"Perhaps modern medicine doesn't know it all."
An excerpt from Call the Midwife
, by Jennifer Worth:
Len warmed a small towel on a hot water bottle, and we wrapped the baby in it. Liz, Len and I were all stunned by the smallest human being - I estimated about one and a half pounds - we had ever seen. I had no experience of caring for a premature baby.
Just then, Conchita regained consciousness, and cried: "Nino. Mi nino. Donde esta mi nino?" (Baby. My baby. Where is my baby?) Len told Liz to tell her mother that the baby was very small. He then took the scrap of life over to his wife. With a sharp intake of breath, she put out a shaking hand to touch her child then smiled and murmured: "Mi nino." It was as she drifted off to sleep, her hand resting on Len's hand and the baby, that the Obstetric Flying Squad arrived.
In the 1950s, most big hospitals provided such a squad as back-up for domiciliary midwives. It was the proud boast of the London squad that it could reach any obstetric emergency in 20 minutes. That night, the smog slowed its response to three hours. But at least we now had an obstetrics registrar, houseman and nurse, and within minutes the GP also arrived. He looked exhausted after more than 24 hours treating patients, yet he had the courtesy to apologise for being late.
We all agreed mother and baby should be transferred to hospital but Len was alarmed. "Does she have to go?" he asked. "She's never been away from home."
Eventually it was agreed she could be treated at home but the baby would have to go to hospital. We went back into Conchita's room, where mother was still asleep, her hand over the baby that was still lying on her chest. An ambulance was called from Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and when it arrived, it discharged a doctor who hurried past carrying an incubator, then another carrying a ventilating machine followed by a nurse carrying a huge box and, finally, two ambulancemen and a policeman carrying oxygen cylinders.
In Conchita's bedroom there were now five doctors, two nurses, a midwife and Len and Liz. The paediatrician, who took over from the obstetrics squad, gasped when he saw the size of the baby. "Think he'll make it, sir?" asked the young doctor.
"We'll have a damn good try," said the paediatrician. But when he tried to take the child from a still sleeping Conchita, the muscles of her arm tightened. Len leaned over to her, murmured and tried to loosen her hand but it tightened and her other hand came over to cover the first. Len then asked Liz to explain to her mother in Spanish that the baby had to go to hospital.
Conchita's eyes flickered open. "No," she said. "He will die." She thrust the baby down between her breasts and folded her arms over him. With perfect confidence she said, again in Spanish: "No. He stays with me. He will not die."
The paediatrician said the baby needed an incubator and the expertise of the world's greatest children's hospital. But Len stepped in. "This is my fault," he said. "I must apologise. I said the baby could go without consulting my wife. I shouldn't have done that. When it comes to the kiddies, she must always have the last word." The doctors eventually gave up, packing up their equipment, and the GP and I, nervous at the responsibility we were about to take on, began to arrange blood transfusions and nursing cover for Conchita.
Everyone dispersed. I couldn't face pedalling home alone in the fog, and fell asleep in one of the Warrens' armchairs. I woke five hours later to find Conchita dipping a fine glass rod, used for icing cakes, into breast milk on a saucer and then touching her baby's lips with it. His lips were no bigger that a couple of daisy petals but a tiny tongue came out and licked the fluid. Len said Conchita had been doing this every half hour since 6am.
For the next five months, Conchita carried her baby in a silk sling nestled between her breasts. Had someone taught her all this or was it purely maternal instinct? Whatever it was, both she and the baby survived. I still think that if the baby had died at birth or been taken to hospital, Conchita would have died too. Yet if Conchita had refused to hospitalise her baby today, she would probably have had it taken away under a court order. In the 1950s we were less intrusive into family life, and parental responsibility was respected. Perhaps modern medicine doesn't know it all.