Special deliveries

"I didn't want to be brainwashed into being subservient to doctors"

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 11:02 02/02/2013
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Sharon Robinson

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Until Stratford midwife Sharon Robinson became pregnant with her first child her knowledge of midwives was pretty hazy. Although she knew what they were, she thought they were extinct.

At the time Robinson was living in Georgia, in the United States, and while researching antenatal care discovered midwives did exist and some were doing home births, but it was underground.

If there were any problems the midwife would drop the mother-to- be off at a hospital emergency department and take off so that she wouldn't get arrested.

She didn't think that was a safe option, so after much searching, Robinson found a small rural maternity unit in Bamberg, South Carolina - two hours, 15 minutes' drive away - where there were nurse midwives.

It was attached to a hospital, in case she needed a caesarean. She gave birth to both of her daughters in the unit.

"After that [midwifery] became my passion, it consumed me and possessed me."

So, when her daughters, Hannah and Sarah, were little she left them and her husband, Dave Rohe, in Georgia to study midwifery in New York city.

"I didn't want to be brainwashed into being subservient to doctors so I didn't want to go to nursing school. I wanted to be a midwife not a nurse midwife but I needed . . . a credential that was accepted by the medical model so I would have credibility."

At that time it was the only course in the US that accepted non-nurses into an accredited programme. Her background is in physical therapy.

"I was totally out of my comfort zone in New York. It was total culture shock."

And she missed her family, who she was away from for two years.

"In the first semester I visited them once and my girls were 4 and 6 and I was crying all the time and I thought what the hell am I doing? I'm studying midwifery because it's the best for families, yet I'm leaving my own family to go do this. It was such a struggle, but my husband didn't want to live in the middle of New York city with two little kids," she says, getting emotional at the memory.

Her husband was supportive of her decision. He felt it was a gift to be able to spend the time with his little girls.

After a while he moved to live with Robinson's mother in Connecticut, so that Robinson could visit them at the weekend.

She did her training in two big city hospitals in the Bronx and didn't like what she saw.

There is a fear of birth in the States, Robinson says, and they "practice defensive medicine".

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"It was from a fear of protecting themselves . . . if they didn't do the caesarean now and anything went wrong they'd be sued. It wasn't really connecting with each individual woman and what she needed for her child."

This left her with a dilemma once she graduated with a masters degree in midwifery - where was she going to work?

"I thought, 'what am I going to do' because the States is so hostile to anything like what I believed."

So the family moved to Sihanoukville, a coastal city in Cambodia, to work with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organisation.

Both Robinson and Rohe were physical therapists and they worked in a community-based rehab project to help people with disabilities.

"They were really ostracised and not integrated into society. We tried to improve the quality of their lives."

At the same time Robinson helped pregnant mothers she came across in her job.

"They were essentially just going to have their babies in their huts with nobody there or just their neighbour. I made arrangements that when they were going to have their baby they would get a friend to come and knock on my window . . . Usually I found a midwife in the town where I was who would work with me."

Along the way she met the woman who ran the midwifery service at the hospital.

The woman also had a private clinic where she charged pregnant women US$100 (NZ$119) - a huge sum - to have their babies at her rooms and stay for three days afterwards.

"It was just the downstairs underneath her house . . . . there was a wooden table and I think she used a toaster oven to "sterilise" things. There were flies and she had this metal pot that people would sit on to push. But it was pretty flash compared to what these people were going to get without it. This was the premier - where the rich people went."

Robinson arranged to pay the woman $80, which she paid herself, to bring mothers-to-be, who couldn't afford help, to her rooms.

"I would bring them to her in labour. They would birth there with her and me, because she could speak Cambodian. And if there were medical complications she had the connections to the hospital."

The hospital is another story, she says.

No mattresses on the beds, no sheets, no nothing.

"It was corrupt. There was no medication given to patients unless they paid for it and it was supposed to be a free service."

What Robinson found heartbreaking, and what she was totally unprepared for, was the women begging her to take their babies.

"It was for multiple reasons. They were so poor, it was their way of taking care of the children they already had, it was of gratitude, they wanted to thank me. They saw me as hope - if I took the baby the child would have a better life. I couldn't take their babies."

However, she did end up adopting a little boy.

"We got to know him and spent more and more time with him and after two years his mother was begging us to take him. He was 5 years old by then. I kept saying, no, no, I can't take your son, because with my beliefs you would never do that . . . I took him to school when he was 4 and we thought we would continue to pay for him after we left Cambodia."

But her two daughters fell in love with the little boy and his mother continued to beg her to take him, she says.

"His mother said he could have two mothers, she would be the mother who gave birth to him and I could be the mother that raised him."

The mother was on her knees in the gravel pulling on Robinson's skirt saying, "please take my son".

Eventually Robinson and her husband started the adoption process. There is a lot of corruption and the couple had to pay officials, including a judge, to get things signed.

Initially the family thought they would go back to the US and so Robinson's daughters told their new brother he would need a Western name, Robinson says. "They were afraid people would think he was from Afghanistan and treat him badly."

However, the family decided to come to New Zealand, but by the time they arrived the little boy had decided he liked his new Western name - Will.

"New Zealand is an amazing place to birth your children. The system here supports, in the way no other system in the world supports, children to be born. There are problems here I'm well aware and I have experienced a lot of those problems, but I know I'm supported. I'm not having to drop people off at the emergency room and leave because I'm going to be arrested if they wanted a home birth."

The family came to New Zealand for a holiday six months before they were due to leave Cambodia. Robinson thought she would have to start off in a big city and was about to sign a contract for a job in Wellington when she found out there was a job going in Stratford.

The family arrived on January 23, 2003.

The three children were then 6, 8 and 11 and all went to Stratford Primary School.

"I told the teacher on the first day that I've explained to [Will], he didn't speak much English, he understood a lot but his language was still minimal, I've explained to him he has to go to the toilet. He can't just squat out in the playground . . . please don't think he's being naughty."

The family has been back to visit Will's other family in Cambodia and they help with his siblings' schooling.

Ten years on Robinson has delivered about 750 Stratford babies and is inviting them and their families to her 50th birthday party on February 11. The celebrations have already started and the whole family, including their adopted Kiwi daughter, went skydiving a couple of weeks ago. She will show a video of the skydiving at her party. It is being held at the Stratford War Memorial Hall between 4pm and 6pm on February 11.

The Lions Club will give children train rides and there will be cupcakes.

Robinson, along with her family and friends, plan to make marzipan babies to decorate the cupcakes. She will make 400.

"To me my midwifery is about the connections between the mother and the babies and the siblings and the fathers and the grandparents and the community and it's all about whatever I can do to facilitate this joyous appreciation for each other."

PARTY TIME Sharon Robinson is inviting all the babies she has delivered and their families to her 50th birthday party. So come along to the Stratford War Memorial Hall between 4pm and 6pm on February 11, have a cupcake and some fun.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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