A bridge too far: Greenfield midwife recalls time caring for Russian mothers and babies

  • Swaddled Russian babies in a roddom (maternity hospital) in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 1992. COURTESY/EMILY OSGOOD

  • A Russian woman named Ashnya and her newborn in a roddom (maternity hospital) in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 1992. COURTESY/EMILY OSGOOD

  • Emily Osgood during her trip to Russia in 1992 with the North American Midwifery Team. COURTESY/EMILY OSGOOD

  • Emily Osgood examining a pregnant woman in Russia, 1992 COURTESY/EMILY OSGOOD

  • Babies in the nursery of a roddom (maternmity hospital) in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 1992. COURTESY/EMILY OSGOOD

  • Medical personnel with swaddled babies in the nursery of a roddom in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 1992. COURTESY/EMILY OSGOOD

For the Recorder
Published: 6/3/2022 7:10:41 PM
Modified: 6/3/2022 7:08:42 PM

As she hears of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, Emily Osgood recalls four months she spent in Russia in 1992 with a team of North American midwives.

The Greenfield resident witnessed dozens of Russian births and helped care for women and their babies.

“I think of those babies, now 30-year-olds,” said Osgood. “Maybe some are soldiers? Maybe some resist? I can’t imagine the people I met in Russia wanting their children involved with this war.”

Osgood was not surprised to witness draconian obstetrical practices in Russia, given the stories she’d heard. She was astonished, though, to learn of the grinding poverty that typified the lives of Russian medical personnel.

Along with several other newly trained midwives, Osgood traveled to Russia hoping to introduce concepts of gentle birth, and support for birthing mothers and their babies.

“We wanted to challenge traumatic practices endemic to standard Russian medical care at the time,” said Osgood. “Our intentions were good, but we failed to bring cultural sensitivity as one of our tools. As a result, our hosts feared we were trying to take over. That’s not the way to build bridges.”

Osgood resists oversimplifying her impressions of another culture, but wishes to share insights she gained during a journey that turned out much differently than she’d expected.

“Birthing practices and the treatment of women during labor were incredibly rough. Some practitioners even struck their patients,” Osgood said. “Yet if I’d seen just that glimpse, I would have missed other sides of Russia’s people, like generosity, creativity and kindness.”

Osgood’s interest in Russia began during high school in Vershire, Vermont, where she was close friends with Dmitri Turin, stepson of the dissident Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

“Dmitri and his family were in exile,” said Osgood. “Separation from their homeland brought them deep sorrow. Dmitri’s intense grief piqued my curiosity about Russia.”

Years later, Osgood met an American midwife who’d visited Russia. “She’d witnessed pregnant women crowded into a single room, with orders shouted from a central desk,” said Osgood. “The women had no right to follow the rhythms of birth. The midwife’s descriptions struck me as human rights violations.”

Yet the American midwife also stressed that “Russian doctors and midwives were conditioned to a prison-like execution of birth, and were unaware of alternatives,” said Osgood. “She stressed that, rather than fall into blaming, we should feel compassion and grief.”

Russian medical practices were outdated due to lack of funding for professional development, said Osgood, and many doctors were chosen at age 16 to receive obstetrical training in a two-year course. “They learned practices common in the U.S. decades, even a century, earlier.”

Most Russian doctors were women and lacked the power to change policies. “Most of all, the medical system suffered greatly because the Cold War depleted resources that could have been used for health,” said Osgood. “Not just in Russia, but in the U.S., too.”

Before traveling to Russia herself, Osgood listened with interest to the American midwife, who’d managed to attend a Russian birth as the lead midwife, helping a woman to birth naturally. “Apparently, the mother was ecstatic,” said Osgood, “and the Russian medical personnel who witnessed it were moved and impressed.”

So Osgood jumped at the chance when she had an opportunity to travel to Russia in a midwifery context. “A year after the end of the Cold War, we wanted to forge international collaboration,” she said.

She traveled to Nizhny Novgorod, a city off limits to foreigners until 1991. “It had been the site of a weapons arsenal, almost entirely isolated from the outside world,” said Osgood, “so it wasn’t a typical Russian city.”

Osgood arrived in Russia largely ignorant of the country’s culture, history and language. “I wish we’d had more cultural sensitivity training,” she said. “But more serious problems stemmed from the arrogance of our American organizers. They contributed to resistance rather than understanding.”

