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Influencers in Debbies career

Emma asked me to write a blog about influencers in midwifery and birth pioneers and it got me thinking.

Who pops into your mind when you think about the people that have influenced your career, the way you practice, the way you talk to your women/clients, your students?

We have all read the books by the greats or at least we recognise their names. Frederick Leboyer and his book Birth without violence. Known for his feelings about giving the babies a voice. He recognised the perceived lack of attention given to the impact that birth can have on the baby. He said “Everyone is radiant with happiness. Everyone except the child. The child? You hadn’t even noticed the child had you?” Pretty controversial eh? Leboyer believes a gentle birth gives babies a head start and he is still advocating for the bubba’s.

Michel Odent always makes me think of gorgeous Sarah Bearman, one of my influencing midwives. She told me a story once about how when she was expecting one of her brood and Michel was going to be looking after her. He was out of the country and she was nearing her due date. As soon as he returned to the UK and Sarah knew he could look after her she went into labour! We have such control over our hormones – amazing!

Michel Odent is the fella that made us question how we treat women who are birthing their babies. Women need to feel encouraged and supported to follow their instincts, they need to feel safe, secure and advocated for in their chosen place of birth. He was a strong influence and advocate for home births and home from home birthing centres. Michel has been a major influence in our practice with his research in my opinion. His ideas on birthing pools and home like birthing rooms have influenced major changes in practice – for the better. He has many books and film appearances and continues to educate.

The list goes on for me Sheila Kitzinger, Ina May Gaskin to name but a few. But who REALLY influenced me as a midwife in practice?

Having recently retired I have been reflecting and reminiscing on my time as a student midwife and qualified midwife. We had planned a retirement tea party at the end of March with everyone that I have worked with over the years doing their best to attend (sadly it didn’t actually take place due to lockdown but I had a lovely team tea party instead.) I wanted to mention a few of the amazing people that have influenced me in my almost 20 years in this profession called midwifery whilst I was thanking everybody for coming. But never got the chance.

So, I apologise for my self-indulgence but I thought I would grab the opportunity with both hands as I have so many people to acknowledge. Now don’t get me wrong I have worked with some midwives that left me thinking why are you still in this profession? Limited communication skills, no compassion for the women, or the team they are working in which I found really quite difficult. We all have bad days but we are advocates for our women, we are often their voices, and that sometimes takes inner strength, assertiveness, empathy, and passion. For some these qualities have been worn away over the years or lost through the pressure of work, illness, or family issues and I find this very sad.

For me, I trained at the University of Herts on the direct entry enhanced diploma course in 1998 at 38 years old. Midwifery had popped in and out of my head for a few years following the birth of my 3rd baby in 1986 but I did not want to do nursing first. I had my 3rd normal birth after my longest labour and promptly had a massive obstetric haemorrhage (MOH) and needed a blood transfusion. I was looked after by Francesca Entwhistle who was amazing. She turned up in the morning after my MOH during a very frightening night and cleaned me up etc and she was so kind, caring, and professional and had a real influence on me during the 7 days that I was in the hospital.

In 1996 after many part-time jobs as my family grew up I worked in clinical coding at the QE2 in Welwyn Garden city and whilst working in the hospital environment the thought of midwifery entered my head again. I made some enquiries did my access course, applied, and got offered a place. The rest as they say is history.

I remember my first day in placement on the postnatal ward at the QE2 and walking into the bay we were allocated with my mentor. I remember looking around and taking it all in. I remember feeling elated with a real sense of finally finding my vocation.

My next nomination for influencer extraordinaire in my career has to be my main mentor in my 3 years as a student midwife at the QE2 Dawn Stevenson. She will readily admit that on seeing me in the car park on the first day she thought “OMG a mature student!” Luckily, we hit it off straight away. Dawn was patient but also let me go for it. She recognised my passion for low-risk midwifery and parent education and when it was her turn in the community team to run the antenatal classes, she let me loose! We were known as the singing midwives in the labour ward often having music playing in our room with the women rocking and singing as they laboured. We bounced off each other so well – great times.

One of the things that had the biggest impact on me and my practice in my training and to this day was when Dawn said to me in my final year when I was taking the lead in the cases “ The thing I like about your practice is your passion for low risk but the ability to follow and act on your instinct when intervention is required.” This gave me the confidence to trust my instinct and still does to this day.

We have such an influence on the students and colleagues that work with us. They learn by watching our body language, listening to our communication skills, questioning our knowledge. We also learn by doing exactly the same as we watch and listen to our students and colleagues. This is a profession where we are learning every single day. In my opinion, if we think we know it all…. We are dangerous.

The next person to influence my practice is actually a team. I left the QE2 in 2003 following my passion for low-risk midwifery and joined the gang at the newly opened stand-alone Hemel Birthing Centre (HBC). I was interviewed by Jenny Fake and Frances Burt and they thankfully saw my passion and potential and gave me a job and that is where my West Herts journey started in 2003. We were led by Nicky Wilkins and Caroline Duncombe and the team included Geraldine Murphy, Lisa Johnson, Jo Arundel, Elaine Johnson, Esther Mullen, Sally French, Wendy Tabere, and Sita Singh to name but a few. We were a team to be reckoned with. Amazing support for each other, a wealth of knowledge that we were all sharing with each other, and a real understanding of the strength of our women. In a stand-alone birth centre you can’t just transfer your woman upstairs. If they want an epidural or their baby was not in an optimal position it was a blue light ambulance to Watford if we couldn’t sort it which was 20 minutes away if we were transferring. Much like a home birth.

