Medical student leads at-home birth during Hurricane Harvey

How one student used her training to step up during a disaster
November 15, 2017

When Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston at the end of August, ambulances were unable to respond to emergency calls in certain areas and—aside from boats—it was hard for many people to leave their homes. This left neighbors to help each other the best that they could. For Najah Khan, a third-year medical student at Texas A&M College of Medicine, this meant helping a neighbor deliver a baby in a bathtub.

Khan has been advocating for women’s health as the American Medical Women’s Association’s National Advocacy chair and as an American Medical Association (AMA) delegate in the student division. She now lives in her hometown of Houston, where she is training at Houston Methodist. At just 22 years old, she is one of the youngest members of the Class of 2019.

Khan stayed with her family during the hurricane. A few doors down from Khan’s family home in Houston, a neighbor’s daughter-in-law was pregnant, and her due date was fast approaching. Sure enough, during the worst of Harvey, the neighbor’s grandson decided to make his arrival.

“When the woman went into labor in the afternoon, her family called my father to come over and check on her,” Khan said. Her father is a pharmacist, and he was the closest neighbor with any health care experience. So she went with her father to see if she may be able to help while the family waited to hopefully be reached by an ambulance.

Khan asked the woman some questions about her pregnancy and how she was feeling, even though she wasn’t expecting, at that point, to need to become involved. Khan learned that this would be the woman’s second child and it would be a boy. “I know I’m not a doctor yet, but I was just curious about how she was, if she needed anything.” Khan had never delivered a baby on her own, but she had done so in simulations and with the assistance of her OB-GYN clerkship director at Houston Methodist and Texas A&M Adjunct Assistant Professor Konrad Harms, MD, Steven Hilgers, MD, and the OB-GYN residents, Justine Johnson and Lalanica Chandraseekra.

Khan remembered being a little concerned about a possible backup plan. “I asked the mother-in-law how they were planning to deliver the baby in case the ambulance couldn’t get there in time, and she said that she knew how to do it and she had delivered a baby 10 years ago,” she said. “At this point, I’m still hoping an ambulance will make it, the woman will be able to go to the hospital and she’ll be fine.” Khan and her father headed home.

Shortly after midnight, Khan’s father received another call from the neighbors, saying the ambulance hadn’t come. When she and her father arrived at the house, they found the woman on a blanket, on the dining room table, well into labor.

Remembering from her OB-GYN rotation that if the woman is in pain, sometimes water can help, Khan took one of the pregnant woman’s arms, and one of her friends took the other. “We got her off the dining room table, and we took her to the bathroom and settled her in the bathtub,” she said. “I also remembered that you need to lift the pelvis, so I started taking bundles of clothing and whatever else I could find and put them under her.”

By that point, the woman’s contractions were four minutes apart. Khan washed and sterilized some scissors the best she could. She didn’t have gloves or booties for her feet, so she improvised with plastic bags and wrap. While she was preparing, Khan turned to YouTube on her phone to review the stages of delivery. “I remembered what to do from my OB-GYN rotation, but that had been several months ago, so I wanted to review as this was becoming a reality,” Khan said. “Still, it was Dr. Harms and his residents who gave me a good understanding of what I should do, and I’m so thankful.”

By the time she returned to the bathroom, Khan knew the baby was almost there. “On tests I still feel afraid, I still get nervous,” she said, “but in that moment, I wasn’t thinking, I just was hyper-focused on that one thing.” Khan coached the mother on when to push, and just a few moments later, the baby was born. Khan suctioned the baby, wrapped him in a towel and placed him on his mother’s chest for warmth. “Everything else around me faded, and I was focusing on this baby,” she said. “It was beautiful.”

Khan clamped the cord with rubber bands she found in the bathroom drawer and cut the cord with the scissors. She delivered and bagged the placenta, and then checked the newborn.

Khan moved the mother and baby to the bed so they could rest. “This is where pediatrics came in,” Khan added. “I then coached her on the best breast feeding positions.” Khan credits the teaching of another one of her instructors, Melanie Mouzoon, MD, clinical assistant professor, for this knowledge. “I would tell her thank you a million times,” she said. “The reason I knew what to do for a newborn, what to tell mom, how to screen for certain things, that was all Dr. Mouzoon.” After Khan was satisfied that the mother and the baby were okay, she went home and slept.

The next day, Khan went back to the house to check on the new mother and the baby to perform the newborn exam Mouzoon taught her. “When the mother-in-law saw me, she was smiling ear to ear,” she said. “They were eventually able to get to the hospital and he was fine.”

This experience changed Khan’s perspective on her role as a medical student. “So many things could have gone wrong, but at the end of the day, I felt like I made a difference,” Khan said. “Even as students we have something to offer, and the knowledge that we learn can actually be put to use. I know that mom didn’t even remember my name, but at least I know that I was competent enough, I had the skills, to help somebody who needed me. Seeing that baby born, helping that baby be brought into the world…I can’t tell you that feeling. I wish I could put that into words.”

— Christina Sumners

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