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Almost two years into my retirement from midwifery and I feel like I am just hitting my stride. I am now as busy as my other retired friends have become. Each day I feel I use my midwifery skills in new ways. Specific medical knowledge is sometimes utilized but more broadly my skills in observation, empathy and human interaction have become intuitive over the years. I spend time each week going to see my elderly parents, eyeballing their general condition, filling their medication containers and shopping for them. I fill in to help my working daughter with her two young daughters particularly when her husband is traveling for business. My granddaughters are just 2 years old and 3 months old. I volunteer to help with a program called “Blankets for Kids” sponsored by Child’s Hope- a local community child abuse prevention and awareness organization. I belong to a Ukulele Club and just joined a Women’s Writing Group. I make time to visit with old friends nearby and in Canada. I’m going on 35 years married to a fabulous man who is used to eating, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking and doing yard work independently. He was well acquainted with doing these necessary chores as the husband of a busy midwife. He is a domestic GOD. All the above has made me extremely aware of what a privileged life I live.
The following event enfolded just a few days after violence erupted in Charlottesville, VA during a white supremacist/nationalist demonstration protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The August 2017 incident in Charlottesville was nothing new. I had seen and heard of similar incidents all my life as the civil rights movement unfolded. Like Nurse Valerie Dyer in this episode, I was feeling ashamed. That the United States could still be such a hateful and racist place despite that civil rights movement is more than disappointing. Where was M.L. King’s “DREAM” from his famous 1963 speech? STILL a negative answer to Rodney King’s 1992 appeal “Can we all get along?”
On this day in late August 2017, I was heading down a 6-lane highway on my way to a fabric store to pick up fleece for a community event to make Blankets4Kids. I was hooked up via Bluetooth to a phone call from my mother discussing her grocery list when I saw flashing lights behind me. Already in the far right lane, I made an easy turn into the parking lot of a strip mall followed by the patrol car. I quickly told my Mom I would call her back in a few minutes and ended the call. After appropriate documents were presented and checked, I was presented with a ticket for “Impeding traffic”. Although I am not a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists like Phyllis Crane, my driving record is clean. The polite police officer explained that I was clocked at going 52 miles per hour in a 40 per hour zone. He inferred that he charitably was not charging me with speeding and I would not receive any points on my record. Released to continue my journey, I called my mother back and reassured her all was well. I told her I had been caught in a speed trap and commented that I was thankful I was not some poor single Mom who would have to figure out how to pay bills, buy groceries and pay this ticket. We both agreed that this inconvenience was not a disaster. Since it was just around the corner, I detoured over to the city courthouse to pay my ticket immediately and be done with it.
As I stood in the cashier line to pay my ticket, a young black woman dressed in scrubs came to stand behind me. As we waited, we struck up a casual conversation and I came to learn she was a health care aide with 2 small children. She often worked double shifts to help pay the bills. She was also there to pay a traffic ticket. We subsequently discovered that each of our tickets were issued by the same officer, in the same location for the same offence, right down to the specifics of going 12 miles over the speed limit. With school starting soon and her children needing supplies, she admitted this was going to put a real strain on her budget. Knowing that and remembering my comment to my mother, I knew what I needed to do.
I asked her if she would permit me to give her a gift. I somehow tried to explain to her that I was aware that I have had privileges that she may not have had access to. I have worked with and cared for black women my entire health care career in downtown Detroit. I have learned much from observing my black colleagues and patients. I have developed a great admiration for the wisdom, strength and courage I have witnessed and believe it is an important part of what makes America great. I think I even mentioned my shame of the recent events in Charlottesville. I asked her to consider it a thank you gift for her courage to go out every day despite the racism she may encounter. She graciously accepted my appeal. I needed to do this for me. We walked up to the court cashier together and with one swipe of my credit card both fines were paid.
As we walked out together, we stood on the courthouse steps in the warm summer sun to chat a few more minutes. She thanked me for my kindness. I thanked her for not being offended by thinking it was charity and understanding my need to do it.
Within a few minutes, the black man who had stood behind us in line came up to us. As he smiled at me he said, “ I heard you talking while we were in line and wanted to thank you for your kindness. My mother is so angry and afraid about what is happening in our country and I can’t wait to tell her about this. I hope this story will give her hope.” The three of us, strangers, stood a few moments longer and talked together about hope for our country. Then peacefully we dispersed to our own lives and our own worlds.
I cannot presume to know the experience of blacks in this country but I can continue to observe, empathize and listen. White privileged citizens have much to learn from their black compatriots. Nurse Lucille Anderson skillfully observed, empathized and listened to find a way past racism in this 2nd episode. From a midwife perspective, I have seen how anger and fear shuts down progress in labor. I have seen how understanding can reduce fear and promote progress. I have experienced how simple kindnesses can promote trust and also reduce fear and assist progress. Not always, but often it works. I cannot help but try it outside the birth room as well.
Deborah McBain (CNM, MS, BSN, RN) is a retired certified nurse-midwife and practiced full-scope midwifery in Metro Detroit for 20 years. For 23 years before her midwifery career she practiced as an RN in medical/surgical, obstetrical and neonatology units. During her career, in addition to her midwifery practice, she taught childbirth education, led menopause support groups and mentored nursing, midwifery and medical students as well as physician residents.
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