We had women dangling over everywhere really working with the biomechanics of labour to get these babies through the pelvis. However, because we knew normal SO well we knew when to call it and say enough is enough and transfer before things got tricky. Our health care assistances were our 2nds most of the time and were really great at working with us supporting our women and their families. I learnt SO much about my practice and the strength of women in labour and birth and it instilled in me again, something I was already aware of from previous jobs, how important great teamwork is. Having confidence in the process, your women, and your team around you played a massive part in my time at the HBC. Some people say never go backwards but I would work there again in a heartbeat!

When the HBC closed in 2005 most of us went to work at the Alexandra Birthing Unit (ABC) in Watford. Our team was led by another amazing Midwife Mary Norton. Mary was old school and shot from the hip but her passion and skill for supporting women were phenomenal.

On the ABC I met Sarah Bearman. My next amazingly influential “with woman” midwife. The team used to say “when I grow up I want to be a Sarah Bearman”. Her compassion for her women and her midwives was extraordinary. Love and care oozed from her, from every pour in her body. She nurtured her women, gave them confidence, cajoled them, believed in them and did the same for the staff and midwives that worked with her. If I have 1 gram of her compassion as a woman and a midwife I would be happy.

I was then asked, well more like baited like a fish really by Sue Cole who was our Head of Midwifery (HOM) at that time to undertake a new role as a parent education coordinator. We were not offering any classes at that time. The role involved getting a team together, sorting classes and a program.

The downside was it meant leaving the birthing unit. Sue kept feeding me info about the new role until I took the bait and the hook and then she just reeled me in! I loved working on the birthing unit so it took a bit of persuasion to get me to move on. Sue was passionate about antenatal education and knew I was. She was a great member of our parent education team as the HOM and supported us 100%.

Sue was my next influencer she had complete confidence in me as team lead and let me go for it. I was never micro-managed (which by the way drives me crazy) and I was fortunate enough to be able to fill the team with passionate midwives who I knew loved facilitating classes as much as I did. Katie Faulkner, Nata, Jo Arundel, Juine Mensah, Sara Randall, Mary Norton, June Cox, Karen Coghlan, Hayley McGrath, Emma Trollope, Faith Meaney, Sam West and of course lovely Sarah Bearman. If I have missed anyone I apologise. I could not have coordinated that lovely team without the help of Heather Grant as my admin wiz keeping us all in order and Sue Cole’s support as HOM. The support I got from this team of passionate midwives as their band 7 was amazing.

A few years later I was then ready for another challenge and completed the Supervisor of Midwives course and joined the West Herts SOM team as full-time SOM. I met the amazing Joy Kirby. She was a formidable woman and is my next influencer. Strong, outspoken, not to be messed with but very fair. Joy was the Local Supervisory midwifery Officer (LSAMO) and her encouragement and support towards me I will never forget. She really believed in me and the new role I had undertaken as full-time SoM.

This was a role that was groundbreaking to Supervision and the West Herts team and a role in which I grew and learned a lot. The role was predominantly about supporting our midwives to provide the best care to our women and supporting our women by helping them to make informed decisions about their care. On reflection a role that was definitely, towards the end, THE most stressful role I have undertaken to date. Partly due to personal circumstances but partly due to politics.

I am so pleased I then had the opportunity to go back out into the community to the Hemel Tudor team before I retired.

The Hemel team have really looked after me over the last 3 years. They have helped me find my passion again. During my years as a Band 7, I had lost sight of why I became a midwife. I was drowning in meetings and paperwork and politics. Don't get me wrong it was good to have a taste of it all and I hope I made a difference along the way and as I said I learned a lot!

My final influencer so far is Therese Witham. She was a breath of fresh air when she came to West Herts. I went to Therese with an idea, she listened, liked it, backed me and let me run with it. Therese was a manager that knew her own mind. She was not a ‘yes’ woman she would argue for what she felt was right for our women backing it with research and would encourage the midwives under her. With Her support and the support of my band 7 and my team, we became part of the pregnancy Circle study being run by REACH. In fact, we were their first trust to run the pregnancy circles and complete the 7 sessions. The study is still ongoing looking at delivering antenatal care in 2-hour circles of 8 – 12 women delivering parent education at the same time. It was an amazing way to practice both for us and the women in our circles.

I have loved it all over the last 19+ years. The challenges along the way have made me stronger and I have learnt to never give up on an idea that will improve things for our women or colleagues, keep knocking on doors until you find someone who will listen.

So now I am 60. I retired on 31st March at a time when we needed all hands to the pump. I had planned to take a month off, as you do, and then return and do some bank shifts when needed allowing myself time to now concentrate on our business - PBB events. With the situation as it was with this virus my return to work on bank was a bit earlier than anticipated to support a service that was stretched and needed as much support as we could give it in testing times for us all.

So no matter what your job, in my opinion, we can easily forget the massive influence we have on others around us. We give inspiration to others through what we say, our actions, our care, and our compassion. Ours is not only a role that involves caring for our women and their baby's and mentoring our students but it involves sharing our experiences and knowledge, sharing, and passing on our skills and experiences with all around us no matter what our profession.

Take ten minutes to think back over your last year at work. The students you have worked with, the people you have cared for, and your contribution to the team you work in. It will hopefully warm the cockles of your heart as you will realise, as I have, that you play a massive part in all of the above without even thinking about it. And if you don’t? What better time to make some changes.

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