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Confessions of a midwife

The BBC TV series, Call the Midwife, was a huge hit, but was it true to life? A nurse who trained here 50 years ago and four modern midwives tell Helen Carson what it's really like on the wards.

A Scottish nurse who trained at the maternity department in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital in the Sixties says real life was every bit as dramatic as the storylines in the recent BBC TV series Call the Midwife.

The hugely successful Sunday night drama, which is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, showed what life was like for midwives working with an order of nursing nuns in London’s East End in the 1950s.

More than 9m viewers tuned in to the show which portrayed the agony and the ecstasy of childbirth in a realistic way at a time when the NHS was in its infancy.

And if you enjoyed the gritty yet heart-warming series, then Aberdeen-born former nurse Jane Yeadon’s new book It Shouldn’t Happen To A Midwife! is sure to touch a chord.

The nursing tales this time are from the Swinging Sixties in Belfast where trainee nurse Jane Yeadon, now 67, came to from her native Scotland to learn about the miracle of birth.

The book, while being written with much humour and candour, also shows the stark difference between family life then and now when it was up to men to give permission for their wives to be sterilised, unmarried mums were segregated from just about everybody in the hospital having given up their babies — dubbed ‘illigits’ by the staff — and matrons ruled the wards with a rod of iron.

Jane says that living and working in 1960s Belfast taught her how tough the local ‘mammys’ were despite the macho posturing of men.

Retired couple Jane and her husband David, a former teacher, have two grown-up children Mark, 32, who is a surveyor and Joanne, 34, a designer. Despite the fact Scotland is only a short hop across the Irish Sea, Jane says arriving in the city, aged 17, was like landing in another world.

“It was an exciting place and the people are beautiful. And it didn’t matter what religion you were, everyone was treated the same. I didn’t understand the Orange men though? Men marching around in bowler hats with scarves on — men weren’t like that in Aberdeen.”

However, Jane did wonder at our preoccupation with religion and one of her fellow nurse’s Marie in particular: “Attitudes in Belfast were different to Scotland, especially about religion. Marie was a darling girl, but it was as if she came from another planet — always trying to get me in touch with God — as if he wasn’t busy enough.”

Another fundamental difference between Belfast and her home town of Aberdeen, which was then known as Sin City due to the number of abortions that were carried out in hospitals, was that terminations did not happen in the province — certainly not in hospitals.

“In Aberdeen, D&Cs (surgical abortions) were talked about in a very casual way. Although I was never present at one of these.”

And despite her medical training and experience, Jane says her opposition to abortion was formed due to a heartbreaking personal experience.

“I wasn’t married for very long when I fell pregnant, then had a miscarriage. The pain was horrendous and I just thought about a little person on her own going through that, how dangerous it was without any medical care — that was not a good thing whatever you may think.

“Medical termination happened then, but it is not family planning.”

Today her opinion hasn’t altered much: “Abortion is not needed if you are in an educated society. The need for abortion should be very much less. My heart goes out to anyone who has to take that route, and if they do they need to have expert care.”

Abortion is still not a choice for women in Northern Ireland, and in the Sixties their choices were fewer again: Jane says: “The husband had to give his permission for his wife to be sterilised. We didn’t think anything about it then, it was just the way it was. Irish woman are tough, though, and it is no bloody wonder.

“The ‘mammy’ was considered a very important person. My friend was a mammy and she was very much the person driving the bus — and it was a good thing too. I loved the women in Northern Ireland, I liked their style, humour and feistiness.”

And while she admired the attitudes of local mums, there was one woman who didn’t impress Jane — matron.

She explains: “Their whole being was made of marble. I don’t think they should bring matrons back as the training is very different now.

“The matrons were very often single women without children who were married to their job. I think they would have been better at their job if they had had children; they would certainly have been more compassionate.”

She does agree, though, that some parts of the NHS have changed and not for the better, for example, hygiene: “I started out as a ward maid, which is basically a cleaner.

“In recent years consultants have been brought in to improve conditions in hospitals. They put down carpet which is not hygienic unlike old fashioned linoleum.”

