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The only midwife on the Isles of Scilly: An interview with Sharon Sumner

Discover Sharon Sumner's incredible experience working as the only Midwife on the Isles of Scilly!
How did you become the only Midwife on the Isles of Scilly?

Years ago, I came from Newcastle to the Isles of Scilly for a summer season but ended up staying for 10 years. After that, I came to the mainland and trained to be a Midwife. That was 23 years ago, and since then I’d always wanted to go back to be the Midwife on the Isles of Scilly. But there’s only one on the island so the opportunity doesn’t come up very often. But then she went on maternity leave, so I grabbed the opportunity and thought right, I’m gonna go just me and my dog and that’s what I did.

It was a complete shock because once any woman gets to 37 weeks of Gestation, you must be on call for them until they deliver. So, my first nine weeks I was on call 24/7 because they had women back-to-back. I think in the 14 months I was there I was probably on call for half of that time. You can only stay on the islands if you’re totally low risk as you would on the mainland. But as we know, lots of things can go wrong, and there’s 28 miles of water between you and Land’s End. So, in that scenario, if anything happens, you have to call the Coast Guard – which can take quite some time.

We have had a case where we wanted the woman to be airlifted to Turque, which is in Truro, and so we needed to transfer the woman from the birth unit and the ambulance up to the heliport. It’s the middle of the night and we can see the headlights of the Coast Guard, and as we think it’s about to land it turns around and goes somewhere else. So then we had to wait for another helicopter to come from Wales before we could airlift that woman off.

There was another night when I was on call. The woman wasn’t due to deliver on the islands, but she went into labour prematurely and there are just so many things you have to consider.

She lived on St Martin’s, which is another one of the off-islands, but it’s probably furthest away. We have a medical launch and It’s got a good engine – it goes pretty quick and with the right tides and calm weather, you can get to St Martin’s in about 10 to 15 minutes. But the issue was there was no water, there were spring tides, and it was really low. So, it took us 45 minutes to get up there to collect the woman, then another 45 minutes to get her back up to the birth unit and call the Coast Guard because she was premature. We got back to the birth unit and by the time the Coast Guard was on their way, she had delivered! So lots of different challenges. We’re the only place in the whole of the UK that doesn’t have two midwives at birth!

There was a baby born in a helicopter while I was there, but it was my one weekend off. It was a Christmas party, so they sent another midwife over to cover for me. I think there was Meconium, so they made the right decision to airlift the woman. The Coast Guard came, picked her up and she delivered in the air about 15 feet above the helipad at Truro. But everything was fine, so that was all over the news. I missed that unfortunately because I was busy at the party!

Most people would find these cases incredibly difficult; did you find it challenging?

I think you would only go there to do that job if you were very confident in your obstetric background because like I said, you are the only Midwife. So yes, it has its challenges and sometimes I used to think to myself why am I stuck in a rock in the middle of the Atlantic?

If you want to leave to go on holiday, you can’t guarantee you’re going to be able to get off the islands. In February last year, we had no food for two weeks. There was only one shop, and it was completely empty. There was nothing, no bread, no milk, we were like squirrels – making our bread and using dried milk. The boat that brings the food in the winter was out of action and there isn’t anything to replace it, so we literally had two or three weeks without any fresh food!

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