A Ways With Words pre-read and the health warning today is that this post might make difficult reading if you are either pregnant yourself or by proxy as it were, perhaps with grandchildren imminent, but on the other hand to be informed is to be aware and in this case, as you will realise, awareness is everything.
Here's also yet another fine example of that synchronicity in reading. I bet I'm not the only one who does this, spreads out an old newspaper for something and then starts reading it, but I did a double take this week when I glanced at the front page of the Guardian Family section from Saturday June 7th.
The feature is headlined After Jessica and shows a smiling couple, in the snow, a chubby rosy-cheeked babe-in-arms and altogether a happy family scene, but the headline quickly dissipates the happiness,
'Jessica Palmer had an easy labour and a healthy child. Five days later she died from a treatable infection. Her husband Ben talks about anger,guilt and life alone with two children.'
Surely this can't be what I think it could be?
I'd just finished reading Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams and so I now have an excellent fictional account of the devastating impact of Childbed Fever before anyone had the first clue as to its cause.The book is based on the actual outbreak that occurred in 1790 in Aberdeen and I knew something of this already.
It being one of my 'subjects as it were, I have quite a collection of books ancient and modern on childbirth and one of the most fascinating is The History of Childbirth by Jacques Gelis. Again, don't stray within a mile of this if there is a baby imminent, but for a fascinating look at 'the system of practices, belief and taboos which surrounded conception, pregnancy and birth in early modern Europe' this book cannot be bettered.
With something now so well accepted it seems nigh on impossible to imagine that the theory of contagion had yet to be recognised in 1790, and when Alexander Gordon finally realised that the doctors and midwives were largely responsible for the spread of infection it was obvious he was dealing with one very hot potato.
'I have evident proofs that every person who had been with a patient in puerperal fever, became charged with an atmosphere of infection, which was communicated to every pregnant woman, who happened to come within its sphere.'
Thus spake Gordon's Treatise and for his discovery he was villified and rejected, his marriage broke down and he returned to sea as a ship's doctor while his work went largely unrecognised almost to the middle of the nineteenth century.
I love fictional medical history and in Touching Distance Rebecca Abrams has woven a fascinating and highly readable story around her factual foundation with added undercurrents of what I felt sure rippled towards Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, if I'm underlining by page six this bodes well. The sights, sounds and smells of the unpalatable are essential to the story and Rebecca Abrams graphically conveys it all, the ignorance of the 1790's compounded by an unwillingness to listen, enmities and rivalries between the professions and all in the midst of the agonisingly painful deaths endured by the women some five to seven days post delivery. The research feels thorough and impeccable yet rests lightly on the book, facilitating a good page-turner of a read rather than a slog through a thesis. There's no doubt it's shocking but somehow you tell yourself this is history so you feel one step removed, surely it's unheard of in these days of antibiotics?
Except that in areas of the world where hygeine and access to medicine are seriously compromised, up to 250,000 woman a year may still be dying from puerperal sepsis...but not here surely?
Then I read that Guardian article, and it all hits home. As Rebecca Abrams elaborates, childbirth remains one of the riskiest events in a woman's life and as Ben Palmer says
'I don't want to scare people by adding to their worries, but as part of a normal pregnancy, mums are aware of a lot of things that can go wrong, but not this.'
and he's right.
I haven't read it but I suspect Ben's book, Friday's Child : The Heartbreaking Story of a Mother's Love and a Family's Loss may well make for very emotional and uncomfortable reading. From the moment Jessica's labour began (while she was sitting on the sofa reading Daphne du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek) to the the quick and normal delivery of daughter Emily and early discharge home, followed by the fulminating course of the unrecognised but lethal streptococcal infection. It sounds like a catalogue of terrible errors, the stuff of nightmares, overworked medical staff, an acute lack of awareness, the faceless anonymous bureaucracy as Ben fought for compensation, the tough climb back from the mire of grief which engulfed him. But one comment from Ben unwittingly encompassed not only his own experience and Rebecca Abrams' book, but also the centuries, and the silence that greeted Alexander Gordon's discovery, suddenly you wonder whether we've actually learnt that much since 1790,
'Childbed fever is not a new illness, it's as old as the hills, but nobody seems able or willing to say it still happens.'
Final word to Jean Giraudoux,
"Education makes us more stupid than the brutes. A thousand voices call to us on every hand, but our ears are stopped with wisdom."