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9th March 2017

The life of a midwife

We look at the trials and tribulations of some of the hardest-working students in university

A few months ago, I was talking with a student midwife. Due to my lack of knowledge on the course, I was curious as to what it included. From that conversation, I resolved to write an article on the matter. So, over the last few weeks, I have interviewed 3 midwifery students.

For the purposes of this article I will be keeping their names and the NHS trusts at which they work anonymous. The one major detail I will divulge about them, is that these three women have a passion for their course. A real love for what they do and an emotional connection to their studies that most of us seem to lack.

I started off by asking the three women why they chose to do midwifery at university. One of them told me that “I like dealing with people, I always wanted to work in health care” and that she “enjoyed supporting families, especially working with women and children, and helping society as a whole’” Another, who hails from Wales, said that she decided on it after her experiences with the poor maternity care she had seen her stepmother receive. She also spoke about how “women really appreciate the care we give, for some it’s the first time they will have had this kind of contact with the health service and so they can often be scared”.

The third midwife also spoke of the fact that many women can find the prospect of pregnancy and the health service scary. She also said that “when they come to you, these people aren’t sick. They’ve come to you for a happy reason”. But the most stress that she placed on her reason for choosing midwifery was what she saw as the significance of being the first person to touch and see a new born baby.

These are young people, like you and me, who are not taking their degree because they think that it will make them a lot of money afterwards. They are not doing it because they see it as the easiest way towards a 2:1. They, and many other students like them, are doing it because they see it as either their duty, or their calling, to not only help people but to also make their communities a better place. The one young woman from Wales, expressed quite passionately her desire to go back and improve what she called “the poorly run maternity services in Wales”.

They have also worked incredibly hard to get to where they are, and they continue to work harder than most of us. Just to be admitted onto their course, they have had to achieve A levels of AAA-AAB; sit through Math and English tests on the same day of their interview; be DBS checked; and pass comprehensive medical tests. They also have to do yearly declaration of integrity. One of the three said that “it feels like there is constant scrutiny”. But this should not be taken negatively. They wholeheartedly believe that the scrutiny will make them better midwives. After all, they are dealing with the lives of women and babies, who at the time of the birth, can often be at their most vulnerable. I am told that the pressure of the course is such that over the past year and a half, they have seen 1 in 6 of the women on their course drop out. I am told that this is either due to the intensity and rigour that goes hand in hand with the course, or because some end up falling pregnant. I am told that “it’s not uncommon for some of the girls on the course to get broody”.

And when I ask specifically about the basic structure of the course, I am blown away with the amount of work they put in. First of all, their course is 45 weeks long. They only get 7 weeks off a year. Further to that, while students like myself make do with 6 contact hours a week of seminars and lectures, midwives put in a staggering 37.5 hour week, 22.5 of which is usually spent in hospital. They also work during the exam periods as they inform me that “when your mentor is working, you are working”. They do not get time to revise for exams. Instead, they have to fit it in-between antenatal care, postnatal care, and assisting with births.

One thing I was also asked to stress specifically is that, to pass their course, they also have to do a “metric fuck-tonne of paper work”. Everything they do has to be logged in order for them to graduate successfully.

This is most certainly not the most interesting part of their work. That occurs on the ward, where new life is brought into the world, and sometimes in very stressful circumstances. So then I asked them each two questions. Obviously, the nature of their work can be very emotional and dramatic at times. So, I enquired as to what they thought was their favourite and least favourite moment of the course.

They all had very different answers. One said “I really enjoyed seeing the same woman in antenatal and postnatal care. I got to see her development over all the months. I didn’t give her any significant care, we would just talk. But after she left I got a card from her and that was really nice.”

The second said “I know it sounds clichéd but it was my first delivery. Seeing your name on the delivery sheet and thinking that today was that day. I cried on the bus the whole way home. It’s that realisation that you have delivered a baby which is something special”.