Jane, with unashamed old fashioned common sense, says tackling the issues of hygiene which in turn lead to to the spread of various bugs, such as MRSI, require a simple solution: “Soap and water hasn’t changed. Frankly that is what they should be doing. It really is a basic thing.

“The Sixties were not perfect by any stretch. I always felt more could be done for first time mums in terms of education and what an immense responsibility it is.

“I don’t think we make enough of young mums. You should be well looked after at a time when you are vulnerable.” And, of course, men were not allowed in the labour ward: “Oh my goodness if men went into the labour ward they were treated by sister as if they were surplus to requirements.

“I was older when I became a mum. I was 33 when I had my first child. Although I knew lots about having babies, nothing can really prepare you for it.”

And Jane is quite shocked at how little time new mums spend in hospital now after giving birth: “It used to be six days for a normal delivery or 10 days with a forceps or C-section.

“I suppose for me, well I knew the ropes.

“I do worry however about single or young parents at home with their baby with no one to turn to.”

In the Sixties though there was no such sympathy for unmarried mums, most of whom handed their newborns over for adoption.

Jane tells in her book how one nurse referred to the babies as ‘illigits’, with the women segregated from the other mums and their babies who had numbers on their cots rather than names.

“When I look back I can’t actually believe we did that.” And it was while she was in Belfast that Jane experienced her first home birth — it was a breech birth. She brought junior successfully into the world just as the Flying Squad was arriving.

She admits to having mixed feelings on home births, adding it’s fine as long as there are no complications. “In a way it’s like giving birth at a small hospital. if something goes wrong then the mother would be taken to a bigger, better-equipped hospital.”

But it’s not always a happy outcome: “You feel guilty when something goes wrong. You are present at what should be a happy event. You are the messenger and I always felt like I was part of the problem. I would never say to anyone that I know how they feel, because I didn’t.”

Despite the things she has seen during her career as a midwife Jane has never lost her sense of wonder: “Every baby is a miracle and there is always drama — it is pure theatre.”

Jane says compassion should be a pre-requisite when recruiting carers: “I don’t know how you can do the job without compassion. I suppose those who don’t have any affection in their lives find it very difficult to deal with issues all day, so they go home cross. I think they shouldn’t bother applying.

“The more goodness you put in, the more you get back. There are people in the NHS today who don’t have English as their first language but they have a lot of love in their hearts and that comes across.”

It Shouldn’t Happen To A Midwife! by Jane Yeadon, Black & White Publishing, £9.99

‘In 30 years as a midwife, I have never been to a home birth’

Julie Gough (53) is a senior midwife who works in the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald. She lives in Bangor with her husband Sam. They have a daughter Alison (29) and sons David (26) and Peter (23). She says:

I actually never set out to be a midwife. I finished my general nursing training in 1982 and from there I wanted to work in psychiatry, but my mother was of the opinion that unless you were a midwife you weren't a nurse. So I did my midwifery training and this year will be my 30th year in the profession.

I work in the ante-natal and post-natal ward. This involves caring for women who are in the early stages of labour before they go to the labour ward and new mothers with their babies.

We have a very quick turn over and there really are more deliveries in the Ulster than what it was built for, so it really is a daily juggle.

One of the hardest things about the job now is the amount of paperwork and documentation we have to do and getting the time to do it all.

The aim of a midwife is to make a birth as normal as possible, but women these days have more complex medical issues than when I started. There are a lot more older mothers, more with diabetes or who are obese and with these issues come complications. There are also now far more C-sections and epidurals than when I first started.

I really loved Call the Midwife, because I'd read the book. I can remember having a grey coat and hat like the women wear on the show. It's obviously different now. In my 30 years being a midwife I've actually never been to a home birth. When I started in the 80s, home births were rare because of the risks. In January I was nominated for a Royal College of Midwifery award for a project I did on post-natal bladder problems.

I approached a bladder specialist in the Ulster Hospital Angela Patterson and we worked together to make changes in post-natal care. It took three years of endless meetings and hard work, but changes were made.”

