … hello?! Other terms now off-limits include ‘pensioners’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘mankind’, ‘manning a ward’, ‘gays’ … Oh, and don’t forget to be scrupulous about selecting the preferred pronouns for people who don’t subscribe to the usual binary classifications, and … You get the idea. Nor is the RCN alone in this; it’s about three years now since the British Medical Association deemed the term ‘expectant mother’ to be taboo, lest it offend transgender people …!!!

Really? Seriously? Has the world gone completely mad?

In the security of my own blog, I think I might be allowed to voice a personal opinion and declare that I honestly think the powers that dictate these things would be well advised to concentrate on gaining more time for clinicians to do their jobs, without the colossal pressures currently hedging them about with stress and restrictions. Time for them to save lives, to ensure safety and the best care, in the first instance. Giving them breathing space – time to attend to those niceties and refinements without burning out themselves. Easing the chronic under-staffing and over-working they labour under, instead of putting even more pressure on them to examine every word before uttering it. Pphshaw!

It appears I got off lightly all those years ago!!

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