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Kathryn Gutteridge – Consultant Midwife, Clinical Lead for Low Risk Care Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust & President Royal College of Midwives


Halcyon means denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful.

When I first came to work at Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust maternity was very different to how it is now. Part of my passion is involving women in their care and providing them with the best possible environments in which to do that. I have designed a few birth centres or midwifery units to date but after the wonderful success of Serenity Birth Centre I had the chance to influence the design of a freestanding midwifery unit Halcyon Birth Centre. What a joy and a privilege, I cannot describe what that meant to me and how I envisaged the service for families.

Very quickly we saw the building take shape looking as I envisaged ‘a domestic looking place that was not like a hospital’. Parking was easy, access too but more than that the inside was beautiful; in Julie Etchingham Newsreader for ITV who opened it said in her blog:

‘I think I have just visited the most beautiful place in the NHS, and it is not private but part of a service for women and their families.’

It was more than beautiful it was built to high specifications but to ensure that midwives and women with their families had a space that birth would flourish. That was in 2011; very quickly it was part of our facilities in maternity and somewhere specifically for women who lived in Sandwell to birth as required by Sandwell Health Scrutiny Committee. We could now offer women four choices to birth their babies and we were proud to have more birthing pools than any other maternity within 50 miles, 9 in total.

I realised quite quickly that other maternity services were interested in what we were doing and our complete approach to birth. We wrapped our philosophy around our families and made sure that we listened to them at all times; in fact on Serenity Birth Centre and at Halcyon Birth Centre we have placed a visitor’s book on our reception and encourage everyone to tell us what they thought. We even hosted a Royal Visit where Princess Anne as Patron of the Royal College of Midwives left us her words and thanks.

Over the last 7 years we have hosted approximately 72 visits from other maternity providers and 16 of those have been international visitors. We have met with Professors of Midwifery from New Zealand, Australia and Canada, directors of services from China, Scotland, Southern Ireland and Guernsey to name but a few. We have even hosted a delegation from the whole of Denmark’s Royal Colleges of Obstetrics and Midwifery where 25 delegates met with our clinical director and myself to discuss our model and philosophy of care. We have enabled student and qualified midwives from the UK and across Europe to have their own elective placement to experience our model of care.

‘What is it you do that is different’ you might ask. Well if you have the right leadership, with the right environment and you put the woman at the heart of everything you do then it works. The leadership is based upon strong clinical credibility and the role of a consultant midwife who is confident, competent but more than that, is passionate about women and birth. The relationship between the obstetricians is also based upon the same philosophy so that their skills are only used when midwives detect a problem and ask them to step in. And the only other advice to give is that women are held in the highest regard so that their feelings and their care is sacrosanct.

So over the last 7 years some women have had the very best that our service could offer from our birth centres. Women in this region have not traditionally chosen to birth at home despite their risk status but somewhere like Halcyon is much more appealing. We have had women from further afield even those who have booked into a local hotel so that they could be near when labour started. Success indeed.

However the Trust has decided not to continue with the service at Halcyon and so today I visited for the last time before it is handed back to the CCG. I wanted to visit on my own for one last time, to read some of the messages in Visitors Book to breathe in the images and to look at the Apple Tree I planted in the garden that is just bearing fruit.

The beautiful bronze artwork designed by local art students and put together by Tim Tolkien Metal Sculpture stands by the door and overhead as I walk through to the reception. The etched glass of the partition with a beautiful Kingfisher perched separates the curved shapes of the walls I was so insistent on to reflect a woman’s curves. The gorgeous birthing rooms that all meet around a patio garden with French doors opening into the outside space. The dining area where families have celebrated with food and takeaways once that precious birth is complete. And then the kitchen that is a shared place for everyone to drink and eat together.

My heart is broken for the loss of this service, for the way it placed us ahead of the game and made all other maternity units aspire too. It was a place of expectation and hopes to give families the best environment and midwives the best experience of birth out of hospital. I am grieving for what our women will lose after today, sterile services that are frequently frantic and impersonal. I am reaching the end of my career, and will retire from my role soon. I am sad beyond measure that I could not give this service another 7 years to mature and embed into every family’s birth journey. Surely every woman deserves the chance to birth in the ‘most beautiful place in the NHS’ but I fear that will not be the case.

Farewell Halcyon you were the birth space of dreams, you certainly arose from mine over the years of spending time with women in labour and knowing what worked for them. I have seen birthing heaven and yes have been with birthing women in that space as they reached down to greet their precious babies. Goodbye and do not mind as I shed my tears to the very best of midwifery and the absolute soul of birth.

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