Reflecting on a Covid year at Cork's maternity hospital

EMMA CONNOLLY talks to two women working in Cork University Maternity Hospital about the impact Covid had on their professional and personal lives — and the impact it had on expectant and new mothers and fathers
Reflecting on a Covid year at Cork's maternity hospital

Niamh Spillane (Clinical Midwife Manager 3 – Gynae Services at CUMH) - blonde lady and Alex Campbell Candidate Advanced Midwife Practitioner at CUMH. Dark hair. Pictures: Donna Burtchaell

THOSE moments when a woman and her new baby are reunited with her partner on leaving CUMH are really special, and something you can’t help but stop and observe, says Clinical Midwifery Manager Niamh Spillane.

Restrictions in the maternity hospital during Covid means partners are only allowed to be present during labour and delivery, and for a short time afterwards.

Niamh said seeing families together again as they leave for home, is a lovely moment that will stay with her.

Niamh has worked in CUMH for the past 12 years, and took on a new role, clinical Midwife Manager 3 for Gynae Services and Pregnancy Loss, just as the global pandemic hit.

This role saw her as line manager for a complex ward that deals with general gynaecological services, gynaecological cancers and also pregnancy loss.

Due to Covid-19, all elective gynae surgery was put on hold until July, and Niamh and her team were responsible for dedicated Covid rooms on the ward.

Some weeks were busier than others, but fortunately, she said pregnant women took very good care of themselves from the outset of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the first few months were very challenging as everyone — patients and staff, both personally and professionally, adapted to how they lived and worked.

Niamh Spillane.
Niamh Spillane.

“We all had to do things differently. Our Clinical Director described it as a ‘marathon’ and said it would be long and hard, but our priority was to keep our staff and patients safe and that’s what we did. It was quite stressful, there was a huge amount of training involved but we adapted over the months.

“When you work in an acute setting, you come on duty to the unknown and that was even more so with Covid in the mix. Some days were definitely harder than others,” she said.

“When it comes to pregnancy losses, the care is centered around tenderness and compassion. We worked on a case by case basis as you only get one chance to get it right.

“It is the same principal for oncology and end of life cases. Clarity around communication was important, having a clear plan in place for staff, the patient and their family, and then making that happen,” said Niamh.

She often encounters mums-to-be arriving at the hospital’s screening tent on admission.

“Wearing masks can make it more difficult to reassure them, and of course we can’t put an arm around them or a hand on their arm. So it’s all about the eye contact and having a conversation, just a little word, to help them get to the next stage. Everyone’s coping skills are different, but they’re so grateful for that.”

Niamh is originally from Carrigtwohill and lives in the city. She has five grown up children in ages ranging from 34 to 23.

“My youngest was teaching English in Vietnam and got home during the first lockdown, so it was great to have him around, even though he’s dying to get travelling again!” she said.

Her family, and her wonderful colleagues, she said, got her through the past few months.

Alex Campbell.
Alex Campbell.

The intense nature of her work saw her return to running after a 10-year gap.

“It was really good for the head space — you could sort the whole world out on a run!”

Elective surgery has resumed on the ward since July, and Niamh says they’ve done tremendous work in reducing waiting lists.

“We had the longest waiting lists in the country back in 2017 — 4,700 people waiting for an appointment. Through a range of initiatives we got that down to just over 1,000 before Covid hit, which we were very proud of.

“Covid set us back but we’ve got it back to that figure again. We’re all working differently but staff are so relieved to be back to some sort of normality.”

This year’s CUMH annual service of remembrance, which provides comfort to so many, could not take place as usual, but was held virtually. See the beautiful ceremony at cumhremembers.ie

DRAWING ON INNER STRENGTH

HAVING new mums asking if their baby’s grandparents can hold them when they get home was just so sad. That’s a memory of the past few months that will stay with Alex Campbell, Candidate Advanced Midwife Practitioner, at CUMH.

But so too will the many strong connections she had with women before and after they gave birth, when necessary Covid restrictions meant their partners could not be with them.

“Midwives are all about supporting women anyway during what is a massive event for them. But I feel like I had some particularly touching moments this year with women. It’s normal to be nervous when having a baby, it’s a very emotional and powerful time regardless of Covid, and of course nobody wanted to come in the hospital alone. It was sad to see women wave goodbye to their families but everyone understood this was the safest thing for everyone. It was our job to instil confidence in them, and what will also stay with me is their inner strength.”

Just recently, restrictions in CUMH have relaxed to allow partners attend the 20-week scan, but the amount of time they can stay after the delivery is still limited.

“What I have noticed though is that in some cases this has resulted in partners being more present. They know they can make the phone calls to people afterwards so they’re more focused on what’s happening in the moment. 

"We’re also seeing more partners having skin-to-skin contact with the baby straight away because they know they have limited time and that this is so beneficial.”

Personally, Alex, originally from Kerry, had concerns for her own parents over the past few months: “I haven’t been home since February and I have found that quite tough. I felt I couldn’t justify the journey. They did come up during the summer, and I hope to get home over Christmas again.”

Getting the keys to her first house over lockdown was something more positive and helped keep her busy outside of work: “An old friend of mine who had been living in Dublin has moved to Cork since Covid and is renting a room from me, so that’s another good thing to come out of the past few months.”

She’s feeling hopeful for 2021: “The vaccine is a very promising development, even though we have a long way to go. Hopefully, that will mean things will be gentler on people and we can bring back some normality. As humans, we all love connection and we miss that, so hopefully there’ll be more of that next year.”

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