Words Denise Irvine, Images Ashlee DeCaires
Building delays caused River Ridge East Birth Centre to go way past its due date, but it was finally delivered on Christmas Day, 2002.
It seemed an auspicious time to open, and the first baby was born pretty smartly on Boxing Day. To be followed, in the past two decades, by thousands more arrivals at the distinctive blue building in Hamilton East, owned and operated by Hamilton couple Clare and Warwick Hutchinson.
Warwick estimates that for every baby who has stayed at River Ridge East in the past 20 years, there have been at least five or so visitors to admire the new arrival, so that adds up to a large passing parade. “Many people in the Waikato know this place,” he says.
“This place” is a huge source of satisfaction for Clare, Warwick, and their daughter Vanessa Shirlow, who is the chief executive officer. They’re together at the centre on this Monday morning as they share its history with Nourish, ahead of the 20-year milestone coming up on Christmas Day.
River Ridge East grew from an idea by Clare, a midwife and the centre’s clinical director: she says that 25 years ago Hamilton mothers had the choice of giving birth either at Waikato Hospital or at home, with limited services available for the latter. When Government health reforms in the 1990s offered more flexibility, Clare thought, “Surely we could create something in between [the hospital and home birth].”
Bringing this to fruition took family teamwork. As Vanessa explains, “Mum has lots of ideas and Dad turns them into a plan with a budget. He makes the plan a reality.”
The Hutchinsons began with a partnership arrangement at Southern Cross Hospital on Putikitiki Street (formerly Von Tempsky), offering independent maternity services in an unused wing. It was a successful trial run, and when the lease expired they developed River Ridge East next door, a purpose-built primary birth centre in a homely style with a unique look and feel.
It gathered momentum immediately from the Christmas Day opening, and a display wall of thank-you cards from families attests to the relationships formed over years of births and parenting support.
The centre’s clients chose their own lead maternity carer (LMC), but there are two staff midwives rostered 24/7 for post-natal care. “We mother the new mothers,” says Clare. “Whatever time they ring the bell for help, it is answered.” Nowadays, there are almost 40 staff members, a mix of permanent and casual, some who’ve been with the Hutchinsons since opening day.
Staff also look after the midwives who pass through, providing them with meals, coffee and opportunities for collegial support. Clare says this is as important as caring for mothers and babies. “It is holistic care for everyone involved, for mums, dads, babies, families and LMCs.”
Vanessa says the centre hasn’t closed for a single day since opening. “We handle everything, juggling multiple arrivals and departures, at all hours. It’s a bit like a hotel, or an A&E department. Nothing fazes us.”
She says there are now “repeat customers”, with a second generation of some families using the service. “We’ve had grandmothers coming to visit newborn grandchildren in the place where they gave birth themselves.”
The building expanded as demand increased, and there are now 16 well-equipped post-natal rooms, four labour rooms, two birth pools and a bath, two assessment rooms, and spaces for ante-natal clinics, ante-natal classes, exercise classes, support circles and other aspects of the centre’s work.
Clare Hutchinson’s original intentions haven’t changed, though, firmly based on giving mothers and babies the best possible start in life. “We have always aimed to be warm, welcoming, and multi-cultural, catering to our diverse community.”
The service is free of charge, funded by Government for a 48-hour stay for each mother. Women either give birth at the centre, or at Waikato Hospital and transfer for their post-natal care. They’re offered a third night stay free of charge if they need a little more time; Warwick says it’s just something they like to do.
Mothers and babies can also transfer after discharge from Waikato Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). “We rewind the clock,” says Vanessa, “and parents have the chance to do all the things they would have typically done if their baby hadn’t needed a bit of extra help initially.”
The Hutchinson family has a history of innovation and helping others, channelling Clare’s ideas and Warwick’s pragmatic planning. Clare, from Holland, and Warwick, a Kiwi civil engineer, met when they were both working in Indonesia. They married in Amsterdam and later lived in Nigeria and Libya. They came to Hamilton in 1982 with their three children for a new post for Warwick, and Clare worked at Waikato Hospital in NICU and as a midwife. She was also a home-birth midwife.
In 1996, they helped to establish the Waikato Waldorf School in Rototuna, later adding Kōwhai Childcare on an adjacent property and more recently Earth Stewards Urban Farm, growing organic vegetables on 1.3ha of lovingly cared for land. Earth Stewards, of course, supplies the kitchen at River Ridge East.
Vanessa says she and her parents are constantly looking for ways to extend and enhance the birth centre’s services. “Great food is one of the things we are renowned for. New mothers need the energy.” They also established the Hamilton Breast Feeding Trust, offering lactation consultation services free to women who have given birth at the centre or stayed post-natally. A free visit from a physiotherapist is available for women before they head home, a valuable opportunity to talk about their wellbeing and recovery.
Similarly, long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) is available on site from a Family Planning nurse. Women can have this procedure before they leave the centre and save themselves the time and energy of having to arrange it at a later date.
Vanessa says the goal is to always try to deliver over and above the minimum specifications. “If we can do more for mums and babies, we will see great outcomes for the whole family.”
She says it’s also a pleasure for her to work closely with her parents. She initially did tertiary studies at Waikato University and then she travelled overseas, married a Welshman, lived in Holland for six years, and returned to New Zealand in 2005. She was practice manager at a Hamilton law firm before the move to River Ridge East three-and-a-half years ago.
“River Ridge was something that as a family we knew and loved. We were always involved and my daughter was born here in 2007. My children know it well; it is like a home away from home.”
Vanessa says she wants to acknowledge the 20th anniversary, and in particular her parents’ contribution to maternity care in the Waikato, their innovation and wanting to offer more when they see gaps in existing services. “They are committed to creating equitable access and excellent maternity care.”
Clare and Warwick are modest about their work. Clare says creating River Ridge East has been a real team effort. Says Warwick: “It has been a privilege for us to run this place. Here’s to the next 20 years!”
Riveridge East Birth Centre
35 Puutikitiki Street, Hamilton East, Hamilton