The Association of Ontario Midwives

The Association of Ontario Midwives

Midwife’s hearing loss brings new insights and opportunities

“All of those little things that we listen to in a day are clinically really important,” says Colgate. “Listening to a woman in transition or listening to those noises when she’s first going to start to push. Or listening to a baby’s cry and wondering ‘Does that sound normal?”

The United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities is celebrated annually on December 3. The AOM would like to honour the resilience of all those who are living with disabilities by sharing the story of one Ontario midwife who has found that working with a disability has given her new perspectives on the care she provides and opened new doors to helping others.

Midwife Mhairi Colgate remembers the moment she became acutely aware that her hearing loss had begun to impede her clinical skills. She was in the operating room with a client and other members of the health-care team. Her colleagues were wearing masks that muffled their voices and because she couldn’t see their lips, Colgate couldn’t understand what they were saying. She had a moment of panic, realizing that if someone asked for her help, she may not hear them clearly enough to follow their directions. She knew it was time to get hearing aids.

Colgate has lived with hearing loss, a side effect of a spinal tap she had as an infant, since she was very young. It’s gotten progressively worse over the decade she’s been a midwife, but until recently she found ways to work around it. Her fellow midwives at Countryside Midwives in Palmerston (65 km northwest of Waterloo) knew that they shouldn’t call to her from another room and they got used to being asked to repeat themselves numerous times.

Since she started wearing hearing aids at the beginning of 2016, Colgate has thought a lot about the role that hearing and listening skills play in midwifery practice.

“All of those little things that we listen to in a day are clinically really important,” says Colgate. “Listening to a woman in transition or listening to those noises when she’s first going to start to push. Or listening to a baby’s cry and wondering ‘Does that sound normal? Is it too high pitched?’ Can we hear them rattling away with mucus from across the room?”

Listening skills are also critical during conversations with clients, who may be describing symptoms of postpartum depression or disclosing other personal information.

Colgate’s hearing aids are so small that most of her clients don’t even notice them. In contrast, helping her Mennonite and Amish clients feel comfortable with a new electronic stethoscope that amplifies sound has been a challenge that Colgate didn’t predict. While no client has asked her not to use the stethoscope, Colgate says it has prompted many questions and one family asks her to explain the device each time she visits.

Using the electronic stethoscope, which can record sounds via an application on her phone, has opened up opportunities that Colgate hadn’t envisioned. If she is worried about a sound she hears through her stethoscope and can’t decide whether she should have the family make the two-hour trip to the nearest hospital with a large pediatrics department, Colgate can email the sound file to a pediatrician at the hospital and do a consult.

She also plans to help students hone their listening skills by adding recordings of common midwifery sounds to the student section of the Countryside Midwives’ website.

“If they’re having trouble with lung sounds, for example, they can hear them at a more amplified level and count them. It’s those really quiet sounds that a lot of students struggle with at first,” says Colgate.