It happened to me: last-gasp attempt

by Peter Docherty

A medical student called on help from above in his attempt to breathe life into a new-born

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 13 December 2022
woman and child 50s

As the patient’s husband opened the door, I was vomiting into the snow. Although only a six-mile taxi ride, I have never travelled well.

Born dead it was, said the man, who waited for me to stand up. I was a medical student, and for obstetrics we had to carry out 12 hospital-based deliveries and 12 domiciliaries.

I still needed to carry out five domiciliary deliveries, but for this one I was too late in every sense. When I entered the tiny bedroom, Mrs McGrath was lying in bed, as white as the paper I write on.

She emitted almost animal-like sobs. He’s over there, doctor. It’s no use. There he was, encased in newspaper.

A perfectly formed boy with umbilical cord and placenta attached. But he was blue, and not the waxy white I expected. I had to try, at least. Milking the blood from the cord, I began to blow into the tiny mouth.

The parents looked on almost in revulsion, feeling that my efforts were not only a waste of time but were cruel in that they pretended to create hope where they felt there was none.

I prayed a silent, almost feverishly threatening prayer. My thoughts being loosely translated suggested that if God really did exist, this was the time for him to get off his throne, or wherever he resided, and come and help me.

I continued blowing into the tiny mouth. Fortunately, I had only partially learnt the technique, for I forgot to take my mouth away when inhaling. Suddenly and quite accidentally, I dislodged a large plug of mucus.

In an instant, that which seconds before had been an inert purple brick-sized bundle of flesh and bone, began wriggling and gurgling in my hands. Chameleon-like, the sombre colour was replaced by a vibrant pink.

No words of mine can convey the ecstasy; the elation and the sheer unbridled pleasure that that movement and that sound gave me, feelings shared by the two amazed parents. The ambulance took mother and baby to Dublin and Mr McGrath embraced me.

The top of my head was well below the level of his chin, and I felt his tears run down my forehead and cheeks, where they mixed with my own. It was the winter of 1959.

I took a last lingering look around the tiny bedroom, my gaze fixed on the torn crumpled newspaper that a short time earlier might have been the paper shroud of a man who hopefully somewhere recently celebrated his sixty-third birthday.

My first resuscitation, my only resuscitation, and the greatest event of my life.


Peter Docherty is a retired consultant ophthalmologist from Derby. This article, first published in BMA News some years ago, won a Medical Journalists’ Association award