Obstetrics 90 Years Ago (& how things have changed)
This past year I received something very special in the mail. It was from my grandfathers sister, my great aunt Mary. It was a book, belonging to my great grandmother Phoebe Smith, called 'Obstetrical Nursing' and it was from 1926. Phoebe was an obstetrics nurse, but she sadly passed away while my grandfather was just a child. This book definitely makes me feel more connected to this woman whom I never got a chance to know.
Reading these pages it's so interesting to see just how things have changed this century regarding birth, and how some things stay the same.
This is for sure the biggest difference from today. Yes, we still make sure hospitals are sterile environments, everyone washes their hands, that is all fine and good. But back then not only would the doctors and nurses wash their hands constantly with 'green soap' (whatever that is), sterile water, and alcohol, but before every vaginal exam and delivery they would scrub the mothers vulva with all of that stuff too! Not to mention shaving off her pubic hair.
They would then cover all of the mother's exposed skin (except for her vagina) with "sterile towels, leggings, sheet and delivery pad for delivery". If only they knew back then about all of the healthy, beneficial bacteria that exists inside of the mother's vagina that actually helps the baby when she is born! My, how things have changed.
Epidurals wouldn't be around for another 50 years to be used in labour, so in the 1920s the new method of pain relief was chloroform or ether. They would need to cover the mother's face with oil and then towels to protect her from any burns that might come from drops of the anesthesia. They also wouldn't give it until the second stage of labour. Which is right at the end, when she is trying to push the baby out! This was so that her body would be still and quiet so the doctor could do what he had to rather than with the mother "tossing violently around the bed." Yikes to all of that. I'm glad our medicine has improved.
Caring for the Labouring Woman
This aspect they got right, I'm glad to see that a whole century later this is still vital:
-"When labor begins at night, it is well to advise the patient to stay in bed and sleep as much as possible until morning."
-"Bearing in mind the importance of conserving all of her forces, it is usually advisable for a patient in labor to have no visitors, particularly the type of person who would be likely to offer advice and gratuitous information."
-"She should drink water freely and take some kind of light nourishment every four hours."
-"But in all cases the nurse should impress her patient with her sincere sympathy and appreciation of the fact that she, the patient, is going through a difficult time. The nurse must be cheerful, encouraging and optimistic."
It's a real trip to look at these pages and imagine what it was like to give birth back in the 20s. I'm happy that modern medicine has improved so much and also that women are taking back their birth experiences. No more having doctors do medical procedures without your consent, ladies!
Having this book and picturing Phoebe, 90 years ago, studying from it, fills me with a sort of nostalgic feeling that tells me I am on the right path in being a doula. I like to think that she would be happy knowing that I am in this field as well.