How one couple welcomed a baby girl during the novel coronavirus outbreak in China
Mio Goto was too far along in her pregnancy to leave the country.
It was in the middle of a night in February when Mio Goto went into labor at her home in Suzhou, China. Yet, despite the rush to prepare, she and her husband, Ben Van Overmeire, said they noticed the moon.
"It was a very pretty moon that night, I remember," Van Overmeire said.
The night sky in the eastern city of Suzhou is typically obscured by the thick pollution that often plagues Chinese cities. But on that night, the country was grappling with a viral outbreak. The spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, had led to fewer cars on the road and fewer operating factories and power plants.
The levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced primarily by burning fossil fuels, were 30% lower in eastern and central China during the first two months of this year, according to NASA.
So on the night of Feb. 13, Goto noticed the beauty of the moon in an unobscured night sky as she dealt with the intense pain of contractions.
The aggressive spread of the COVID-19 kept Goto, her husband and their 2-year-old son Kai isolated in their apartment for weeks. The indefinite confinement had shifted their internal clocks and made them restless. Falling asleep had also become a challenge, they said.
The residential streets surrounding the couple's apartment, which would normally be seen brimming with life, were abandoned. The nearly 11 million people who live in Suzhou, which is about 379 miles from the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan, had either evacuated or were practicing strict social isolation.
Van Overmeire and Goto had hoped to evacuate weeks ago but Goto's pregnancy was too far along to travel.
"Around the Chinese New Year, [at the end of January], is when we realized our lives might really change," Van Overmeire said.
The first few weeks waiting for their baby to arrive seemed ominous. "In addition to being exposed to infection, we were also very uncertain if there would be enough food or power," Van Overmeire said.
The couple weighed their options. There was a maternity-only hospital in Shanghai about an hour away. But they speculated that it might be too far.
At one point, Goto considered giving birth at home. They had a nurse practitioner friend whom they thought about asking for assistance, but that friend had left the country due to the severity of the outbreak.
Their only remaining option was Suzhou Kowloon Hospital — the same hospital that admitted the city's first COVID-19 patient.
Adding to their concerns were memories of how difficult the birth of their first child had been, when Goto endured labor for more than 14 hours without an epidural.
"We had been stressed about it for such a long time," Goto said. "When the contractions started it was like, finally, the baby will be born."
Van Overmeire couldn't take Goto to the hospital. They didn't have a car and he needed to stay home with Kai. If Kai left to stay with family or friends, the toddler would have to be quarantined for 14 days before he was allowed back in the complex.
Van Overmeire wouldn't be able to be there for the birth of his second child. Goto would have to do it alone.
"Now there was another child. There was no one to take care of him," Van Overmeire said. "The necessity of me being home made the guilt tolerable."
When the contractions came, it was also too late to call a Didi, the Chinese equivalent of Uber. Besides, Didis had become increasingly rare as the virus spread; drivers and passengers alike were concerned about exposure.
The couple had planned in advance and compiled a list of their friends who had cars. When Van Overmeire started running down the list, his first few attempts went unanswered. It was the middle of the night, after all.
Finally, an answer from their friend, Zach Fredman.
"He answered immediately but sounded very sleepy," Van Overmeire said.
But Fredman sprang into action. He jumped into his Toyota Corolla and met Goto outside the gate of her complex.
As a precaution, a curfew had been implemented in Suzhou. No one was supposed to leave their apartments between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., though giving birth was recognized as a special exception.
Fifteen minutes later, Fredman and Goto arrived at the emergency room.
"At the door to the hospital, Goto said, 'OK, you can go.' And I said, 'Well no, let me at least go in there and help you get checked in,'" Fredman said.
"I was grateful but anxious because going into the emergency room means that he could potentially get infected and might infect his family," Goto said of Fredman, who is the father of a 4-year-old daughter. "I felt sorry for him."
After she was checked in, nurses informed her that she wouldn't be able to use an epidural, Goto said.
"That was stressful because my first birth was so painful," Goto said.
Nurses asked repeatedly where her husband was. Doctors and hospital staff expected him to be there to assist with the birth. They needed him to sign documents and waivers, but instead, those duties fell to Goto.
"At the time I thought, 'I'm giving birth, why are you asking me to do all these things?'" Goto said.
Meanwhile, at home, Van Overmeire said he was anxious.
"I'm trying to contact her, but there's no response at all. We can't get through. The Wi-Fi is bad so that doesn't get through," Van Overmeire said. "I'm just checking my phone every five minutes. I was biting my fingernails."
Nurses moved Goto to a bed and, almost immediately, she was crowning.
"There was too much going on to reflect on the fact that Ben wasn't there," Goto said.
Goto is a Japanese citizen but said she has lived in China for more than two years. She said she has a good command of the language, but is completely unfamiliar with medical vernacular. Doctors were giving commands she couldn't understand.
"I deduced that if someone was going to tell you to do something in that situation, it would probably be 'push,'" she recalled.
So, she pushed, and less than two hours later, baby Yue was born. Van Overmeire finally heard from Goto at 3 a.m. when she called to tell him she had severe bleeding, but she and their new daughter were OK.
"If we had tried to drive to the maternity-only hospital in Shanghai, Yue would have been born in the car," Van Overmeire said.
Three days later, the pair came home from the hospital. They sent Fredman some chocolates to say thank you.
Three weeks later, Van Overmeire, Goto, Kai and Yue evacuated China to go to Japan, where Goto's family lives.
"I was sick of living a compartmentalized life," Goto said. She speculated that Yue was born three days late due to her inability to get sufficient exercise.
Van Overmeire and Goto don't know when they'll return home to China. They said they're waiting for schools and daycares to be operational — for things to be safe again. But for now, they're just happy all four members of their family are healthy.
Yue, the name they had chosen for their daughter ahead of her birth, is Chinese for "moon," and she is the baby girl who arrived on a rare night during which the moon was visible.
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