Teen Johnson was born healthy and is a very chatty, happy baby. (Zoë Ducklow)

B.C. mom delivers north Island’s first home birth baby in 30 years

Midwives have made home birth possible again, and COVID-19 is making them more appealing than ever

For the first time in years, a baby was born at home on the north Island.

Not in a hospital, not down Island. On a cedar mat by the sea in her mother’s Kwakiutl First Nation territory between Port Hardy and Port McNeill.

Jennifer Johnson, 35, was in her third trimester when the coronavirus hit Canada early this year. No one knew what the world would look like five to six weeks in the future. Giving birth in a hospital seemed like the most dangerous place to go amidst a contagious disease pandemic.

Home looked more attractive than ever.

For the last 20 years, since a bad outcome with a local birth, pregnant women on the north Island have been encouraged to travel down island to Campbell River, Nanaimo, Victoria or even Vancouver. At least two to three weeks before their due date, a woman is supposed to leave home and wait for labour to start. Only those with a very uncomplicated pregnancy are allowed to stay home and deliver at the Port McNeill hospital, but most don’t qualify.

The Vancouver Island North is a 1A site, meaning there’s no cesarean section back-up in case of emergency. The hospitals in Port Hardy and Port McNeill have no operating rooms, and no obstetricians. Over time, hospital support staff have become less experienced with maternal health since most babies are delivered elsewhere.

It makes sense that anyone at risk of complications needs to go to a larger medical centre. But birth isn’t inherently a medical condition, and unless there are complications, babies can be safely born at home with qualified health care providers attending. It’s just that there haven’t been any midwives on the north Island – at least none that stayed long enough to start a private practice.

Midwives have been around forever, but were only legalized in B.C. in 1998. With the rise in qualified care providers — there are 315 practising registered midwives in B.C. — has come an increase in home births and midwife-led hospital births. Midwives deliver nearly a quarter of babies born in B.C., and that number is increasing every year as more midwives graduate.

Marijke de Zwager moved to Port Hardy in 2018 after 10 years of midwifery in Vancouver. She got involved volunteering at a pregnancy outreach program where she learned about the gap in maternal health care.

”So many people were going down island to have their babies who were low risk enough that they could deliver here. But none of the doctors in Port Hardy were really comfortable. They were just doing emergency deliveries for when someone showed up fully dilated at the hospital,” de Zwager said. Port McNeill was offering planned deliveries, but only certain folks qualified.

So de Zwager started up a practice. She offered pre- and post-natal care until she got hospital privileges and started delivering babies in August 2019, supported by the two new doctors who had logged lots of hours in maternity wards. Since then, she’s delivered 16 babies in hospital, assisted doctors with three, and caught four at home.

Teen Johnson was born in Kwakiutl territory on a foggy morning in April, with midwives attending. (Zoe Ducklow))

READ MORE: Pregnant in a pandemic: Expectant B.C. moms change birth plans due to COVID-19

Jennifer Johnson’s daughter — named Teen, Johnson’s grandmother Helen Hunt’s nickname — was the first home birth on Vancouver Island north caught by a registered midwife, and she just happened to come in the middle of a pandemic.

“I still don’t know what they look like,” Johnson said of de Zwager, the other midwife and a physician, who were covered in PPE for every meeting.

“We joke that we could pass each other on the street and not recognize each other.”

Johnson had been living in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, but came to the main island to avoid ferry complications in case she went into labour at night. Her nation, Kwakiutl, gave her permission to stay in a cabin at its Cluxuwe Resort — an oceanside camping resort between Fort Rupert and Port McNeill — though it was closed to the public at the time.

Johnson settled into Cabin 2 with her mom just before Alert Bay had a startling 30-person virus outbreak and lockdown.

“I had waited so long to have a baby girl, and it really stuck with me that it felt like it could be taken away in a heartbeat. Something unknown, you don’t see it, you don’t hear it, you can’t look at it, can’t smell it. It’s just this unknown virus and you don’t know where it is, but it’s traveled the whole world. Cluxewe was a beautiful place because it brought safety back to me.”

The first pangs of labour came early on a Thursday morning in April.

TJennifer Johnson with her minutes-old daughter surrounded by her health team at Cluxuwe. (Submitted)

It was a foggy day, she recalls. She went for a walk along the ocean with her mom; the midwives arrived; Johnson had a nap and Teen was born mid-afternoon.

Fog, Johnson learned later, is sometimes seen as a gateway for the spiritual side that brings them closer.

“It just felt like people had come to be there. I knew she was going to be born that day.”

It meant a lot to deliver on her homeland, even if the normal bustling family celebration has been spliced into socially distanced, small group meetings.

“I really thought of my grandpa, Tony Hunt, Sr. He passed in 2017. He just would have been so proud. I just know that he would have been so boastful and happy.”

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


BC HealthBirthsIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Jennifer Johnson with her daughter, Teen. (Zoë Ducklow)

Just Posted

The two sites in question included a number of commercial buildings, some of them currently boarded up. (Langley Advance Times files)
Deal to add Fort Langley land to Kwantlen reserve called off

Elders and a land advisory group within the KFN opposed the project

The RCMP helicopter. (File photo)
Suspect escapes after police pursuit through Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford

Police chase involved two stolen vehicles, including one taken in Mission

Dwain and Lillian Seymour discovered their Murrayville home was listed for rent without their knowledge as part of a scam. (Langley Advance Times/file)
Guilty plea in Langley rent fraud case

Arrested man admits to 14 criminal counts

Police boats were called in to search the Fraser River after a report that a plane had crashed where the river runs between Langley and Maple Ridge. (Shane MacKichan/Special to The News)
Investigation enters final phase, missing aircraft last seen over Fraser River

Small aircraft was carrying a student and instructor on June 6

Trinity Western University students Nyssa Morgan and Braedon Sunnes take their comedy improv night online for the world to see. (TWU/Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: In year of uncertainties, Langley students try to lift spirits with laughter

TWU students brought 30-year-old comedy improv tradition online

Mary Foote (right) took part in the Gutsy Walk in August 2020 at the age of 104. She was joined by son in-law Clarence and daughter Edith Olson. (family photo)
Langley woman turns 105 on Oct. 25

In August, Mary Foote took part in the Gutsy Walk to battle Crohn’s and Colitis

With local MLA Adam Olsen looking on, BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said a Green government would convert BC Ferries into a Crown corporation Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Green leader Sonia Furstenau promises to convert BC Ferries back into Crown corporation

Promise comes Monday afternoon with five days left in campaign

IIO Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Police watchdog concludes Mounties didn’t shoot Surrey teen at strip mall

IIO finds tragic death of teenager ‘not the result of any actions or inactions’ by the Surrey RCMP

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Police confirm human remains were found in a recycling bin in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Human remains found in recycling bin floating near Vancouver beach

Police asking nearby residents to see if their recycling bin has gone missing

Emergency crews shut down White Rock’s Five Corners district on Feb. 19, 2020 after an altercation left an elderly man in critical condition. (File photo)
Trial dates set in White Rock manslaughter case

Proceedings against Ross Banner, 71, set for June 2021 in Surrey Provincial Court

The many faces of Daon Glasgow. (Photos: Surrey RCMP)
Glasgow found not guilty of trying to murder transit cop in Surrey

Transit Police Constable Josh Harms was shot Jan. 30, 2019 at Scott Road SkyTrain Station

Most Read