I was a midwifery student during most of the pandemic but I also worked as a receptionist in a specialised aged care service in a leafy Melbourne suburb. My partner, who is in the army, was away on the ‘ring of steel’ around Melbourne, so I was always either alone at home with the cat or in a workplace where COVID was in our faces all day every day.
For my study, we were preparing a group assignment just as Melbourne started to go into lockdown. We had one planning session before in-person classes were cancelled and it all went online. The assignment was cancelled, but later on we had other group assignments. It was crazy doing group assignments over email and Google Docs, unable to properly put faces to names while wrestling with technology to record and combine our parts.
Many of our practical lessons became Zoom sessions which was heartbreaking. We loved the chance to get into our labs and develop our dexterity. But now I was being shown how to do episiotomies—cutting tissue near the vagina to make the vaginal opening larger for childbirth—over Zoom! Utterly absurd. I count myself lucky that during my studies I did one real-life episiotomy under the eye of a wonderful supervisor. Many of my classmates weren’t so lucky, and they would turn up to each placement lamenting how the practical skills we were trying to develop seemed to fade without regular practice.
One clinical practice exam was conducted through a video recording. It was on the third stage of labour and I demonstrated delivering a placenta using a plastic bag with a face washer in it, a couple of pegs and some cushions. My cat decided she wanted a starring role and, after several takes, I gave up chasing her away and allowed her to walk around me as I worked—and later tacked an apology onto the end credits! Thankfully, one of my lecturers found this particularly amusing!
I was glad to be able to go into work and placement; I think I would have gone bonkers without the human contact.
But the masks and other PPE we had to wear added a new layer of separation from our colleagues and—more importantly and more distressingly—the women we were caring for. So many of the women I worked with couldn’t see my full face. They wouldn’t know me if they chanced upon me in public, and I think that’s sad. I know my own mother still occasionally sees the midwives who looked after her during the births of her four daughters, and she thinks of them fondly, even more than thirty years on. She delights in telling us that she ‘saw so-and-so who looked after me while you were being born!’
Many of the COVID guidelines seemed arbitrary and annoying. On placement at a maternity hospital, we had to put on full PPE when a woman entered the second stage of labour. It seemed a very arbitrary guideline and made us all look like uniform aliens to the poor birthing woman. At my university, the chairs were taken away from the tables outside our lab. This meant we leant over the tables and probably ended up closer to each other than before. The university also blocked off the tap for our water bottles, which meant we took our bottles into the bathrooms to refill. These attempts by university officials to prevent us from congregating and spreading germs probably made things worse.
When I began as a registered midwife at a maternity hospital, the state was still in a pandemic Code Brown. This meant extended team models were in place and our staffing ratios could be altered from four mothers for every midwife to five. So here I was, a fresh, terrified graduate who’d had two weeks of postnatal and antenatal ward placement three years ago now trying to care for five women and their babies! Imagine it. I shudder to think of the women in my care who were trying to establish breastfeeding, trying to get off to the best start in their new lives, while I ran from room to room and tried to figure out what this whole midwifing business was about.
Women were being discharged early from hospital, so I rarely saw a woman’s breasts become fuller and heavier as they changed from producing colostrum to milk. This left me with a large gap in my knowledge that would normally have been filled during a graduate year. I’m convinced these shortened in-patient stays also left women reluctant to breastfeed, missing the support and confidence we midwives could have given them had they had more time with us. I have no doubt the consequences of plummeting breastfeeding rates will emerge over the next few decades.
Did anything good come out of COVID? I suppose I was reminded of the basic desire in ninety-nine per cent of humanity to do the right thing and to love their neighbour. I saw midwives and doctors and support staff complaining about pressure sores on their noses because of the N95 face masks but none of them ever seriously contemplated not wearing them. I saw the same love and kindness as people struggled against loneliness and isolation and fear. I saw good, ordinary, everyday people try to make the best of horrific circumstances.
I suppose you need darkness to see the light. And it certainly was dark.