Forget the soap opera about the coddled rich of Downton Abby.

Move over reality shows like the Kardashians or Tots and Tiaras.

If you want a slice of reality, you might want to check on the latest BBC miniseries on PBS: Call the Midwife.

Call the Midwife is a moving and intimate insight into the colorful world of midwifery and family life in 1950’s East London. We are introduced to the community through the eyes of young nurse Jenny Lee as she arrives at Nonnatus House to live and work as a midwife alongside an Order of Nuns.

And a period piece it is. Don’t try this at home.

Many of the problems the nurses treat are rarely seen nowadays, thanks to modern medical care. One lady is happily having her 23rd child. (Yes, I delivered one lady like that…she had three contractions and delivered in bed before we could move her to the delivery room…both of them did fine).

In the TV show, the baby is premature and mom almost dies of bleeding, but her life is saved by the  famous “flying squad” ambulance that could arrive with doctor and blood for a mother within minutes.

Yes. With modern medicine, a routine “emergency”, but in the days of no blood transfusion, it could be quickly fatal.

In another case. an unwed mother waiting for her boyfriend’s ship to return home, goes into labor a few weeks earlier than expected. The midwife arrives when baby number one is coming out, and the poor nurse has to cope with the emergency despite lack of equipment and no electric lights. Again we see the ambulance taking a happy mom and babies to the safer hospital, and at the end of the show, mom is seen pushing two babies in a pram and her boyfriend (now husband?) is carrying number three looking a bit dazed but happy.Ah yes. Been there, done that too. In the days before routine ultrasound, we sometimes found mom was having twins when baby number two arrived. And once I had diagnosed twins and had extra help in case of complications, but we all were startled when baby three popped out.

Another case treated by the midwives was a woman who dies of toxemia. She went to the clinic to be seen, but it took too long, and she left, not knowing her headaches were a danger sign, and ends up convulsing and then dying of brain damage from the seizures.

I’ve seen this too: mom, usually in her first pregnancy, starts developing swollen ankles and gets headaches, and her blood pressure goes up. The treatment is bedrest, various medicines,  and if the problem is not getting better, you deliver mom as fast as possible. If not treated in time (or sometimes despite treatment), mother will go into seizures, sometimes resulting in fatal brain damage and/or a dead child.

So does the film get things right? Medically, they seem to be pretty accurate.

What I appreciated was that they got the “culture” right (too often the posh BBC paints the non elites as cliche ridden caricatures).

One of the cultural changes that most “modern” folks don’t seem to recognize is the attitude toward child bearing.  Before the pill and the sexual revolution, babies used to be a normal part of life, and the old fashioned idea that women having babies was a natural part of life and linked to love or passion is one of the things they “got right” in the series.

So should you watch it?

I enjoyed it. The stories are superficial and episodic, of course, but are tied together by the stories of the nurses and the (Anglican) sisters who are devoted to the community.

Another thing that surprised me was that, although there was no “talk” of God or religion, yet at the end of the stories of life and death and struggle, there is often a scene of quiet  calmness, with the sisters singing the psalms of David, where the beauty of the music reminds one that the problems of the day “was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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