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Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Heidi Downes

Meet midwife Heidi Downes, who talks about her work as an Antenatal Screening Counsellor at the Wolfson Institute, and about her campaign to fight for justice for a group of women ignored by history books.

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How did you get into this branch of midwifery and what training have you had to do to get here?

I have had a slightly unconventional pathway into midwifery/higher education that differs from some of the academics who have featured on this page as I did not attend university until I was 30.

Prior to university I attended a part-time access course when both my children were young, and I then worked at St Georges hospital for two years as the secretary for the Obstetric Risk team. Since qualifying in 2013 I have worked at three amazing but hugely different trusts, which I feel is essential for anyone working in medicine - it is important not to stay in your comfort zone.

In my last post I was the lead Immunisation Midwife. Public Health was an integral part of the that role, and I enjoyed every aspect of it. It opened my mind up to the broader area of Midwifery – caring for women does not have to involve the labour ward or clinical settings.

 

Could you tell us about your research and clinical work? 

I currently work at Queen Mary within The Wolfson Institute of Preventative medicine as an Antenatal Screening Counsellor and I have been in this post for just over a year. The Wolfson Institute has provided screening for Down’s syndrome and Neural Tube Defects using serum markers since 1989, and it has developed an antenatal serum screening test for Down’s syndrome and open neural tube defects (NTD). The screening service provides education, training and information services about the screening tests and offers private screening services for individuals as well as routine services for NHS hospitals.

I have a been a midwife for nearly eight years and I have previously worked in all clinical areas. My role as an antenatal screening counsellor differs from my previous posts within NHS hospitals but I really enjoy the deviation from the standard midwifery role. I offer counselling to women prior to the screening test and post-test counselling following screening results and process the screening results as part of running the day-to-day screening programme.

Aside from my day job within the screening team my midwifery background has also led me on an unplanned path, a path where myself and my colleagues are fighting for justice for women ignored by the history books. Two years ago, I started a campaign to get a group of Black enslaved women from the 1800’s acknowledged for the part they played in the development of gynaelogical techniques and tools. The “Father of Gynaecology” Dr Marion J Sims used Black enslaved women in the 1800s to help perfect his gynaecological techniques, which are still in use today here in the UK and across the globe. When I learned about this part of medical history, I had been a midwife for 6 years, I knew of Dr Sims and had even used the Sims speculum but was not aware of its atrocious origins.

Documented evidence reports that slave owners in America gave up some of their female slaves who had suffered irreparable damage during childbirth. These slave women were given to Dr Sims to experiment on and practice his gynaelogical techniques. Their very painful condition, known as vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), resulted in incontinence of both urine or faeces. One of these women, known only as Anarcha, was just 17 years old. It was documented that Anarcha alone was subjected to 30 operations, without pain relief. Two other known enslaved women were referred to as Lucy and Betsy but there were undoubtedly many more. Enslaved women endured agonising procedures time after time so that techniques and tools used by today’s doctors, nurses and midwives could be perfected. I started a petition which now has over 10,400 signatures and I have also written and had articles published to try and raise awareness and get these incredible women honoured and out of the shadows of medical history.

This campaign opened my eyes to a great deal but particularly how we, as medical professionals are taught a limited curriculum at university. I believe the medical curriculum needs to be decolonised – this does not mean erase our British history but include the names of the non-White people who have enriched our practices with their knowledge and expertise. My advice is to challenge the history of the subject matter you are being taught, research the name of the founder of the tools you use daily in your practice and give credit to those who earned it.