In ordinary times, giving birth at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem is a “family affair,” with the mother often surrounded by a doula, a spouse or partner, a friend, and a Hadassah midwife, who assists with the birth. Now, for expectant mothers suspected of having COVID-19 or already infected, everything is new and different, reports Hadassah nurse midwife Gila Zarbiv, who spoke to Hadassah supporters on a Zoom webinar on May 13.

Designated several months ago as the COVID-19 labor and delivery unit for all of Jerusalem by the Israeli Ministry of Health, Hadassah set aside several isolation rooms for women with the virus or suspected of having it. The women come to the hospital alone and remain alone for the entire time they are hospitalized. The midwives who deliver their babies are dressed head to toe in white suits, wearing masks and protective face gear.

For Zarbiv, the experience is intense, as “it’s just her and me in the room,” with a second midwife stationed outside to help in an emergency. Even the baby is whisked away immediately after birth, as no one knows whether it’s safe for the infant to remain with its mother.

The experience has been eye-opening for Zarbiv on several levels, as she describes. “There was one woman who came to the unit ready to deliver, and I found myself staying with her for nearly 10 hours. Afterwards, I called several times to speak with her and reassure her. When she finally tested negative, I stopped by her room to congratulate her on her recovery. She turned to me and asked, ‘Who are you?’ It was then that I understood that we’re not connecting in the way we usually connect with new mothers.”

Now, to give the expectant mothers a sense of security and control during the birth process, she tells each one, “I am not going to leave you. I am here for you.” She has also implemented a debriefing for the mothers. “I call new mothers every day after they leave the hospital to make sure they are not experiencing any trauma or discomfort from the birth experience.”

As for COVID-19 and its effect on mothers and babies, Zarbiv explains, “We don’t know anything now.” So far there is no evidence of vertical transmission, that is, passing the infection, or even antibodies, from mother to baby, Zarbiv says, “but that could change tomorrow.” With the large number of births at Hadassah, medical research opportunities abound, she noted.

Zarbiv and her husband, an oncologist at Hadassah, have four children, ages 10, 8, 6, and 4. Instead of the usual warm hugs when they arrive home after work, Gila and her husband keep their children distant until both have stripped down, showered, and changed into clean clothing.

Praising Hadassah for “never, ever turning any patient away at any time no matter how it affects us,” Zarbiv emphasizes that she feels “profoundly proud to be at Hadassah. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”