I had a call at midnight not long ago to say that a woman in Ivanhoe was about to give birth.
Ivanhoe is a small township on the Cobb Highway, four hours south east of Broken Hill. About 250 people live there and the last time a baby was born in Ivanhoe was nearly 30 years ago.
Women would normally either go to Mildura to give birth, which is three hours south, or to Broken Hill, four hours west.
When I took the call, I already knew that there are no midwives living in Ivanhoe. Women who are pregnant in Ivanhoe usually receive their antenatal care from the RFDS primary healthcare team.
In circumstances like this (where a woman is about to give birth without warning), the RFDS will make an emergency flight and take the woman to the nearest major hospital to ensure her baby is born safely.
All RFDS flight nurses are qualified midwives so we have been called upon to use our birthing skills both on the ground and occasionally in the air. However, on this night there was a problem.
Neil, the local registered nurse, sounded concerned when he rang. “There’s a power outage in Ivanhoe,” he said. “The hospital is using an emergency generator and I’ve got a pregnant woman in labour.”
I knew straight away what that meant. The airstrip at Ivanhoe doesn’t have solar lights or flares, it relies on electricity. Without power to these lights our pilot, Otto, wouldn’t be able to land.
Until we could find a solution it looked like Neil might have to cope on his own.
“Have you ever delivered a baby before?” I asked. “No,” he said. “Although I’ve been present at many births, I’ve only ever delivered lambs.”
Volunteers from the SES were alerted and they located an emergency generator and started rigging temporary lights on the runway. Dr John Russell and I were on standby to leave as soon as the lights were in place but it quickly became obvious to everyone that this little baby wasn’t going to wait.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Neil. “We can talk you through what to do.”
By now Neil’s colleagues had arrived so I assigned them tasks by phone. I was impressed that everyone stayed calm although it was an anxious time for us all.
At least mum Maricar knew what to expect – she’d had three children already.
Things happened quickly, with the three nurses in Ivanhoe assisting in the delivery of a healthy baby boy. There was a mixture of joy and relief in their voices as we heard the baby give its first cry – the newborn baby was healthy.
We kept in constant communication with Neil and the Ivanhoe health team, giving advice to stabilise the mother’s condition and waiting anxiously for word that the lights were in place.
We congratulated the team in Ivanhoe for a job well done and flew Maricar and her baby to Broken Hill Base Hospital for observation by the hospital midwives.
Neil and his colleagues did a fantastic job, as did the SES volunteers in managing to get the lights back on for us so we could land.
Thankfully, in this case, there was a good outcome, but Maricar’s story shows how challenging it can be for us to reach people in remote areas.
There are hundreds of airstrips across our region and many of them don’t have back-up power lighting systems in place. Hopefully, one day they will.
If you support the Flying Doctor Service I want to thank you.
You are helping us save lives, and bring new lives into the world, every day of the year.