Minnie O’Toole screamed again, a long piercing wail. Her eyes bulged and her round face shone as red as hot coals. “I’m going to die,” she whimpered when the pain subsided. “The babe and I are both going to die.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed.
I wiped the pretty young woman’s brow with a cool cloth. “Thee isn't going to die, Minnie. Look at me.” I gazed into her eyes and willed her to listen. “Thee is a healthy nineteen and thy body is meant to give birth. Exactly like every woman anywhere in the world. I’m thy midwife and I’m here to help get this baby out. Now sit up a bit more.” I leaned over, hooked my hands under her armpits, and raised her further up on her pillows against the plain wooden headboard.
She had been in hard labor for hours, and was becoming weak from the effort. I had trudged through the remnants of the Great Blizzard to reach her. It had been scarcely three weeks since the storm buried us and the rest of New England in four feet of cold blowing snow, the worst storm we’d had in this year of 1888 or any year in prior memory.
But her birth canal still wasn’t fully open. I had finally sent word, asking Minnie’s landlord to call on his new telephone, to my doctor friend, David Dodge, whom I sometimes consulted during difficult births. The midwife I’d apprenticed with, Orpha Perkins, was now too elderly to help.
I heard David enter Minnie’s small flat. “I'm glad thee is here,” I said to him as he walked into the bedroom. He set down a black bag, removed his coat, and rolled up his shirtsleeves. To Minnie I said,
“We will be back directly. Try to rest between contractions.” I led David back out into the hall.
“I’m always glad to see you, Rose Carroll.” He smiled at me and winked, an unruly lock of his wavy dark hair falling onto his brow. “How’s my favorite Quaker, with your thees and your thys?”
I blushed. We had been courting in recent months, but this was no time for that. “I am well. Now, her name is Minnie O’Toole. Her labor started yesterday morning, but the pains began coming a minute apart about four hours ago.” I opened my pocket watch, which I’d pinned to my left bosom so I could easily check it. “Yes, it’s now six in the morning. They became more intense at about two.”
“And the opening?”
“Still has about a thumb’s width to go. The baby’s heartbeat is fine, although the mother is tiring. She's neither too young nor too old, so it isn’t her age slowing the labor. Perhaps a fear of supporting the babe holds her back. She has no husband and won't tell me who the father is.”
David raised dark eyebrows over deep blue eyes.
I ignored his expression. I'm a midwife. As part of my calling, and because I'm a member of the Society of Friends, I serve rich and poor alike, and I don't refuse to care for women who land in circumstances outside what society expects.
Another scream resounded from the next room. “That cursed man,” she wailed.