Osgood became disillusioned with her team’s two leaders — a Texan midwife and her Russian husband, a doctor. Most of the midwives on the trip, including Osgood, were fresh from training, rather than seasoned practitioners.

“That was another problem. We wanted to demonstrate that birth is a natural process, but we were far from being experienced teachers. And given our facilitators’ lack of integrity, we faced nearly impossible odds.”

The Texan midwife and her husband purchased a car upon their arrival in Russia. “Yet not a single one of the Russian medical staff owned one,” said Osgood. “Midwives earned about $5 [US-equivalent] dollars a month; the doctors earned about $10. They struggled to put shoes on their children’s feet. They rode the bus each day to work and yet our team’s facilitators drove around in a newly purchased car funded by the nearly $20,000 paid by me and the other American midwives.”

The trip’s leaders also told the Russians that the American midwives were there to learn, but told the American team that they were there to teach. “That led to conflicts,” recalled Osgood. “And it also didn’t help that the medications we brought over were past their expiration date. When one travels with the intent to assist, but shows up with arrogance, it backfires.”

Before long, the North American midwifery team disbanded; most decided to search for alternative circumstances in Moscow. Osgood was the only one who stayed in Nizhny Novgorod.

“I had a responsibility to the loved ones who’d help fund my trip,” she said, “and a stubborn hope that if I stuck with it, inroads could be made.”

Osgood’s determination led to a project that benefited mothers and babies.

Russian women were routinely given hefty injections of oxytocin to hasten the second stage of labor — the part that involves pushing — an indiscriminate approach that led to oxygen deprivation in some babies.

“The roddom’s oxygen apparatus had been broken for two years,” said Osgood, “so babies were placed under a stream of cold tap water to revive them after difficult births. The medical personnel said they would use oxygen instead, if they had it. Suddenly, I knew why I was there.”

Osgood reached out to a family member to borrow $1,000 to initiate restoration of the roddom’s oxygen supply. In doing so, Osgood encountered red tape, mixed messages, and a brief run-in with the Russian mafia. Her rigorous training, however, stood her in good stead.

“Midwives are accustomed to persevering in the face of obstacles,” she said.

Russian medical workers were amazed by Osgood’s gift. “They’d thought all Americans were greedy, and asked me if other Americans were generous, too. I assured them that many Americans are compassionate.” Osgood noticed a shift in attitudes. “Things were still challenging, but there was a beginning of healing.”

The Americans-to-Russia program provided neither food nor transportation; Osgood had to fend for herself, standing in long lines and hunting for essentials in sparse conditions like ordinary Russians.

“It was hard,” she said, “but if my amenities had been taken care of, I wouldn’t have truly entered Russia.”

Osgood immersed herself in the culture, which led to greater understanding. “What initially struck me as harsh, including how medical staff addressed women in labor, became more understandable as I noted how everyone, including me, had to elbow our way onto and off of buses, with our eggs held high for safety. To obtain service in shops, customers had to speak stridently. Conditions were much more austere than what I grew up with in the U.S.”

Yet Osgood experienced many Russians as generous and kind.

“In each home, I was offered food or drink, often something that had cost the bearer dearly,” she recalled. An elderly woman offered Osgood one frozen strawberry, insisting that her visitor accept the precious commodity. “Another woman gave me an orange. Having seen prices in the sparse local markets, I was blown away.”

Now, as Osgood hears news of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, she reflects on what she saw as Russians’ biggest challenge: “There’s a sense of powerlessness, a lack of imagination about meaningful change. Over decades, centuries … Russians have struggled to survive in an authoritarian system.”

For example, she said, “Ordinary Russians don’t have access to much information, things we in the U.S. take for granted, like phone books, guides and manuals. Everything was word of mouth, so people had to be resourceful in order to survive. But in terms of systemic change — for most, that was just a bridge too far.”

Osgood feels it’s unwise to generalize about any culture without understanding deeper textures and circumstances. For her, the bottom line is that “Russians are our neighbors. I met incredibly good people living in the shadow of intense repression. I wish they could imagine something different from what’s happening now. It breaks my heart.”

Eveline MacDougall, the author of “Fiery Hope,” is an artist, homeschooling mom, and musician. Readers may contact her at eveline@amandlachorus.org.


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