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Retiring midwife shares privilege of being with others for moments of life and death

Beth and Samantha

Life is precious: Beth Burt with her daughter, Samantha Burt. Beth is retiring after more than 37 years of work as a midwife at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital.

MIDWIFE Beth Burt has been at countless births over more than three decades, but she’s also seen many deaths, and she feels privileged about every one of those experiences.

Finishing up at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital after more than 37 years and heading towards retirement, she’s been thinking back over those times with gratitude.

“We (midwives) always say – and I will say this till the day I die – it is a privilege to be with people when they have their babies,” Beth said.

“That, to me, for somebody to allow you into their lives at that moment (is a privilege) … because it’s a very personal time, and it’s a time when you don’t want six million people in the room.

“It’s a very personal time and a very lovely time – can be a very sad time too.

“But it was such a joy to be with people and also you felt as though you were doing something for people, because it’s a very traumatic time in a lot of people’s lives.”

For Beth, accompanying people through the death of a baby has been a unique privilege.

“I talk about the privilege of being with mothers and babies ­– it’s a privilege being with people when somebody dies too, whether it’s a mother …,” she said.

“I’ve had mothers die. I’ve had babies die. I’ve had young people die. I’ve had old people … You know, with nursing, that’s your job.”

A particular moment that has stayed with Beth, is a heartbreaking example of a mother’s love for her child.

“I remember once we had a mum whose baby was diagnosed with anencephaly (a brain abnormality), and was told that her baby would not survive after birth,” she said.

“After her baby was born, she stayed with him at Mater Mothers for five days, until he passed away.

“We did all we could to support her during that time, and I remember asking her about her journey.

“She told me that God had blessed her with this baby, and it was her job to give him as much love as she possibly could during his life.

“It broke my heart, to be honest – to witness that raw love of a mother for her child during such awful circumstances.”

Whether it was birth or death, joy or sorrow, the Mater values – mercy, dignity, care, commitment and quality – were at the heart of Beth’s hospital days and everyone was entitled to those values.

“Everyone’s there for the mother, everyone’s there for the family. Everyone’s about the family,” she said.

“Everybody talks about the mother and the baby and the partner.

“It’s about this unit and getting this unit home to make sure you’re okay.

“You get from us what you need and you go from there, and (it’s about) making it as normal as possible.

“People come in and they say, ‘Oh, this baby’s very precious’.

“And I say, ‘Every baby’s really precious’.

“Doesn’t matter whose baby it is, every baby is precious.

“No baby’s any more precious than any other baby.”

That’s what sharpens the grief when one of them dies.

As a supervisor of Mater midwives for many years, in days before hospitals had social workers and bereavement teams, Beth had to find her own way of helping the mothers and fathers and families through that pain.

“You did it all (in those days), so if a baby died it was (up to) you (to respond) …,” Beth said.

“I can remember one time I was walking past Sr Jill (a Sister of Mercy) and she said, ‘Are you alright, Beth?’ and I burst into tears.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine; it’s just that there’s seven babies down in the mortuary and I think I’ve seen everyone of those parents and everyone of those grandparents and everyone of the siblings’.”

Beth made a point of encouraging the families to spend time with their baby who had died.

“I used to say to (the parents), ‘Look, bring your parents in’, and they’d often say, ‘No, they don’t want to come’,” Beth said.

“And I’d say, ‘No, bring your parents in and bring the kids in. You need to bring the kids in. The kids are the easiest. You need to bring them in and bring the grandparents’.

“Just bring them all in.

“And I can remember a grandmother saying to me, ‘Beth, I never got to hold my baby. My baby died, and I never got to hold my baby – never saw my baby; they took it away’.

“It’s not that it was wrong; they thought that was the right thing to do.

“(And that grandmother said) ‘You know, I find this (spending time with their grandchild who had died) so helpful. This is the first time I’ve grieved for my baby … that I lost 40 years ago’.”

Pondering why she stayed at the Mater so long, Beth said “probably because I love it”, and because she was always given a new challenge.

Apart from midwifery and her supervisory positions in that area, she has had stints in other departments including more than a year as assistant to the hospital’s director of finance and helping establish an exchange with a hospital in Indonesia.

She thrived on the challenges.

In her early days of nursing the challenges were physical.

“Ward clerks were very rare (early on) so as a nursing sister, as a midwife, you had to do all the paperwork, answer all the phones; you did everything,” she said.

“I keep telling the girls, in those days it was very physical.

“Your work was really physical – you used to run. Everybody ran.

“And you used to go home and put your feet up against the wall because they were so sore.

“You’d cry because your feet were so sore, just from the sheer physical work of it all.

“I can remember, one of the boys – must’ve been a docker, working on the docks – and he said, ‘Nursie, love, we’ll go out on strike for you. You girls work too hard; let’s go on strike for you’.”

Beth kindly refused the offer, discouraged her knight in shining armour and just kept on running.

“Everybody was the same,” she said.

“There was nobody that didn’t work. And everybody ran. Everybody had to work really hard.

“To me, that was normal. That wasn’t tough; that was just normal. That was what you did.”

And now it’s time for the next challenge.

“I’ve always loved change – I’ve enjoyed watching how we care for women has progressed during the past 40 years – so, now it’s just change on a different level.

“It’s somebody else’s turn now.”

Contributions from Mater Hospital public affairs officer Adelle Yates. 

Written by: Peter Bugden

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