Shawna Robertson smiles at newborn babies primarily with her eyes now, since her smile is hidden by a mask.
Throughout the pandemic, Robertson, and other midwives in town, have hardly skipped a heartbeat in delivering care to Squamish families.
The Chief caught up with Robertson who is at the helm of Roots Community Midwives, as part of our focus this week on unsung local COVID-19 heroes, to find out how the pandemic has been for her and others helping moms bring new life into the world during this challenging time.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: About how many births are attended by midwives through Roots?
There have been 12 births a month or so. The home birth rate here is around 15%.
It has been more in the last few months, and the numbers will increase substantially this spring. This May and June for both of the town's maternity groups is set to be jam-packed. Tons and tons of spring babies coming.
Q: What got you interested in midwifery to start with?
A: I was doing my registered nursing degree and was pregnant with my third child and learned about midwifery from a professor. I decided to try a midwife for my birth. I had great births with both my boys, who were born with an obstetrician, but I was looking for something a little different.
I ended up having a home birth with my midwives and formed really good relationships with them. It lit a fire in me. I realized I was born to do this.
There is nothing else I would rather do more.
I had to have a few of my own kids first before it really dawned on me, I guess, that this was my calling.
Q: Growing up was it something you knew about as a career option or an option for moms?
A: Not to say there weren't midwives in Quebec, but in my circle and what I knew, I just didn't know that it was even an option.
Q: How long have you been in Squamish?
A: Since 2018. I just finished my second year at Roots Community Midwives and have recently taken over the practice.
I have been a midwife for four years.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about Squamish and the moms here? Do you find midwifery is a popular childbirth choice here?
A: I totally do. In a small town, women talk and share their experiences, and I think the big reason midwifery has done so well here is that women are openly sharing their birthing experiences. We get many mothers who come to us for their second or third births, looking for a different experience.
Q: For those who may not know, what is different about having a midwife for a birth?
A: Certainly, in the Sea to Sky, the two maternity groups — Mountain Maternity and ourselves — we both practice with a huge focus on informed choice. Fundamentally, the cornerstone of the care we provide is based on the notion that the birthing person is the driver of their care and the expert in their bodies and babies.
I often say the birthing person is the ship captain, and we are like the people up in the nest yelling 'iceberg!' My job is to provide evidence-based information and hold space for people to make the choice that is right for them and their family.
Our system is developed around more extended visits, which gives an innate ability to build a close relationship. Generally, our appointments are 30 to 40 minutes long, and in that time, you get to know people a bit more.
After the baby is born, postpartum home visits occur every two days. At two weeks, four weeks, and six weeks we see them in the clinics.
Q: How has the pandemic changed your day-to-day practice?
A: We still go into people's homes. We wear full protective equipment: booties, a mask, a face shield, and a gown and gloves. We are still doing home births. We still do all the breastfeeding support and everything we used to do. We just do it in a way that is more careful and more mindful of safety around the virus.
It has been hard for us and it has been hard for our clients, especially for folks who are used to having more frequent visits where the entire family can come and visits where you can see your midwife's face.
Having to mask and spread out visits according to the World Health Organization's schedule that they put out in the beginning of the pandemic has been hard.
We have done what we can to ebb and flow, and for the most part, our clients have been pretty resilient in managing those changes.
It has been challenging for midwives in B.C. because there hasn't been a relief program for them. So, for example, if a midwife gets sick with COVID, there's no financial benefit to take care of her. We have recently had our PPE paid for, but in the first six months of the pandemic, we didn't, and that was challenging as well, getting our hands on appropriate personal protective equipment for the hospital and home.
That piece has been quite challenging.
There's also been growing pains where the demand for midwives is really high, and there just aren't enough to sustain the communities that need them.
For instance, a clinic in south Penticton just closed, and now that whole area has lost midwifery. We, too, have had a hard time having midwives stay here. Part of that is because the work is really challenging and really all-consuming and the pandemic has drawn people closer to home. We are doing our absolute best to take care of our patients in the way they deserve to be cared for, but it has definitely been a lot more stressful to be a midwife during the pandemic with all of the pieces put together.
Q: How are you doing with all of this? Other first responders have said that there is a definite layer of exhaustion due to the added stress of COVID-19.
A: I think COVID-19 burnout is real, for sure. For the most part, we keep our heads up and do a really great job. But every once in a while when it dawns on you how much extra we have been doing, for no difference in pay or recognition in pay by the government. I feel like absolutely all first responders and front line workers are heroes; but, we don't hear a lot about midwives, who since Day 1 have provided the full amount of service, but who have also have had to do the PPE piece and care for people who are very afraid and who have a lot of questions around the virus.
Q: What are you hearing from expectant Squamish moms? It must be surreal to be pregnant during a global pandemic.
A: Birthing families in Squamish, and in general, tend to be very resilient. I am always so impressed with folks and how they move through adversity. It is amazing to see. Certainly, it is challenging when a pregnant patient has COVID-19 and is really afraid of what that looks like. Thankfully, everyone has been well and has managed to recover, but there are many questions. And it is new for us too. We are moving through evidence-based information that is coming down the line. For the most part, though, people are doing very well.
Q: Do birthing moms have to wear a mask during labour at home?
A: You don't have to. When we are in your home, we protect you and ourselves by wearing a mask. In common areas at the hospital, you have to wear a mask, but once you are in your birthing suite, you don't have to wear a mask. The nurses and the doctors and everybody wear the PPE to protect you and ourselves.
Q: The positive part must be that midwives literally see the start of a new life? So much negative during the pandemic, but you are there for the positive.
A: Absolutely. But, I can't imagine going through a pandemic and having my babies. You don't get a baby shower or hoards of people coming to visit you and help you with cleaning and cooking and all of those things that many people would typically have. And having to introduce babies on Zoom or through a window, that piece is tricky. Women have lost some of that support and celebration. I commend them. I am in awe of how people can see the bright side and the important side of life.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about your doing your job when this all ends?
A: I am looking forward to babies seeing me smile at them. Instead, it is smiling eyes.
I used to joke that at six weeks, my prerequisite for discharge was that the baby had to smile back at me. Also, physical touch, which is really important. A big way of showing affection to each other is to hug a patient or receive a hug from a super grateful dad who now you can see is crawling out of his skin wanting to give you a hug but can't.
Also, being able to have a snuggle with a baby. Humans are touch-centred creatures, and I think that part has been really hard on everybody.