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Interpreting my daughter's birth

by Charlie Swinbourne

22nd January 2009

As I write, I'm looking over at a little bundle of joy sleeping soundly in her cot. My baby daughter is three weeks old and, while I might be biased, I think she has the most perfect little face I’ve ever seen, with bright blue eyes, short brown hair and flawless soft skin.
Charlie Swinbourne with his baby daughter
Since she was born, I’ve been getting used to changing countless nappies every day, and waking up three times a night. I've even learnt how to fold her pram without spraining my arm - not an easy task. But all those minor struggles have been offset by the realisation that I am finally, after nine and a half long months, a proud and doting Dad.

Rewind three weeks, and on an icy Monday evening in late December, my fiancée Jo and I were driving to the hospital so that labour could be induced. Over Christmas, her bump had become bigger and bigger - and for Jo, ever more uncomfortable - with no sign of even a Braxton Hicks for our trouble. (For those not up on pregnancy vocabulary, this means false contractions.)

It was a nervous time. With my deafness being classed as ‘moderate to severe’ and Jo rated ‘severe to profoundly’ deaf, we had spent months doing all we could to get the hospital ready for the birth - including holding one-to-one meetings with the head midwife where we outlined our communication needs. We were about to put these preparations to the test in the most important few hours of our lives.

We had carefully worked out a plan to make sure that Jo - who depends on lip reading - could understand everything going on during the labour. Anything she missed, I would interpret for her using sign language and obvious lip patterns, while anything both of us missed would be translated by Jo's mum, who is hearing. She would join us when labour began.

Shortly after being induced, Jo’s contractions started. Good news overall, but bad news for my right hand, as Jo squeezed it to oblivion when each new wave of pain came along. I considered warning her that this might affect my fingerspelling skills later in the night, but as she was in agony at the time I thought she might not appreciate it.

During those few hours, as nurses came to offer Jo gas and regularly monitor the baby’s heartbeat, I started to feel the strain of translating on my own. The medical staff were incredibly friendly, but they spoke with a variety of different accents – mostly Irish, Polish, or African - meaning that lip reading and interpreting their instructions became really difficult.
Hospital equipment for giving gas and air
Before we knew it, the light of dawn had arrived and Jo’s mum joined us, just as the contractions became so severe that further pain relief was needed. This came in the form of an epidural, where a huge needle and then drugs are inserted into the spine.

Looking back, the twenty minutes during which the epidural took place was probably the most stressful period of the whole labour - including the birth itself - because neither we, nor the hospital, had predicted the procedure would present any additional problems for a deaf mother. But it did.

For this difficult method of pain relief to be administered, Jo had to get into a crouched sitting position, with chin placed against her chest. This immediately made it very hard for her to look at us - crucial if you need to see someone signing. Then the doctor, standing behind Jo, started to give her instructions about how and when she needed to move to aid the process. But Jo couldn’t hear a thing the doctor was telling her – and with her eyes squinted closed as she grimaced from the pain of the needle being inserted, we were unable to communicate with her either.

The situation got worse: the needle had to be repositioned three times, as another contraction came along - meaning they had to start again. The tension in the room was unbearable, while Jo was doing well just to stay upright. I realised she didn’t have a clue what was going on, and insisted that the process was stopped so the doctor could explain everything to her, face to face, before continuing.

At this point, a consultant swept into the room - a bit like a star actor making a cameo appearance on stage. After a run-through with Jo, she performed the next epidural; this time, it worked perfectly.

The contrast was remarkable. Having been in intense pain, Jo was soon happily chatting to us, and even managed a much-needed nap! We could all exhale again ...
Print-out graph showing the baby's heartbeat and Jo's contractions
By now it was midday. We thought we were just a few hours from meeting Swinbean (the nickname we'd given to our future baby), but then everything seemed to slow down. We sat in that room through the late afternoon, evening and into the night, reassured by watching the print-out graph of the baby’s heartbeat spooling from the monitor, accompanied by a spiky line marking Jo’s contractions.

At two in the morning on New Year's Eve, the instructions were reduced to a simpler “push!” and “stop pushing!”, which Jo could follow on her own. Three exhausting hours later (for Jo, though we were all rather red-eyed) our baby daughter entered our lives, accompanied by a few tears of joy as we held her for the first time.

Amazingly, the hospital gave us a private room and allowed me to stay overnight – a privilege that other fathers don’t have – so that I could continue to interpret for my partner.

The only really difficult part had been the aforementioned epidural - a situation that wasn't thought of in advance. To address this problem, we would recommend that deaf prospective parents ask their hospital if they can practice a ‘dry run’ of an epidural a month or two in advance of their due date, so they know exactly what to expect.

As for the NHS staff, they were absolute stars - friendly, dedicated and most importantly, willing to adjust to our communication needs both before the birth and during labour. They delivered our daughter into the world safely, and for that - from this deaf mum and dad - we’d like to send them our warmest gratitude.

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