Sexual Health in Poplar
At an informal but purposeful gathering, Trixie and Dr. Turner advocate for a Brook Advisory Centre in Poplar. They pitch their plea to their district representative, Violet Buckle, who controls some necessary funding. (We covered the Brook Advisory Center in our introduction to Season 8, Call the Midwife: 1964). The center helps unmarried young people with contraception and sexual health.
Mother Mildred brings the topic up later at the Nonnatus house dinner table, and among the midwives, we can appreciate the nuns face a dilemma when addressing premarital sex, for starters. Mother Mildred puts Poplar native and midwife Val on the spot: what would her grandmother have thought of the Brook center’s services when she was Val’s age?
Val is certain her “gran” would have “danced in the streets.” Her gran’s mother died giving birth to her ninth child (Val implies that if birth control were available, she wouldn’t have chosen to have nine pregnancies). Her gran also never forgot what she witnessed at a very young age: the beating her father gave her unwed sister when he found out she was pregnant.
Cheat Your Wife, Cheat Your Child
Mr. and Mrs. Pugh are expecting their first baby. When Heather Pugh tests positive for gonorrhea (“the clap”), it not only threatens their marriage (he’s been cheating on her, with prostitutes), but the health of their unborn child. Gonorrhea can cause a serious eye infection in the baby, and the damage could be permanent. Dr. Turner is also concerned about early labor, so Heather checks into the maternity ward.
It was surprising to see Dr. Turner sneer with disapproval during his interactions with Vince. While cheating on a pregnant spouse and giving her a sexually transmitted disease is lousy, the medical professionals in Call the Midwife often keep their personal feelings under wraps. Dr. Turner softened a bit when Vince confessed he can’t stop himself and he knows it’s a problem.
Luckily the baby’s eyes seem fine at birth, but Dr. Turner does start treatment. Heather and her husband Vince are referred to England’s National Marriage Guidance Council to discuss their marriage (and what might be a sexual addiction for Vince).
All on her own, young midwife Frances delivers her first baby, and it’s no easy catch: the baby girl arrives elbow first! She showed more nervousness than I’d want to see if going through a difficult birth, but the newborn and mother Connie Blakemore come through well.
It was Frances’ other nerve that startled us, and in a good way. Returning to the Blakemore home for a follow-up visit, she’s upset to see a party in full swing. The clueless husband has forced his wife to entertain guests, and is exposing his newborn to too many people, too early for her immune system. Connie is crying in the bedroom exhausted (or is it worse: postpartum depression?).
The protective lioness comes roaring out of meek Frances! “It’s time for everyone to leave!” she orders the celebrants, and they obey. Do you think Mother Mildred has rubbed off on Frances?
Of course, there are several other side dramas that continue in this episode. The Turner family sadly face the day when May will leave them for her adoptive family. Sister Monica Joan is at her eccentric best as she waves Great Britain’s flag (figuratively) during the summer Olympics, hoping for a gold medal from one of her country’s athletes, or maybe from one of the district’s children. Cyril is such a good catch that he even joins Lucille and the gals at Bingo Night. And Miss Higgins delivers get-well notes to nurse Crane, who is recovering from back troubles at the hospital. One letter is from Sergeant Woolf.
But let’s move on to what we all want to talk about.
The Deadly Abortionist
In Season 8, two Poplar women resorted to a back alley abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy. There was no legal alternative. The women had to trust that the person offering the service knew how to do it. Each took the risk believing it would help her life stay on its best course. Both women contracted a life-threatening infection. One woman’s lacerated womb had to be removed (see Episode 1 recap). The other woman died (see Episode 4 recap).
Of all the midwives who knew about the botched abortions, it was Poplar native Val Dyer who focused her emotions about it into anger – at the unknown abortionist. She wanted to wring the person’s neck.
Here we were, getting to know and enjoy Val’s plucky gran Elsie Dyer the past few weeks. Val’s a chip off the ole block. And during this episode we see that Gran admires the medical profession and wishes she could have stayed in school and learned more. She knows she’s smart like Val. We see Gran as the patient, finally having her leg boils treated by Dr. Turner himself, who confirms they are actually carbuncles and are likely caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. He implores her to keep her hands scrupulously clean.
I didn’t blink an eye at the mention of Streptococcus. (This is the infection that the two women who had abortions suffered from).
No hairs stood up on my arms when Val’s aunt called her, saying Val should rush to her tavern with a medical kit. (The aunt implied to keep this on the low-down, but Val was wise to have Trixie accompany her).
I didn’t see this coming. (Did you?)
But you saw it, I saw it, and Val saw it, to her horror. Val was called to a dirty room above the tavern, where her gran performs abortions for seven pounds. A young woman was bleeding heavily and in dire need of medical attention. Attention that was far beyond Val grandmother’s capabilities.
This scene is complex.
Val can barely function when she realizes what her grandmother is responsible for: the loss of a woman’s womb, the loss of a mother’s life, the medical emergency of this young woman on the table in front of her. Val sees her grandmother as a monster for putting things in parts of women’s bodies that she “can’t even name.” For performing abortions in a filthy environment. For handling instruments and women’s bodies when she has infectious boils on her body. Val is relentless in chastising her grandmother, and focuses on the money her gran accepts for such unprofessional work.
Her grandmother is likely fully aware, but Val tells her grandmother that “there’s abortionists in Holloway [prison] serving eight years.”
Elsie Dyer does not get as many words in as her emotionally crushed granddaughter. But you can tell – even before she sets fire to seven pounds in front of Val – that Elsie Dyer believes she is performing a necessary service in Poplar. That she is helping women, when there is no medical professional to turn to for an abortion.
For more background on the year the midwives and sisters are living through, see our 1964 highlights of songs, films, advances in medicine and science and more. Join other Call the Midwife fans by watching the finale of Call the Midwife on Sunday, May 19 at at 8pm. Episodes stream for two weeks after broadcast. You can read the blogs of real-life midwives on the Official PBS Call the Midwife site.