I said out loud, “This baby is alive!” Nobody answered

Bridie McCarthy. 1983

I was working as a Junior Midwife in Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast in 1984.

One morning when I was working in the Labour ward after everyone was assigned their work for the morning, I walked into the sluice room to find it busy and crowded. I thought it unusual to see a senior ward sister there. She was busy clearing away a big trolley full of instruments that are used for surgery. I didn’t understand this as senior ward sisters did not usually work in the sluice room.

Then I noticed a baby lying on a stainless-steel bench. I was shocked to realise that it was breathing and alive. The baby was about the size of my hand, fully formed and perfect. The little face was round, and its eyes were closed. The nose, ears, fingers, and toes were all perfect. The baby was thin, and the skin was red but a perfect tiny human being, lying all alone and struggling to breathe. I got a stethoscope and listened to the baby’s heartbeat. It was strong and clear.

I said out loud, “This baby is alive!” Nobody answered, nobody would engage with me. I approached the ward sister in the sluice room and told her that the baby was alive. She turned her shoulder away from me and didn’t answer. I asked the midwife beside me, “What is going on here?” and she just looked down and didn’t speak. I was worried and anxious now because I realised that there was something seriously wrong.

I was the new midwife on the labour ward; I was only 24 years old and I was feeling very junior. I was scrambling in my head as to what I would do. Would I just scream “This baby is alive”?

I stood there in the sluice room trying to rationalize all these thoughts. I was worried that I would lose my job. Nobody was going to listen to me here, I thought. Would I take the baby and run to the Neonatal unit? I had no medical notes or even identity papers for this baby. I would cause an awful stir.

The baby looked small but perfectly formed, small even for a baby that would be in the Neonatal unit; it was probably only 20 weeks old and all I could do was to give the baby dignity as it died.

First, I went and got a nice soft white cloth and wrapped the little baby up. Then, I baptised the baby. I feel quite certain that the baby was a boy and the name Joseph sticks in my mind, but I am not absolutely sure about this. I will call the baby Joseph from now on.

Little Joseph was still alive, and I didn’t want to leave him in the sluice room, so I got him a cot. This was noticed because the midwives always got a cot for a new baby. I remember pushing the cot along the corridor. I was determined that this baby would be given the same dignity as any baby. I placed little Joseph in the cot and took him to a side room.

I didn’t want to leave him alone to die, so I sat down in a chair and took him in my arms and held him close to my chest. I remember thinking that I wanted him to hear my heartbeat because he would be familiar with his mother’s heartbeat and it would comfort him.

I kissed him and talked to him, I told him that I loved him. I stroked his little body and whispered sweet things in his little ear. I don’t remember any more about what I said but I just wanted him to feel loved. He was still living after about 20 minutes and the ward was getting busy. I felt under pressure to go out and, so I did.

I came back about 5 minutes later and he was still alive. I lifted him out and cuddled him again. I kept coming back and cuddling him, I didn’t want to leave him alone, but I was under pressure. Little Joseph died approximately 35 minutes later.

Looking back now, I feel ashamed that I didn’t take the baby and run to the Neonatal unit or go up to the main nurses’ station and say, “please help me with this little baby”.

Little Joseph has stayed with me all these years, perhaps now I will get another chance to stand up for him.

Bridie McCarthy