Relief greets birth of overdue arrival

After a week of farce and frustration, the first mothers and babies arrived at Cork University Maternity Hospital for the birth of a new era in maternity care, writes Catherine Shanahan

AFTER a week of farce, frustration and divisiveness, Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) officially, if belatedly, opened for business on Saturday.

A week behind schedule and under threat of being hijacked for alternative use, the new €75 million hospital finally embraced its first mothers and babies at the weekend.

Operation Bambino was clockwork-smooth, delivering the first baby to CUMH seven minutes ahead of schedule. Bambino, the intricate plan to move the city’s three existing maternity services — the Erinville Maternity Hospital, St Finbarr’s Maternity Unit and the Bon Secours Maternity Hospital — to a single site was a triumph of logistics and planning.

At 10.53am, Bon Secours midwife Aisling O’Leary walked out of an ambulance and into the history books as the first midwife to transfer to the new hospital.

On the elegant walkway to the new hospital, consultants, midwifery and Health Service Executive management gathered to observe the proceedings. Prof John Higgins, chair of the division of obstetrics, gynaecology and neonatology at CUMH, waited to meet and greet.

Mindful that it was a day, pace Seamus Heaney, when hope and history rhymed, Prof Higgins paid tribute to the midwives who stood maternity services in good stead for more than a century. His wait for the opening of the new hospital, while the HSE and the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) rowed over what were acceptable staffing levels, was an anxious one.

“There’s a tremendous tradition of midwifery here in Cork. I am enormously aware that when others are out enjoying themselves on Saturday or Sunday nights, or in the bosom of families at Christmas time, or snug in our beds on the bleakest, darkest of nights, that the midwife was and is there at the bedside of your mother, your sister, your wife: we want to make sure she will be there for your daughters. That is one of my profound hopes for this fantastic new hospital.”

Nora Geary, the hospital’s commissioning manager, was equally philosophical. “In the words of Peter Hain, after Paisley and Adams agreed to power-sharing, ‘the clouds have lifted, the future is clear’,” she said, before spinning away in the direction of assistant director of midwifery, Kay O’Sullivan.

Involved in the CUMH project since its inception up to 15 years ago, Kay had almost missed out on the denouement. After 41 years of service, Saturday night, 8pm, was her official retirement date. If the INO/HSE row had not been resolved, Kay would have ended her service without seeing her dream realised. “I was very sad when it didn’t happen last week, disappointed from a midwife’s point of view and for women, because it was built for them. I can look forward to retirement, happy that this has happened for midwifery, for Cork and for all the medical people involved.”

Kay was one of many smiley faces. Tony McNamara, general manager, CUH group, was another. He was thrilled the midwives had voted to move to CUMH. “We appreciate the emotion of leaving St Finbarr’s, the Erinville and the Bons, that’s a difficult change and over the next couple of weeks we’ll be helping everyone to settle in,” he said.

On Saturday, the focus was on getting mothers and babies settled in. Following the transfer of sick babies to the neonatal unit at CUMH, the first minibus arrived from St Finbarr’s at 11.30am. Kevin Barry emerged first, four days old and wrapped in blue. Maureen Barry, his mother, from Castlelyons, Co Cork, looked overwhelmed. So did Emer O’Callaghan, the proud mother of two-day- old Alicia, swinging in her car seat, supplied free gratis by Niall Marron of Nursery Things. A spontaneous round of applause greeted mothers and babies as they were wheeled past the cameras and over the bridge.

Upping the ante, the next to arrive was a set of twins. Peter and Brian Hawkins emerged to greet the world with a wail. Proud dad Richard Hawkins was at hand to offer support to his wife Catríona.

Were the couple, from Ballygarvan, Co Cork, worried where Catríona would give birth during the row that kept the new hospital closed? No, Catríona had her first baby in Finbarr’s and it was a positive experience. “It is an old hospital, but it had a lot of character, although the new one looks great, very modern,” Richard said.

Throughout the day, the minibuses continued to arrive, the first from the Erinville at 14.45pm. On board, Aileen O’Donoghue, from Caherdaniel, Co Kerry, with baby daughter, one-day-old Aimee O’Mahony. “I didn’t know where I would have her but I wasn’t worried as long as it was in a hospital,” she said.

At 15.50pm, Breeda O’Leary arrived on board the first bus from the Bons. Husband Sean Collins wasn’t far behind, the proud dad of Ruby Mai. By 5pm, the transfer was all but complete. After all the brouhaha leading up to the opening, it had gone spectacularly well.

There were a few sniffles. Midwives leaving St Finbarr’s and the Erinville had ended the previous night’s shift in tears. Many had mixed feelings about the move to CUMH, overshadowed by their row with the HSE. Leone Johnson, a midwife from the Bons, said it had been very emotional, with a lot of people very upset. The vote by St Finbarr’s and the Erinville staff to move had been tight — just 62% in favour.

INO rep Patsy Doyle: “I know the 62% ballot was not definitive, a number of people are apprehensive, but we are hugely encouraged by the positive attitude of the midwives here today. They are moving from one era of maternity care to another and it takes huge courage to be part of a bigger workforce.”

HSE chief Prof Brendan Drumm rode in on the coat tails of the hospital opening. He praised the midwives for the bravery of their decision and the hospital for setting the standard in healthcare.

And then it was time for work and normality and sanity and the real business of running a hospital and a few quiet bottles of bubbly behind closed doors.

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