A couple of weeks ago my wife, son and I were lucky enough to watch one of our cows give birth. None of us had ever actually witnessed the moment before so we were pretty impressed with the way nature works. For some reason, our cattle tend to give birth during or immediately after a storm and this day was no different as we had gone for a walk in the paddock just as the rain had stopped. Watching the cow give birth all on her own, without any midwives, doctors or modern medical equipment had an added impact on us as my wife was eight and half months pregnant. We marvelled as the cow delivered the calf in under 10 minutes and jokingly wished that the upcoming birth of our daughter would be just as quick….
Christmas came and went and my wife was sweating through the last days of the pregnancy in a classic Aussie summer. The scene was not too dissimilar to the birth of our son who was also born in early January a few years before. As he was our first we were quite diligent in our planning for the birth and had decided on a broad plan in regards to pain killers etc. none of which were needed as he was born relatively quickly and easily only taking about 3 hours of labour from my wife. I had been a little hesitant about how much I wanted to get involved in the actual delivery, but when the time came the midwife guided me to the right end and explained what to do. It was a wonderful experience being able to help in the tiniest of ways to delivery my son after all the hard work my wife had done. It also felt very safe and controlled within the hospital with the midwife at our side and doctors close by if needed. Little did I know then that that very small introduction into midwifery would give me at least a thread of confidence when I was called to do something I never expected to do in my life a few years later.
Finally the due date for my daughter’s birth came and a day later my wife said she was starting to feel a few cramps, but nothing serious. As it was our second child I felt comfortable in my wife’s diagnosis of her going into labour so I even managed to slip out and pick up my new bike and back without missing anything. At 10pm my things started real, my wife started to get small contractions about five minutes apart. I got the bags ready in the car and rolled out my swag in the lounge to make wife comfortable until it was time to go the hospital. The hospital is only 3 minutes’ drive from our house, so whilst we live in the country on a small farm we always felt safe about being able to make it to the hospital for the birth.
After 20 minutes of labour the contractions quickly started getting closer together. We timed a couple and they were definitely only two minutes apart now, which was the trigger point for us to call the hospital. The birth suite number was on the fridge and I got through on the second ring and advised them of my wife’s condition. My wife had now started to moan like I have only heard one time before, at the birth of my son. When the midwife heard this over the phone she told me to get to the hospital straight away. I went back to my wife and tried to help her up, but the contractions were now coming so fast and so strong it was impossible for her to stand let alone walk to the car. Her waters broke and it suddenly started to get a little serious, this wasn’t part of our birth plan, stuck at home unable to make it to the hospital. The only way to get her to the hospital now was via ambulance and the assistance of their stretchers, so I rang 000, the emergency services number in Australia and asked for the ambulance. It took a minute or two for the operator to confirm my address and details and to dispatch the paramedics. She then turned her attention to assisting me to aid my wife as best as possible until they arrived. She told me to make sure I had dry towels and a safety pin on hand (I still don’t know why I needed a safety pin?). I already had the towels and just ignored the safety pin request. I needed to advise my wife to try not to push and she rolled her eyes at me when I relayed the message as if to say “no shit!”. The emergency operator asked me if I could see any of the baby’s head yet, I had a glance but it was a little hard to tell, so ran to the kitchen and grabbed our trusty Dolphin torch, not quite the same as the surgery lights that hang from the ceiling of birth suites, but it helped. Dolphin torches are advertised in Australia as the tough torch that you need in any predicament. Usually the TV ads involve a storm to demonstrate the water proof abilities. I have never seen a dolphin torch ad showing one used in child birth!
I was doing a bit of a juggling act now, phone cradled to my ear against my shoulder listening to the operator’s advice, trying to look between my wife’s legs while trying to talk and comfort her at the same time. Then it happened. I was peering between my wife’s legs as another contraction came, suddenly I could see the baby’s head and passed on the message to the operator. Before I could again encourage my wife to not push another contraction came. I could see the baby’s head again, but this time it didn’t stop. The head grew bigger and bigger until it popped out completely!
This part had really surprised me at the birth of my son. My wife gave birth on her knees that time so the baby’s head came out looking straight up at me. I hadn’t really given it any thought as to how that moment would be, but that was definitely not what I was expecting. I am not sure if others have experienced this, but in both the births I have been involved with, both babies have looked amazingly dead (for living creatures) at this part of the birth. Their eyes are closed, they very purple and do not look like the beautiful baby you are expecting or wishing for. It is also one of those rare moments when time freezes for an instant, the world goes silent and you find yourself holding your breath waiting for the next, inevitable thing to happen, similar to watching a car crash unfold before your eyes. When my son was born I remember this period of time being only a second or two before the rest of him arrived, but that night on our lounge room floor, alone with my wife it seemed to last for ever. I prayed for the paramedics to arrive.
