Student almost gives birth while writing final economics exam

York student Victoria Umanah with her son, Israel, and her new baby girl, IsabelWriting her final exam in health economics last month wasn’t exactly a labour of love for student Victoria Umanah, but as it turned out, it did involve labour of a different sort – the kind that produces a baby.

Right: York student Victoria Umanah with her son, Israel, and her new baby girl, Isabel

Umanah went into the evening exam on April 18 fully expecting to finish it. She thought she would have several more days to prepare for the birth of her second child. Her due date was two days after the exam, but her doctor assured her the baby wouldn’t be ready for another week.

“So that made me relax and go, ‘Okay, I can write my last exam,’” said Umanah, a third-year health management student in the Faculty of Health.

When she woke up that morning, she felt some cramping, but that was nothing unusual. It had happened before and with rest it went away. It started again around five that evening, but “I didn’t think, ‘Oh yes, this is labour.’ I thought with rest it would go away again.” She knew what labour felt like. After all, this was her second child; her first, Israel, is now two.

Neil Buckley As it happened, she had barely finished half the exam when the cramping pain returned. She asked to go to the bathroom and by the time she re-emerged she knew it was definitely labour. What she didn’t know was just how close to delivering her baby she really was. Neither did economics Professor Neil Buckley (left). He was waiting with concern for her in the hallway outside one of the Stedman lecture halls where her classmates were still busily writing.

“Okay, so how are you feeling right now, the professor asked me,” said Umanah. “I told him, ‘I think I’m in labour,’ and his eyes were like, WHAT!” She told Buckley she wouldn’t be able to finish the exam and that she was going drive herself to the hospital. “I wasn’t really feeling it so hard. I thought I could drive,” she said. But Buckley knew Umanah should not be allowed to walk across campus to her car and drive herself to the hospital while she was in labour, no matter how insistent she was.

Newborn baby Isabel Umanah doesn't know how close she came to being delivered in a hallway at York UniversityRight: Newborn baby Isabel Umanah doesn’t know how close she came to being delivered in a hallway at York University

Instead, he called York Security on his cellphone to let them know the situation. Maybe, he said, they could at least drive her to her car. What he was really hoping was that they would help to convince her she needed an ambulance to get her to the hospital safely. As Buckley was talking to Security, he said, it moved from Umanah looking worried to her looking sweaty and bent over. That’s when Buckley decided negotiations were over. He told Security to call an ambulance. A few minutes later, he was on the phone with a nurse.

“I was still thinking in my mind, ‘I can drive myself to the hospital’, but the professor was quite insistent that I don’t, then the contractions started coming so rapidly and stronger and I thought, ‘I don’t think I can go in my car anymore,’” said Umanah. At that point, she was all for having an ambulance.

Victoria Umanah with a sleeping IsabelLeft: Victoria Umanah with a sleeping Isabel

The nurse told Buckley to time the contractions. “She said, ‘If it’s more than five minutes, we’re good, but it it’s less than five, you may have to deliver the baby,” said Buckley. The contractions were one minute and 50 seconds apart. Buckley felt the prickliness of panic, but there was no time to dwell on it. “Don’t let her stand up,” the nurse said to him. So, he helped Umanah to the floor. But he worried students would soon start coming out of the exam room and her head was too close to the door. Despite this, the nurse was clear in her directions to him – “Do not move her.” She also told him to get towels and water. But where could he get that at 8:30 at night? Instead, he took off his fleece jacket and put it under her head as a pillow, thinking he might have to use it to deliver the baby. “At that point, there was a lot of confusion. I couldn’t tell you how long it was. It seemed like forever,” said Buckley, adding Umanah “was a real trouper.”

When the ambulance seemed to be taking too long, Buckley left the security guard with Umanah, sent one of the students looking in one direction and he ran in the other. Buckley found the ambulance on the opposite side of the building and directed it to the right place.

Umanah arrived at the hospital shortly after 9pm. At 9:30pm, she gave birth to a seven-pound, three-ounce baby girl named Isabel. Mother and baby are healthy and happy.

A relieved Buckley, who received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2009, can laugh about it now, but said, “I just can’t imagine what I’d have done without a cellphone. I put the nurse on speaker phone. Having her on the line, that was the saviour.” He saves his highest praise, however, for Umanah. “She never asked for special treatment, such as deferring her exam. She came and wrote it and when I marked it, she got 80 per cent on the half she wrote.”

She finished the course with an A grade.

Umanah plans to finish her degree next fall and hopes to go on to medical school after that.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer