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In the middle of a pandemic, ‘babies come in the same way they always have’

A bitterly cold night with unrelenting rain and sleet ends another day of worrying in Utah. The same week that states and businesses across the U.S. have limited their hours or shut down to stem the spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, the state was struck by a 5.7 earthquake. As daily conversations seemed to turn to death, there was also life.

At 4 a.m. on March 20 at a house in Murray, outside Salt Lake City, baby Asher came into the world with the help of a team of midwives. As much of the rest of the country moved to isolate themselves and stay at home, the midwives had checked in to work — a team of women who, despite their own fears and concerns about themselves and their respective families, are part of a process that does not halt for pandemics and earthquakes alike.

In some hospitals this week in New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, partners and doulas were barred from accompanying expectant mothers in the delivery room during the coronavirus outbreak. Midwives and pregnant women in Utah worried that rule might soon be applied to them.

Even as they continue to assist their expecting mothers, the cloud of the pandemic hangs over them. “When I hold a woman’s hand, my hand must be gloved. When I speak encouraging words to her, they are muffled and distant behind a mask,” said Melissa Chappell, a certified professional midwife in Utah.

Photographer Sebastian Rich was in Utah last week to capture these images of a new baby entering the world and the women who helped usher that life in.

Ali and Mikey Barrus and their newborn son, Asher. Photo by: Sebastian Rich

Ali Barrus

Mother

“My initial decision last summer to have a home birth with a midwife was one I was so drawn to for so many reasons, but there were also a lot of uncertainties as my first three babies were born in a hospital and it was all so new. However, my home birth experience was so much more beautiful and peaceful than I could have ever imagined.

There is always so much concern, even fear, in keeping your newborn healthy, but the current situation in our world with COVID-19 heightened that concern. The hospital, which normally has a reputation for being stark clean and a safe place for vulnerable life, has quickly become the front lines of a war to be avoided if at all possible. Throw an earthquake into the mix and I couldn’t imagine having to be away from home and away from my older three kids while we spent time at the hospital.

Ali Barrus labors at home with her husband Mikey. Photo by Sebastian Rich

The peace I had been feeling to deliver at home continued to swell with every day that brought it closer.

My midwife and birth team not only made me feel safe not only physically, but emotionally during such a vulnerable and personal moment in our lives. The peace and beauty of that moment shared in our home was felt so deeply for everyone involved and for a few hours I didn’t think about the uncertain feelings that surround so heavily right now.

The care I felt from my midwives and birth assistants was beyond anything I have felt in three different experiences delivering a baby at a hospital. I feel so lucky to have had this experience of peace and safety in a world where I feel unease and uncertainty every time I walk out the door.”

Melissa Chappell, a Utah-based midwife. Photo by: Sebastian Rich

Melissa Chappell

Certified professional midwife

“Midwifery is both a heartening and heart-rending profession. Many think our single purpose is delivering babies, but we are constant witnesses to both life and death.

We hold space for women to give voice to abuse, trauma and fear. We regularly cry with women as they share accounts of past birth experiences where they were treated as less than human. We fight with our deepest souls for families to be treated with respect and kindness and love.

But now, there is an imbalance and it hurts more than usual because, when I hold a woman’s hand, my hand must be gloved. When I speak encouraging words to her, they are muffled and distant behind a mask.

So I sit here, waiting, hoping that this will all be over soon, but also knowing that midwifery, the second oldest profession in the world, will always be there — knowing that the resilience of the human spirit resides, not just in the women I work with, but in myself as well. And knowing that no matter what, we will never change how we love people into being.”

Seasons Warner, a professional midwife based in Utah. Photo by Sebastian Rich

Seasons Warner

Certified professional midwife

“Despite all the chaos and noise of the world, babies come in the same way they always have. My greatest desire and goal is to protect and preserve every birth experience regardless of what is happening outside of the birth room. People hire us to provide a measure of safety in having a trained professional present at their birth, but also because we care deeply about each individual client. Whether we’re covered head to toe in protective gear or not, it won’t change the tenderness and respect a client will receive in our care.

COVID-19, something I barely knew existed just weeks before, was now in our county. I started having concerns for my family and my business. My husband is immunocompromised. What if I brought this home to him, or to my kids? What if we ran out of supplies? What if my clients or their babies got sick? What if I got sick and was unable to care for them? My brain just wouldn’t quit with all the what-ifs.

Ali Barrus gave birth at home with the help of Melissa Chappell, a professional midwife, and her best friend, Caitlin Heaps. Photo by Sebastian Rich

The gravity of this responsibility was inescapable. Clients began calling with fears of their birth plans going out the window.

Melissa [a fellow midwife] and I had to make a lot of difficult decisions this week and start a game plan. We’ve reduced physical contact and proximity with a revised prenatal schedule. We had the most heart-wrenching conversation with our apprentices today. We divided our team and our client load to limit exposure, and hopefully protect our ability to continue serving our clients. We’ve made back-up plans and contingencies for those back up plans. We’re taking additional measures for sanitation and protection for both us and our clients.

My hands are cracked and bleeding from how frequently I’ve washed and sanitized them. Protocol recommendations from the midwifery governing arm are changing almost daily. We’re daily checking our suppliers in hopes things will be stocked up again.”

Maria Fourie, a Utah-based student midwife, assists with a different birth. Photo by Sebastian Rich

Maria Fourie

Student midwife

“Becoming a midwife is a calling I am blessed to have. It takes strength — physical and mental, perseverance, and bravery. I am proud to say that this is my true calling.

With this work comes hard lessons. Humbling and beautiful experiences happen often. One such hard lesson for me was when one of our sweet mothers gave birth to a stillborn baby girl [at the hospital]. A beautiful, chubby, dark-haired baby girl. My heart broke when we could not find heart tones. It was so hard for me to contain my professional composure when all I wanted to do was curl up and cry.

Novel coronavirus is trickling its way around the world. It is a scary time as we all worry about our loved ones, and as we are told to social distance and self-quarantine. Midwifery is such a social, family gathering, that it feels wrong to have to distance ourselves from our clients and their families.

Right in the middle of this uncertain time, my worst fear, something I have long been scared of happening, hit our community. At 7:09 a.m. on Wednesday morning, an earthquake woke me from a deep sleep. It took a few seconds to realize what was happening at about 2:00 a.m. That morning, I woke up to a solo clap of thunder, thinking it was an earthquake. I went back to sleep with an eerie feeling only to have it hit me again with a loud roaring sound that only got louder, the shaking only getting stronger. I jumped out of bed, pulling my son out with me, and ran to get my four other children. The only thought on my mind was how am I going to save all five kids? Get them underneath the table. The shaking stopped. It was a 5.7 on the Richter scale, definitely strong enough to scare us all half to death. I was terrified the whole day– every aftershock had me jumping up to corral the kids. I cried a lot. Still, a few days later, every sound or sudden movement panics me.

The next day, one of our mothers went into labor. Did I want to go out into the scary world yet? No. The most comforting place for me was at home with my family. I had to be brave and face the world sooner than I wanted to, but I am so glad that I did. The world kept spinning and there was light among the darkness. I just had to look for it, as all I wanted to do was worry.

This family laughed her whole labor. Their other children stayed up late waiting for baby brother to make his arrival. There is nothing in the world like the cry of a newborn baby. He screamed his tiny little head off and it was so comforting to me. The smiles throughout the room are just what I needed to take my mind off of fear, to do my job, the one that I am so lucky to have. That night we as a birth team laughed and cried together.”

Cristina McLennan, a student midwife based in Utah, helps after the home birth of baby Asher to mother Ali Barrus. Photo by Sebastian Rich

Cristina McLennan

Student midwife

“The world seems to have gotten a lot smaller over the last two weeks. People are coming together as communities within their towns, states, countries and the world at large. We are recognizing minorities, empathizing over similarities instead of fighting over differences, and realizing what it’s like to fight for our lives and the lives of those we love. In no way do I mean to minimize the horror that has come from this virus, but it has been beautiful to witness and take part in, what seems to be, a very important global shift.

My heart aches for the families and communities across the world who are currently being impacted on such intimate and personal levels. Last Thursday, I received an early morning call from my mom. She sounded terrible. I immediately felt my heart sink, given the current times coupled with her baseline poor health. Later that day, she was admitted to the hospital and after a slew of exams and blood work, she qualified to be tested for COVID-19. That was nine days ago. We have yet to receive the results.

These are worrisome times, and I am trying my best to keep my head high as I go about my day-to-day, much of which is filled with midwifery work. I absolutely love attending births. I am filled by the courage and power that is harnessed and unleashed within each birth experience. I am grateful for my team, and the camaraderie we have nurtured at this time. We are doing everything we can to keep our clients safe, while also doing our best to keep ourselves and our families healthy. This has meant making adjustments to our practice, while being mindful to not shift away from the midwifery model of care that we each love so much.

I feel hopeful that as we each do our part to selflessly and intentionally move forward, both as individuals and communities, lasting differences will be made to improve this world we call home.”

Newborn baby Asher at home with mom Ali. Photo by Sebastian Rich

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