Staring longingly at their babies through a glass window

8 healthy births, four wrenching separations, at first COVID-19 maternity ward

Every birth in these circumstances ’is a joy and relief,’ says Sheba Medical Center nurse Orit Horovitz. Unfortunately, with coronavirus, the instinctive bonding is not so simple

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A newborn baby (iStock illustrative)
A newborn baby (iStock illustrative)

At Israel’s newest maternity facility, there are heart-wrenching goodbyes as mothers part from their babies moments after delivery, knowing that they won’t hold or touch them for days.

Eight babies have already been born at the country’s first COVID-19 obstetrics and gynecology ward, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, since it opened in early April. All the mothers are positive but the babies were all born healthy and without the virus.

“It’s a very dramatic situation,” said Eldad Katorza, the senior physician who oversees the ward. “It’s not the nature of human beings to separate babies from the mother. All the bonding is meant to happen at this point — it’s against the human and medical instinct.

“But unfortunately, with coronavirus, things have completely changed.”

Sheba Medical Center’s COVID-19 maternity unit (Courtesy)

Half the women so far have decided to go against doctors’ recommendations and stay together with their newborns, reported Eyal Sivan, head of Sheba’s maternity operations. He said it is too early to know whether any of the babies have become infected.

Orit Horovitz (Courtesy Sheba Medical Center)

Amid the challenges at the ward, chief nurse Orit Horovitz said that each birth brings a sense of happiness. “It’s a great joy and relief every time there’s a birth in these circumstances,” she commented.

For the women who opt for separation, the closest they get to their babies for as long as they are infected is through a glass window, through which they stare longingly.

Theoretically, these mothers could see their babies for a short period to nurse, but the practicalities are too risky, Katorza said. “So far we think that the virus is not transmitted in the milk, but the mother wouldn’t be able to wear gloves and masks for feeding,” he stated.

At the birth, no family members are allowed. This rule is in place in many regular maternity wards today, but the difference at the coronavirus unit is that the only people who do attend are medical professionals in hazmat suits, which makes it hard to talk clearly and communicate using facial expression.

Sheba Medical Center staff in a Passover 2020 video amid the COVID-12 pandemic (Courtesy Sheba Medical Center)

“It’s difficult, and it’s very, very strange, for both the women and the staff,” said Katorza. ‘Delivery is normally a very intimate and emotional situation and this is very different. There’s less intimacy and more distance.”

Eyal Sivan (Courtesy Sheba Medical Center)

Sivan said that staff are trying various ways to build connections with patients despite the suits. “The way we dress up looks crazy,” he said. “To try to make a personal connection, we actually wear large stickers on our gowns with a picture of what we look like normally, when we’re not in the special suits.”

Before, during and after the birth, nurses go beyond their normal role, and try to be companions for the women, said Horovitz. “In these circumstances, we are the women’s support and friends as well as their medical staff,” she added.

The ward includes many aspects of obstetrics and gynecology reserved just for coronavirus-positive women, including operating rooms, postpartum beds, gynecological beds, and a special newborn unit.

Eldad Katorza (Courtesy Sheba Medical Center)

The idea behind Sheba’s growing range of segregated facilities for coronavirus patients is to serve them and ensure others aren’t scared to go to the hospital, said Katorza.

“We want to encourage patients with chronic illnesses, cancer and other conditions not to neglect their medical situation.

“People who need to come to hospital must not be scared off,” he said, and that’s achieved by making them aware that “we’re keeping the general hospital as free of coronavirus as possible.”

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