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

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

Jennifer Rice BC NDP North Coast Incumbent was re-elected for a third according to the preliminary results on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Jennifer Rice is North Coast MLA for third term

Preliminary election results show NDP Majority government

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

Subsea fibre optics running from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii and and then south to Vancouver will improve high-speed internet connection options for Coastal Communities, CityWest said on Oct. 13.
Subsea fibre optics running from north of Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii and and then south to Vancouver will improve high-speed internet connection options for Coastal communities, CityWest said on Oct. 13. (Black Press Media)
CityWest to refresh subsea fibre optics project

Fibre optics project to run cable from north of Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii then south to Vancouver

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

NDP Leader John Horgan speaks with the owner of a barber shop while campaigning in Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Campaigning was restricted by the coronavirus pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s B.C. majority came with historically low voter turnout

Barely half of eligible voters cast ballots in snap election

A police pursuit ended with an arrest in Williams Lake on Highway 97 Sunday afternoon. (Facebook video screenshot)
Video catches police pursuit that ends with man kicked, punched in Williams Lake

A video of the arrest is getting widely shared on social media

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Most Read