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 bus is free to ride on Oct. 24 so voters can get to the polls to cast their ballots in the provincial election. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Free transit on Election Day in Cowichan

all day and on all regular routes

Painters Jim Tulip, Doug Mackenzie and Gary Henslowe were painting the exterior of the Duncan Butcher Shop and Apple Press printing shop, located between the Trans Canada Highway and Whistler Street, on Oct. 8 as part of neighbourhood painting project. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Duncan’s Whistler Street sees a fresh lick of paint in opioid battle

Group wants to help clean up community, one street at a time

Dinner shows in the Playbill Dining Room are keeping the Chemainus Theatre going during the pandemic. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Dinner events satisfying for the Chemainus Theatre and patrons

Small groups enjoy entertainment and the food in the Playbill Dining Room

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, left, joined Rob Douglas, right, NDP candidate for the Cowichan Valley in the upcoming provincial election, on a tour to meet people in Lake Cowichan on Oct. 16 and discuss local issues. (Robert Barron/Citizen) Douglas’s campaign continued to pull out all the stops with a visit on Sunday from Premier John Horgan for some spearfishing in Duncan. (Submitted)
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh visits Lake Cowichan

Rob Douglas, NDP’s candidate for Cowichan Valley, joins him

Duncan-based author Jennifer Manuel took home the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Heaviness of Things that Float, at the 33rd Annual BC Book Prizes. She will be part of an online reading session on Oct. 22, 2020, featuring Cowichan Valley writers. (Submitted photo)
Cowichan Valley authors to be featured in online readings Oct. 22

The Cowichan Valley Writers Spotlight will feature readings by eight area writers

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

Nanaimo RCMP are asking for the public’s assistance in locating Michael Leighton, who is wanted on 11 warrants on Vancouver Island and is a suspect in a recent break, enter and theft in Nanaimo. (Photos submitted)
RCMP looking for break-and-enter suspect with 11 warrants on the Island

Nanaimo RCMP say Michael Leighton a suspect in theft of pistol and $40,000 worth of coins

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

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

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of decades-old plane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of Sts’ailes Community School students helped discover the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
B.C. dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

Most Read