If the writers of Call the Midwife ever needed some expert storyline advice, they’d be hard pressed to find anyone as steeped in the profession as Betty MacIntyre. A pioneer in home births, Betty’s remarkable career has seen her deliver babies in settings as unlikely as the back of a horsebox, on a harbour pier and on a lifeboat.
Dramatic moments all, but she wouldn’t have missed it for anything. “I just can’t express the joy and privilege I’ve felt bringing babies into the world – and they are all very special to me.”
It’s fair to say they don’t make them like Betty any more. She never married or had children of her own, instead committing her life to her role as a midwife. Does she know how many babies she’s delivered? “Goodness, no. But it must be hundreds and hundreds.”
Qualifying in Glasgow in 1969, she returned to her native Oban on the west coast of Scotland after five years of practice in the city. She established the principle of community midwifery – providing full birthing care in the home – long before it became common in much bigger towns. Betty’s “community” is far from typical because it includes the islands of Mull, Coll, Colonsay and Tiree – the last of which is a four-hour ferry ride from Oban. And that remoteness has led to a bespoke kind of maternity care.
She says: “If any of our ladies wanted to have their babies at home, we’d have to stay on the island for two weeks prior, just in case they went into premature labour. And we’d deliver them and look after them post-natally for up to two weeks.” With up to a month away from their own homes, two midwives would share the care, but of course not all home births go to plan. “If we have emergencies, we’re fully equipped to deal with almost every eventuality and stabilise the woman until she gets to hospital. If it was a real emergency, she’d be airlifted or go on a lifeboat.”
The NHS Heroes Awards, presented by Paul O’Grady, will air on ITV on Monday 21st May at 8.30pm
Betty has actually delivered a baby girl on a lifeboat – “thankfully, the sea was quite calm as it can sometimes be horrific” – and also on the pier at Mull harbour on their way to Oban when the expectant mum suddenly started pushing.
Her strangest experience saw her called to a hippy commune outside Oban to a woman whose waters had broken and was already in labour. “She was in the back of a horsebox and there must have been six other people there smoking big long pipes – I’ve no idea what was in them. Eventually, the baby was delivered – it was poorly and I had to resuscitate it. I was examining the placenta and getting ready to dispose of it when her partner said, ‘No, I’ll have that.’ He then got a pair of scissors and cut it up into different sections and they all ate a bit.”
Betty can be certain that particular delicacy won’t be on the menu when she travels to London to be honoured at a NHS Heroes ceremony at the Hilton Park Lane hotel. “When I heard about it I almost collapsed, I was absolutely overwhelmed. I’m 70 now, so to be getting an award towards the end of my career for doing a job I’ve absolutely loved is incredible. But I have to say I’m a bit nervous about it all – I’d rather deliver 100 babies than all this interview business.”
Maybe a wee dram to calm the nerves? “Do you think that’s a good idea?” she chuckles. “No, I don’t think I should risk it.”
Incredibly, Betty still works three days a week – “more if they need it, which they do quite often” – but acknowledges that her days of delivering babies are coming to an end. “I’m hoping to retire in the near future – if they let me! I’ll miss it terribly. It’s been my life and I’ve loved every minute.”
The awards ceremony – the first of its kind – took place on Monday 14th May, and ITV will be airing a two-hour special on Monday 21st May at 8.30pm