It is not uncommon for middle-grade anesthetists to be overwhelmed by simultaneous calls upon their time, especially after hours. Thus it was in the early 1990s that I was busy in A&E (the accident and emergency department of my hospital) with a critically ill patient who needed admission to intensive care when I got an urgent call to the labor ward for a high-risk emergency C-section.

Such cases are always of the highest priority. The mother, the baby, or both are at risk of losing their lives or suffering life-long disability as a consequence. However, I couldn’t just leave my extremely sick patient in the resus room to take his chances with the very junior doctors who were working that night. What was I to do?

My junior colleague was busy in the operating room—and was not experienced enough to relieve me anyway. My consultant was 20 minutes away. I let the labor ward know that it would be at least 20 minutes until I got there, and that they should move the mother into the operating theatre and prep her immediately. I dispatched my technician ahead of me to get everything ready for a rapid sequence induction of general anesthesia. Meanwhile, I awaited the arrival of my boss, pacing up and down like an expectant father.

She arrived running. Very little time was wasted on the hand-over, thankfully. I really had to be elsewhere. I scooted out of the casualty department, crossed two car parks, negotiated some builder’s shuttering and the obstetric block’s security door, then rode up four floors in the lift. I still had to run three-quarters of the way around the labor ward floor to get to the operating theatre, and then I saw what I saw.

A cesarean section operation was in progress: the mother was supine on the operating table, screaming and sobbing. The baby was screaming too, but healthily, lying upside down on its resuscitaire, with a pediatrician in attendance. Two surgeons and a scrub nurse were standing by the mother’s lower abdomen, and a surgical pack was being firmly pressed into the wound there.

The most obviously wrong thing about this picture was the presence of a man, dressed in the style of Bob the builder, whose body was slumped, unconscious, over the mother’s chest, with his arms dangling to the floor.

I must admit to being a bit surprised by all of this.

The seemingly seven-foot-tall surgeon, an African with a bright smile let me know the score with his kindly deep bass voice (I paraphrase from memory):

“This mother was so concerned for the well-being of her unborn child that she demanded that I perform the cesarean without anesthetic, which I did. Her husband held her down, in accordance with her wishes. I infiltrated local anesthetic into the wound as I went, but there was not perfect analgesia. I delivered Baby safely, but have since awaited your arrival.”

This was a scenario I had never encountered before, nor since.

The only practical option then was to put mum to sleep and let the operation be finished safely and well. The first step was to remove her husband’s prostrate body from across her ribcage so that she could breathe properly. We placed his fainted form on the floor in the recovery position and tasked a spare midwife to recover him.

Then I did my work. Mum woke up about half an hour later in the usual pain and confusion that follows an operation done under general anesthetic.

I told her about her healthy baby son, and her eyes lit up joyously.

What I didn’t say was how I had just witnessed the greatest possible act of courage I’d ever seen: She had been willing to sacrifice herself, her comfort, and her very life, for the sake of her unborn child.

This is a true story, and every detail I shared is absolutely how I remember it. So much nonsense is bandied about nowadays about how little worth an unborn child has. This mother’s practical witness demonstrates how big of a lie that presumed worthlessness is.

The mother and father were both Irish Catholics. The surgeon was a Ghanaian Catholic. No coincidence, I suggest.


Image: Adobe Stock. By chrisdorney.


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Dr. John Morrissey is a semi-retired NHS specialist in anaesthesia and critical care medicine. He is a Catholic husband and father of four. Born to Irish parents, he was raised in the UK. He is an Oxford scholar and an ex-culture warrior. In the past, his writing has been published in the Catholic Herald and he has been a contributor to group blogs.

The greatest act of courage I’ve ever seen
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