‘I worked on the wards where One Born Every Minute is filmed’

Claire Lynch (38) is a sister in the labour ward at Altnagelvin hospital. She lives in Donegal with her husband Mark and children Conor (10) and Emer (6). She says:

I am one of nine children and now my brothers and sisters all have two or three children, so being surrounded by children and babies is what I have always been used to.

I trained in Leeds and qualified as a midwife in 1998. I used to work in the Leeds General Infirmary where One Born Every Minute is filmed, so I watch it avidly to see all my friends.

I obviously know all the staff and it's so strange because it really is how they all are, everyone except the sister. On TV she is edited to seem quite funny and ditzy, but I was terrified of her, she was known as the scary sister.

I'm a sister in the labour ward, and my task is to co-ordinate all the patients and have my foot in every door. I oversee all the rooms, and make sure all my midwives are able to have breaks or even a cup of tea.

Believe it or not, that's one of the most difficult things about my job, getting the time for my staff to get some food, or just to sit down for 10 minutes. Without a rest, they really can't work effectively.

I love my job when we are able to make a real difference to the women and make them as comfortable as possible. It's one of the most important days of their lives, so we try and make it go as well as possible.

I have two children myself and I think going through the pain of labour allows you to have empathise more with new mums.”

‘It can be stressful at times because I am still learning’

Charlotte Elliott (24) is a midwife at the Ulster Hospital. She is single and lives in Carrickfergus. She says:

I qualified as a midwife last year. After graduating I moved to London to work for a few months before coming back here. I work on a very busy ward. We are hoping to get more funding to recruit new midwives. Northern Ireland is very stringent on providing one to one care, but it can be difficult because of the number of deliveries we have on our hands.

Being newly qualified, it can be very stressful because I am still learning. You often have to make decisions on your own. I worry if I have done everything right, but I try not to think about it too much or else I would never sleep.

Another stress of the job is when things go wrong and emergencies happen. The best part of my job I think is caring for the mothers. Obviously the babies are great, but making sure the mothers are OK is the bit I enjoy.

When I finished school I'd planned to go on to be a biology teacher, but it all changed when I went to Bolivia to volunteer with charity Tearfund. I worked with street girls and there were a lot of teenage pregnancies. That really affected me and that's when I though about studying midwifery.

I love the show One Born Every Minute, but I think it can sometimes give women the impression labour only lasts an hour, when really it is often much longer.

One of the most special births I helped deliver was a baby who was born still in its membrane. The mother's water had not broken. This is quite rare. I don't get emotional when babies are born, but I shed a wee tear at this one.”

‘I don’t think I’ll ever get used to couples losing their child ’

Hillary Patterson (49) is a bereavement support midwife in the Ulster Hospital. She lives in Belfast with her husband. She says:

I work as a bereavement support midwife, the only such post in Northern Ireland. I studied in England for a year. Initially I only spent 12 hours a week on bereavement care but then the demand was so high it's my full focus now. I feel privileged to share such deep emotions with the couples.

My work covers the anti-natal and post-natal ward, the gynae ward and the children’s ward. Day to day I have scheduled sessions with couples who have lost a baby and then unplanned sessions when mums who have received bad news about their baby.

I don't think I will ever get used to the circumstances of losing a baby. It's very demanding and emotionally draining, yet it can be extremely rewarding. I provide care from when a couple lose their baby for as long as I am needed. This might only be for a couple of months or a few years. If they decide to have another baby I will support them throughout their second birth if they want me to.

I don’t watch shows like Call the Midwife and One Born Every Minute. In January I won the Excellence in Bereavement Award at the Royal College of Midwives awards for my care in the South Eastern Trust. Part of the prize was £5,000 to spend on further training. I am deciding between a PHD in the University of Ulster or a Masters in Queen's.

delivered straight to our screens

  • Call the Midwife is a memoir written by Jennifer Worth. It is about her life as a nurse in inner city London in 1950s.
  • The six-piece BBC drama adaptation of Call the Midwife started in January of this year, staring Jessica Raine, Miranda Hart and Cliff Parisi. It drew 9.2m viewers and a second series has been commissioned to air next year.
  • Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute is shot inside a labour ward. The first series, aired in 2010, won a BAFTA for best factual series.
  • It is now in its third series and there is a US version.


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