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

Local mom delivers north Island’s first home birth baby in 30 years, in the middle of a pandemic

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


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

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