Law and order Bangkok: The midwife unit

In gridlocked Bangkok, a special team of cops helps women who can't quite make it to the hospital on time.

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    Special delivery: Autchara Supreyvanchai remains in touch with Sgt. Maj. Pichet Wisetchoke, who helped her when she gave birth in her car (above). Officers on the ‘baby beat’ assisted 165 women in labor last year.
    Courtesy of the Royal Thai Traffic Police subdivision 6
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Bangkok, Thailand

Sgt. Maj. Pichet Wisetchoke was directing rush-hour traffic when the emergency call came. He had just minutes to get to a woman in medical distress in the passenger seat of a Honda Jazz stuck in gridlock. He jumped on his motorcycle, radioed the hospital, and reached for his trusted tools: surgical gloves, an infant-sized suction cup, umbilical cord clamps, and a raincoat.

Welcome to Law and Order Bangkok: midwife unit.

“I signed up to be a policeman [11 years ago] because I wanted to go after bad guys,” the square-jawed officer says with a wry smile. “Instead, I often find myself delivering babies.”

As a member of a special traffic police unit patrolling the midtown zone, Sergeant Major Pichet has been trained to assist women in labor who get stuck in traffic en route to the hospital. His “baby beat” plays an important role in a city where some 6 million vehicles ply roads and streets every day, often taking hours to crawl a few miles.

Last year, 13 women gave birth in taxis, at bus stops, or on sidewalks, and 152 needed urgent help from police to get to a hospital delivery room on time. Pichet and his colleagues help them every step of the way. It’s a labor of love that not only addresses a real urban planning problem, but also fosters police-community relations – a boon for the entire police force, which has an image problem because of alleged human rights abuses and corruption.

Two hours before the call to Pichet, Autchara Supreyavanchai – the woman in distress, who was eight months pregnant – woke with abdominal cramps. So her fiancé decided to drive her from their home on the city’s outskirts for a checkup at her hospital across town.

“The traffic was terrible, and I was getting worse,” she recalls. “But I didn’t think I’d give birth in the car.”

When Ms. Autchara’s water broke on the expressway, her fiancé, Kriengsak Pansuwan, panicked. “I had no idea what to do,” he says. As Autchara was going into labor on the clogged tollway, Mr. Kriengsak frantically dialed the Royal Thai Traffic Police hot line and asked for their mobile first-aid unit.

Within minutes, Pichet was there.

“We prefer to clear the way for a pregnant woman’s car to get her into the hands of a qualified doctor,” he says. “But if it’s too late for that we spring into action.”

Leaping off his motorcycle, Pichet found Autchara dazed in her seat, her baby crowning. As a fellow officer used the orange police raincoat to shield the intimate moment from gawkers, Pichet attended as the baby emerged easily on its own – a girl. He then cleaned the newborn’s mouth, applied clamps to the umbilical cord to sever it, dabbed the infant clean with gauze, and tapped her gently for a “cry of health.”

To the applause of spectators and with sirens blaring, the officers parted the sea of traffic to lead the couple in their Honda to the hospital.

Once there, Pichet breathed a sigh of relief over completion of his 19th “traffic delivery” during five years on the special unit.

“A newborn baby is a slippery little thing,” says Pichet, who doesn’t have children of his own. “You don’t want to be fumbling around and make a mistake. Sometimes I still get the jitters.”

• • •

On a recent afternoon, before bracing themselves for evening rush hour, officers of Bangkok Traffic Police subdivision 6 are taking a breather in the station hall. Opposite a murky fish tank, home to a giant Siamese carp, they loll in their undershirts before a TV showing a daytime soap.

But with a walkie-talkie clamped on his uniformed shoulder, Pichet remains on standby. The four members of his station’s mobile crisis unit pair up and take turns responding to emergencies in their zone from 5 a.m. until midnight daily.

When Pichet’s walkie-talkie buzzes alive, he hops on his Tiger Boxer and speeds along the curbside and weaves between cars in heavy traffic. No baby this time – a motorcyclist collided with a taxi and he needs first aid on his hand.

Five midwife teams (20 officers in all) are stationed at bottlenecks around town, areas ambulances often can’t reach fast enough. They’re trained in first aid and basic midwifery and carry the necessary medical tools.

The job teaches them the softer skill of compassion. Many women who need midwifery assistance are young migrant workers from rural Thailand and neighboring countries. Unschooled and too poor to afford proper medical care, these first-time mothers are at greater risk of mistimed deliveries and of improperly gauging unpredictable traffic.

Recently, Pichet was called to a construction site down a nameless, narrow alley. Inside a builders’ shack a young Burmese day-laborer, having just given birth unaided, was lying helpless on a mat. Her newborn was left unattended. “It looked like a murder scene with a terrible mess on the floor,” Pichet recalls. Only prompt intervention, he says, saved the barely breathing infant from fluids blocking its nose and mouth.

“These things can traumatize even seasoned officers,” Pichet says. “Often I can’t have a bite for the rest of the day.”

In this job you learn by doing, says Sgt. Maj. Mana Jokkogsung, who has a decade of service and more than 40 traffic deliveries worth of experience.

“The oldest kids I helped deliver are 9 years old now,” says Major Mana, a short, paunchy man with amiable features. But, “the first time I had to do it, in the middle of an intersection, my hands were shaking so bad I could barely pull the rubber gloves on.”

Now his hands are steady – in any locale. Mana and Pichet have used their midwifery skills with passengers in taxicabs, a noodle-stall vendor who went into labor inside a public squat toilet, and a pregnant commuter lying on the floor of a bus station. The actual delivery has become standard for them. A greater challenge is keeping the moment private in a setting guaranteed to have curious throngs.

“Part of our job is to protect a woman’s dignity,” Pichet says, unfolding the long police raincoat he always brings to double as a curtain.

• • •

By boosting the public profile of a police force widely regarded as inefficient and corrupt, the crisis units also perform a service to fellow officers. “There’s an image problem for police in Thailand,” Mana concedes. “But when passersby applaud us for helping a mother in need, it makes us feel we’ve earned some respect.”

They’ve certainly earned Autchara’s. “I never saw the police in this light before,” the young mother says. “I don’t know what would have happened to my child without their help.”

She even named her baby Jazz, after the family’s car, as a reminder of her daughter’s birth. Other children born in traffic have received names of tribute, including 2-year-old Tangduan (“Expressway”) and 4-year-old Numkabuan (“Police Escort”), both delivered by Mana.

And as with every vehicle used in traffic-induced deliveries, portent-seekers seized on the license plate of Autchara’s Honda Jazz. Lottery tickets with the numbers sold out within days; Autchara, too, bought a few.

So did Pichet, who regularly calls the young mother to ask about Jazz.

“Mr. Pichet is like a second father to her,” Autchara says.

“We always follow up to make sure the mother and child are doing well,” the officer explains. “In this line of work you’re a stranger who suddenly turns into a savior and a friend.”

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