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'I started breathing for the baby and pressing his chest'

A Belfast Tale ‘Oh baby’

Showing bravery: Debra Hoyle speaking at the book launch
Showing bravery: Debra Hoyle speaking at the book launch
Debra Hoyle during her days as a policewoman

By Debra Hoyle

It started off an ordinary day on duty at Castlereagh with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. For months, some of us had been manning the permanent vehicle checkpoint on Ladas Drive, the so-called ‘Ring of Steel’. Initially, I had been tasked with the Inquiry Office duty, but after some light banter ‘Sarge’ had thrown me out to walk the street for my cheek.

We enjoyed our banter and I didn’t really mind being out, as the sunshine was glorious. Four of us were dandering back down towards the front of the station when a car suddenly mounted the kerb at the station fence and screeched to a halt.

Everything went through my mind. Initially, I thought maybe it was the 1,000lb car-bomb that we had been warned about, but when the driver opened the back door I could see a body on the back seat. I then thought someone had been shot, but as we got closer, though, the real reasons became clear.

We were about 20 yards from the car when the driver shouted, “The baby’s coming”. Never had I seen three policemen put the brakes on so quickly. It was like something out of a cartoon. I expected to see smoke from the heels of their boots. Being the only female, I then realised I was on my own. I approached the back door and looked in. Someone had to do it and that someone was me.

The lady in the back had long, blonde hair, which was drenched with sweat. I told her my name and asked hers. She told me she had only come from the bottom of the Cregagh and already could feel the baby crowning. I found out this was her third child and that they had been trying to make their way to the Ulster Hospital.

I checked with Peter (one of the constables) to see if he had requested an ambulance and reported to Control what was happening. In the meantime, I realised that passing motorists could see in, so asked the other two officers to lend me their coats to rig a screen over the door. I then asked mum about her timing and how she was feeling. Part of me was hoping the ambulance would materialise instantly. I was a mum, but was in no way prepared to be at the delivery end.

The head of the baby was crowning and wasn’t about to wait for the ambulance. So, as the mum did the hard work of pushing, I gently caught the child as he slipped out. On seeing the baby, my heart sank. I knew enough to know that the black goo sticking to the baby’s face was dangerous in the extreme and the cord was wrapped tightly around the baby’s neck. My heart was breaking and my brain working overtime to figure how to give the mum such devastating news, if it came to it.

I worked feverishly, clearing the cord from the neck and quickly cleaning out the goo from the baby’s mouth and face. He had passed a motion in the womb and, if he had managed to swallow it, there would be nothing I could do. It could act like glue and stick a newborn’s lungs together to prevent them taking a breath.

Cleaning as much as I could, I started breathing on the child’s face gently and pressing his chest. For what seemed like an age, nothing happened. The mum was closely watching my face while the driver stood at my shoulder, watching me work.

Then, wonder of wonders, suddenly little lips moved and he exhaled. A quick breath in and the heavenly sound of his first wail assailed our ears. I was stunned and remembered to breathe myself.

I then heard Peter ask the taxi-driver where he’d picked up his fare. The poor driver was stunned. He had been watching over my shoulder the entire time. It took him a few seconds to respond, telling us she wasn’t a fare, but was his wife! Voice shaking, I was able to speak at last and congratulated them on the birth of their little boy.

I wrapped the baby in a towel and was able to hand him over to his mum for a cuddle. The ambulance arrived a short time later and I was initially relieved to see them, however that lasted momentarily. Because the baby had already been born, they could not take it. A specialised midwife unit with a doctor on board was needed and that was in west Belfast, which meant another call.

The ambulance left and my section Inspector turned up. He congratulated the parents and assured himself all was well at present. I said, “Great, sir. You can take over the scene now.” He replied, “No, no, no. You’re doing great, Debra. The other unit won’t be long.”

With that, he left, returning to his nice, cosy office leaving me with the still ongoing incident. I laughed and called “coward” after him as he smilingly agreed with me.

Making small talk with the parents and keeping an eye on baby seemed to go on forever. I was aware that the mum was showing no signs of passing the placenta and knew this could be dangerous. I’m sure it was obvious how relieved I was when the doctor and midwife appeared. In a matter of minutes they had assessed the situation and a few checks later, mum and baby where whisked off with dad’s taxi following.

I stated, “I’m going to get a cuppa”, daring the other three to say “no”, which they very sensibly didn’t. They were relieved not to have had to do too much, so I sat in the canteen over a cuppa and started to shake, remembering how close celebration had nearly been to commiseration.

An hour later, I got called into the Inspector’s office as someone had passed the incident to the papers and they wanted an interview. The Inspector had got permission for me to speak via phone to a journalist. So, a nervous 10 minutes later, I managed to answer a few questions and give congratulations to the couple again.

Back out on the street, the Assistant Chief Constable’s car passed by with the Divisional Commander and Superintendent on board. All the windows were down and imagine my shock at the three gentlemen in question yelling out the window and cheering, shouting, “Congratulations, our wee midwife”. I laughed. What else could I do?

The lads had all done a whip-round and, that night, I got a card, flowers and a toy, which the Inspector forwarded to the couple. In the meantime, I took delivery of a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates, which I shared round the section.

Next morning, I’d made front-page headline in the Belfast Telegraph. It read “RUC officers in baby drama” and was followed by my interview.

I’ve been to incidents, been shot at and came close to being blown up a few times, but the scariest thing ever was when I saw the cord round the neck and black goo around the baby’s mouth. It terrified me. I give thanks still that everything turned out well — give me a bombing or a shooting any day, rather than go through that again.

Sarge wasn’t amused; he had thrown me out on patrol for being cheeky and, at the end of the day, I’d received chocolates, flowers, earned a Divisional Commander’s Commendation and helped bring a new life into the world.

Not bad for a punishment!

Debra Hoyle is a former Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve officer, private in the Ulster Defence Regiment and CSO4 MOD. She now works as a full-time carer. Extracted from Breaking the Silence: Life Behind the Uniforms of the ‘Troubles’ Peacekeepers, published by Decorum NI (https://www.decorumni.co.uk/)

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