Now I am relatively new to cattle and I am always looking for any advice I can pick up from farmers about cattle that I may need to draw on one day. After watching the cow give birth in our paddock I was chatting one of these farmers and explained that I was uncertain about what to do if the cow had experienced any problems giving birth as at one point it had appeared stuck as the calf was half way out the mother. He explained to me that at that point the cow is quite vulnerable and it is usually easy to simply walk up behind her, grab the calf by the legs and pull it out! “Oh that easy” I said and mused to myself how must regularly look like a naive city slicker when I ask questions like this to cattlemen and I filed the info away for later use….
I don’t know for sure how long we sat there like that, with my baby’s head in my hands, it’s eye closed and purple skin sticking out of wife’s body but it seemed like 30 seconds until the next contraction came. Now I still don’t know what the correct medical action is and I have no memory of what the emergency operator was saying, but I was certain that this was not the time to apply the advice I had received about cows and just pull the rest of her out. So we waited and when that next contraction finally came I didn’t need to explain to my wife to push! Thankfully, my daughter sloshed out into my arms without a hitch.
I’d read enough on child birth to know that the umbilical cord can cause problems during birth, so I was relieved to see this wasn’t wrapped around her neck or anything, it simply ran straight back into her mother. She was still quite purple and my main concern was to see if she was breathing. I have to admit to feeling the slightest pang of panic at this point because I knew if there were any complications now I was passed the point of having any vague experience. I fleetingly thought of my friend Keppel. He’s a male midwife. If being a male midwife wasn’t unusual enough, he had progressed his studies and experience sufficiently to have been appointed one of the few positions as head trainer for the hospital midwives. He made sure they were up to speed with their skills and emergency procedures so he really needed to know his stuff. He knows my wife and we had discussed that it would be tricky if he was our midwife, but he had said to me “but if shit goes wrong you probably do want me there, because I know my shit!”. If only he was here now….
To my relief my daughter slowly moved in my arms. She gurgled a little and the emergency operator told me to rub her back which I did and a little bit of fluid ran out her mouth. Time was still moving slowly, all I wanted was to hear that cry that I knew would mean she was alive and breathing well. The paramedics had to be close by now, “where are they” I said out loud and the operator tried to comfort by saying they were close by. I knew she was alive, but was she really OK? I felt helpless, alone, like our cow in the paddock with only nature and our instincts to guide us. I just kept rubbing her back, I checked that her mouth was clear with my little finger and reported her movements to the invisible emergency operator who replied with words of encouragement.
My daughter finally responded further, she squinted first, then opened one eye and then the other. I can remember that rising feeling of relief inside, thinking, it’s going to be OK. Then she let out the faintest cry, not what you expect from the movies but it was a cry. The panic started to disappear and my tunnel vision started to expand. It’s funny, but for that first minute or so when she came out I don’t really remember my wife being there even though she was still physically connected to the baby in my arms. It’s amazing how quickly the colour flows into a baby’s body once it starts breathing, it instantly turns from a purple still born into the healthy little bundle that you were expecting.
Ironically, just after the colour returned to our daughter and we felt assured that she was alive and breathing, the paramedics arrived. They were still a comforting site, knowing that there were professionals around still made me feel safe, all I wanted now was to get to the hospital and have them confirm our feelings that all was good with my wife and our baby. They quickly assessed the initial scene as 9/10 in terms of the severity of anything actually being wrong. That was promising! They clamped the cord and let me cut it, finally something that was in line with our birth plan! They checked a vitals with my wife, wrapped the baby and loaded us all into the ambulance for the three minute drive to the hospital. There was a bit of confusion when we arrived, did they take us to the birth suite or the maternity ward?
For some reason I had been expecting a rush of activity to happen when we arrived at the birth suite but in reality there wasn’t much to left to do. The midwife chuckled that the paramedics were still monitoring my wife’s blood pressure and heart rate “she’s only giving birth not dying!” she said. The only real thing left to do was to remove the placenta, which she simply pulled gently from my wife using the rest of the umbilical cord (I thought to myself, I could have applied the farmer’s advice after all…). They unwrapped my daughter, made sure she had skin on skin contact with my wife and that she started to suckle. And that was it.
There wasn’t anything else to do, nature had simply run its course as it had for millions of years before there were hospitals or midwives, as it does every day in cow paddocks around the world.