BRATTLEBORO — “Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but death and taxes,” wrote Christopher Bullock in “The Cobler of Preston” in 1716.
That adage has been oft-repeated since it was first penned, but at least one group of people want you to know those aren’t the only two certain things in life.
“Babies come when they want to come,” said Dr. Kimberly DeVore, who became the chairwoman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cheshire Medical Center in October, in the middle of the pandemic.
For calendar year 2020, Cheshire Medical Center had 409 deliveries, up from 398 in 2019.
“This is not what we had anticipated,” said Candace St. John, who gave birth to her son, Bode, in June in Keene.
St. John, who is an epidemiologist at the Center for Population Health at the hospital, said she and her husband, Tyson, had made plans for the summer to be kind of relaxed leading up to birth. Instead, like other staff members at hospitals across the country, she was called upon to support efforts in response to COVID-19.
Nonetheless, she counts herself lucky, as her husband was able to attend most of the appointments and classes until the emergency declaration in March. And she also counted herself lucky because she knows her way around the hospital and saw how staff was responding to the changing demands of the pandemic.
“They weren’t acting frantic,” said St. John, who lives in Swanzey. “They did a really good job of transitioning folks to telehealth when appropriate. They were really professional and really caring through that transition.”
At Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, 284 children were welcomed into the world in 2020.
“We had to put our heads together to sort through changes as they came in to figure out how to be safe while providing a level of personal care,” said Erinna Wichland, the director of the Birthing Center at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. “We really had to pull together to make this happen.”
Wichland came to BMH six years ago after a decade of work at Cheshire Medical Center.
“One of the things that attracted me to the job was the type of patient care at the Birthing Center,” she said, “and how the unit is run by nurses and providers in a synergistic way.”
That collaborative work environment was put to the test in March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency. But Wichland said having to respond to the pandemic made the Birthing Center a better unit and strengthened its ties to Brattleboro Obstetrics and Gynecology and Brattleboro Primary Care-Pediatrics.
“Our staff really steps up,” said Wichland. “If we are birthing five at the same time, our providers and our midwives and our registered nurses pull together. They know how important the care is that they provide.”
Sabrina Ryba, of Springfield, spent two days in the Birthing Center in September, giving birth and caring for her newborn child, Teagan, with her husband Anthony.
“I’ve been through this process before,” said Ryba, the mother of 12-year old Peighton and 6-year-old Landon. “It was a very different experience this time around.”
The hardest part for both her and her husband was Anthony not being able to attend all the appointments as he had done previously, she said.
“He didn’t get the opportunity to hear the heartbeat for the first time or even be at the ultrasound,” said Ryba. “He really missed out on such an incredible part of the whole process.”
Ryba said the her care providers were able to step in and help fill the emotional gap.
“They really rallied around me,” she said. “They made me feel like I had family in the office.”
And having to isolate during the pregnancy meant office appointments were some of the only times she was able to meet and talk with people.
“I looked forward to my appointments,” said Ryba. “I joke that they weren’t really doctor’s appointments; they were socialization appointments.”
When it came to delivery time, her husband was right by her side.
“It would have been sad for him to not be there,” said Ryba. “But my experience at Brattleboro would still have been wonderful.”
Anthony Ryba said his experience at the hospital “was phenomenal, unlike the births of their previous two children.
“We felt very much like a number, like cattle in line,” he said. “But the doctors and staff at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital were fantastic. They made us feel like we were at home.”
He said he was disappointed to miss some of the appointments with his wife, but that is what fathers are going through all over the country.
“COVID has caused many fathers, including myself, to miss out on a few key moments. Howerver, the experience on the day of delivery made up for it.”
Wichland said the Birthing Center’s staff had to be particularly attuned to new moms who were nervous about the delivery process and weren’t able to bring a “team” of people with them to appointments.
“That was one of the biggest challenges we tried to address,” she said. One way to help reassure their patients, she said, was creating an online tour of the Birthing Center.
“From there we began to offer several educational videos and now we are doing childbirth classes via Zoom,” said Wichland. New moms and their partners are effectively utilizing telehealth to get the advice they need both before birth and afterwards, she said.
One of those first-time mothers was Amy Beecher, of Brattleboro, who had her first child, Benjamin, at the Birthing Center in May.
“We might have waited if we knew a pandemic was coming,” she said.
But, added Beecher, having to self-isolate is not a bad thing when you are welcoming a new child into the world.
“Having a baby is a great pandemic activity, especially because you are very focused at home,” said Beecher, who moved to Vermont with her husband, Adam Horowitz, three years ago to take a job teaching at the now closed Marlboro College.
The plan had been to have the baby in New York City to be closer to the family, but COVID-19 restrictions nixed that plan.
“We really wanted to be in an environment that was very personalized and allowed a lot of agency,” said Beecher. “We couldn’t find a practice in New York right now that felt right to us.”
Colleagues at Marlboro College recommended they check out Four Seasons Midwifery at the Birthing Center, which was just what they were looking for.
“Even before the pandemic, we decided to have our baby in Brattleboro,” said Beecher.
The couple was able to attend some appointments together before the national emergency was declared and afterwards, said Beecher, the staff at the hospital made her feel welcome and comfortable.
“Every time I was there I never felt alone,” she said. “I knew I was with people who were going to collaborate with me on this endeavor. I never felt isolated or lonely.”
Beecher also began to count the days in between appointments.
“Eventually they became a nice reason to leave the house,” she said.
Beecher said one word comes to mind when she thinks about the care she received at the Birthing Center: “Exquisite. It was truly amazing.”
In Keene, Devore, who spent 21 years in the U.S. Army and retired as a colonel before coming to Cheshire Medical Center, said she took the job because it seemed a good fit for her experience.
She also recognized a characteristic shared amongst the staff in Keene that she saw during her 21 years in the military.
“People here are so dedicated to their mission,” said DeVore, even despite the challenges of dealing with the pandemic, which includes swapping in-person visits for telehealth calls.
“This is not how we are brought up to interact,” she said. “And even though we have our stressful days, most people who go into medicine or nursing feel a need to serve. We still have the same group of people that need us and we need to be there for them.”
DeVore’s last duty assignment was at Fort Hood, in Texas, which recorded nearly 4,000 births last year. That job prepared her in an unanticipated way to care for women in Keene during a pandemic.
“What we saw in the military is many don’t have their extended families close by,” she said. “Some of them may not have been able to even have their partner with them.”
Cheshire Medical Center is allowing two support people during birth, noted DeVore.
“That might be disappointing if they were planning on more people,” she said. “But for other people it’s a blessing. They don’t have to feel obligated or worry about disappointing someone by not inviting them into the labor room. It’s not a party all the time for the mom who is in labor.”
DeVore said most people understand the restrictions and realize they are meant to keep everyone safe and healthy, especially the staff who are providing care every day.