Book review: Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom

Witnessing the full circle of life unfolding before her never ceased to give Lancashire midwife Sheena Byrom a sense of wonder.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 25th November 2011, 6:00 am

After 35 years in the job, she feels uniquely privileged to have been a part of this miracle on an almost daily basis... but it was something she always felt she was born to do.

Sheena, who lives in Whalley, has seen incredible changes in maternity care – epidural pain relief, water births and the participation of fathers to name but a few – but that special moment of ‘catching a baby’ has never changed.

Retired now from the NHS but still involved with midwifery projects, Sheena has put pen to paper in a memoir that is both inspirational and revealing. Her honest, funny and captivating account takes us to the heart of an ordinary and yet extraordinary career.

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From her very first day as a nervous student nurse in Blackburn to the dedicated completion of her nursing qualifications and her training as a midwife in Burnley, Sheena has never once regretted following the profession she chose under some duress back in 1973.

Catching Babies reveals the unique experiences that filled Sheena’s days as she looked after overwhelmed mums and dads and helped to bring their precious babies into the world.

At the forefront of evolving medical practices, she was the first midwife to oversee a home water birth in her area, but also found herself at the centre of a traumatic delivery that resulted in an emotionally exhausting nine-year litigation case.

The youngest of five daughters, Sheena was raised on a council estate in Clitheroe where there was a real community spirit and a sense of trust and belonging.

Twice hospitalised as a child, the experience left Sheena with a lasting empathy for the stress, anxiety and sense of uncertainty facing hospital patients of any age.

Forced to abandon her A-level studies after both her hard-working parents suffered premature heart attacks, Sheena opted for nursing training and soon discovered that the real qualifications were ‘a thick skin and a strong stomach.’

It was also important not to become too emotionally involved with her patients – a hard task for weepy Sheena whose mother often told her: ‘Your bladder is behind your eyes, my girl!’

After completing her training, Sheena became a pupil midwife at Burnley General Hospital where she helped to deliver 40 babies in her first year and learned never to panic.

She found midwifery very different to general nursing where a lot of joy was to be gained from helping sick people to feel better and making the seriously ill as comfortable as possible. In midwifery, the satisfaction came from doing less TO the individual and more WITH them.

Night times were often the busiest for the junior midwives who dealt with most of the deliveries while the seniors sat around in the dayroom, chatting, smoking and painting their nails. They even had a free-standing hairdryer in there like the ones used in hairdressing salons!

Babies slept in the nursery at night in those days and two nurses would often be left to cope with as many as 15 crying newborns.

Home visits could be at large, luxurious detached homes in the countryside or small terraced homes in built-up areas where Sheena sometimes saw poverty that she never knew existed in developed countries.

When the first of Sheena’s four children arrived, she found a part-time midwifery post at Bramley Meade Maternity Home near Clitheroe where the regime was very different to the large hospitals she had worked in at Blackburn and Burnley.

Sheena’s greatest love was interacting with her patients and the job gave her a valuable and humbling insight into life’s triumphs and tragedies.

Even now she has left practical nursing, there is no more heart-warming moment for Sheena than when she is out and about in town and a woman approaches her and declares with excitement: ‘You were my midwife!’

(Headline, paperback, £6.49)