The third midwife’s account really touched on the social issues that sometimes come with pregnancy. “It was like my third delivery or something and I had this really appreciative woman without a husband. It was after she had delivered the baby and I went to visit the woman in her home. We were really pleased to see each other. She had a lot of social issues to deal with and I really felt I had made a difference. Even if it was just that one mother and one baby.”

Then I asked about their least favourite moments. It was not until the three had explained to me the trials and tribulations of childbirth that I realised what can occur. Some women can lose as much as 2 litres of blood during the process through something called a post-partum haemorrhage which the midwives described as occasionally resembling a “fountain of blood”. They talk of this casually. This is the stuff that happens every day and they have procedures to make sure that should something like this occur, they can stop it. They say that 9 times out of 10 everything, even if there are some complications, it will go absolutely fine.

One of the women spoke of her worst day, which in the end came out with a happy ending. “We had this Jewish lady who was unable to give birth conventionally but she was refusing a C-section. They had to call the Rabbi but the baby’s heart beat began to dip and so we had to get her on the table ready for the operation. We had her on the table and the husband was worried and on the phone to the Rabbi and we lost the baby’s heartbeat. It was only 3 minutes but it felt like an eternity. In the end we managed to find the heartbeat and the baby came out a bit bruised but otherwise fine. I’d just felt so helpless standing there while everyone ran around shouting. The parents were helpless. The consultants were shouting lots and I just had to stand there. It was all fine in the end though”.

One of the midwives’ stories, though less dramatic, clearly meant a great deal to her. “On my last day at my last trust, I was dealing with a couple who were both GP’s and they had specifically asked for a student. We had to do a manual removal of the woman’s placenta and the mother wanted it to be a significant moment for me. In the end, I only played a little role and she was a bit sad that she couldn’t have done something else to make it memorable. But in the end we had a group photo with the family which was really nice”. She said that it was sad for her because she felt that she had disappointed the woman who desperately wanted her to play a role in her birth.

The next story of the third midwife’s worst day really emphasises the worry that many of these women feel when it comes to their patients. “This is probably going to sound a bit silly but it was my first day at a new trust. We had an unwell baby we were delivering and I was just really worried about the baby. Like, what if I couldn’t find the necessary equipment or tools. I just didn’t know where anything was kept and I really didn’t like that”.

To me, all of these stories have one thing in common. While these have supposedly been the girls “worst days” of their course, the reason they have felt so bad on them is due to their dislike of their inability to help the mothers and babies. Midwives are probably some of the least selfish and most empathetic people at university. While they do answer the questions about themselves, they always express concern for those who are most vulnerable in the situation. Even as I talk to them about other things not related to these questions, it is clear that these are the kinds of people who will put you before themselves. A quality that we sometimes lack in society and a quality which we should recognise in these saintly students.

It is this kind of empathetic attitude that means they are also tasked with dealing with some of the most complex social issues. They come face to face with drug abusers, criminals, women who suffer from domestic abuse, or may even be hiding secrets from their husband such as HIV. They told me that “one of the things we do if there is a mother with previous problems is see whether or not she is bonding with the baby. If we conclude that she isn’t, then it could be taken away. It’s a lot of responsibility”.

Many of you will read this and think, why would they do this course? The reason is simple. Because they love it. One of them said to me that she had asked herself the question, “Am I going to love this enough to get up at 5am and go to placement? Yes!” They stress the fact that “we are already doing the job that we want to do. We have a guaranteed job at the end of it, and it is not your average 9 to 5 office work. It’s different every day”.

These students and many others like them up and down the country should be exalted. Their dedication, empathy, and caring nature is something that we don’t often see displayed in society today. One of the women who took part in this told me that she didn’t want people to feel sorry for her if they read this. I hope that is not your conclusion. I hope that you will come away from this with nothing but admiration for these super students. These heroines are some of the best and most caring people in society and I hope you, like myself, will have nothing but admiration for them.

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