Bettina Reichelt was still a teen when she completed her midwifery training in a repressive East Germany in the 1980s. Not too long after, she escaped through the iron curtain.
“When I was 14, I had to decide what I wanted to be; that was the eastern European approach,” said Bettina, now Clinical Midwife Manager at Wellington Regional Hospital.
It was a year after graduating, while working at a small birthing suite in her place of birth, Dresden which was run solely by one midwife at a time that Bettina planned her escape.
“In 1980s Germany, life was in a cage behind the iron curtain. It seemed like endless freedom on the other side.”
No one was allowed to leave Eastern Europe.
“You risked imprisonment if you tried.”
Travel was limited and the Government had eyes everywhere. Bettina delayed her first plan to leave when her sister fell pregnant.
“Of course, I stayed and helped deliver my beautiful niece, a highlight of my midwifery career.”
Three days after, Bettina boarded the train with only a small backpack, telling officials she was travelling to Bulgaria. When she got off the train at Budapest, where the West German embassy was, she saw government officials in their signature trench coats everywhere.
“I was petrified.”
A taxi driver offered to drive her to the Austrian border, which had been open for only 24 hours.
“I gave him everything I had - money, necklace, rings and belongings and got in thinking: ‘What if this is a trick?’ I was so lucky it was legit!”
Bettina describes arriving at the Austrian border Red Cross tent, and later West Germany, as:
“Surreal. I couldn’t celebrate because I had left my life behind, and it would never come back, but I couldn’t cry either.”
Arriving to Aotearoa New Zealand with her husband in 1996 with minimal English had its own hurdles. But after an intensive English language course, Bettina secured a job as Core Midwife at Wellington Regional Hospital, and within six months, was promoted to Clinical Charge.
In her current clinical leadership role at the hospital’s tertiary birthing suite, Bettina oversees students, supports midwives and Lead Maternity Carers, and works with the obstetric team. She also manages difficult births and organises the smooth and safe running of the birthing suite.
Bettina has 35 years’ midwifery experience both here, at two West German hospitals and the Dresden birthing suite. She says a highlight of her job is passing on her knowledge to her colleagues.
“A colleague texted me the other day and said: ‘WWBD?’, that means ‘What would Bettina do?’ I answered the question and she said: ‘Yes it was great, it worked!’
“That’s why I love my job, having all this knowledge from all these different areas to get a good outcome.”
She in part credits the rigour of the “hands on” midwifery training at University Hospital Carl Gustav Carus Dresden in East Germany for her tricks of the trade.
“It was an outstanding education but it was hard - really, really hard. Not all midwifery students finished.”
Bettina is an advocate for birth without intervention in a tertiary setting, known as “normal birth”. One of her proud career achievements is creating the Koru Room in the Wellington hospital’s birthing suite. The room has a dimly-lit setting, mats on the floor and drapes on the ceiling, and provides a comfortable, homely environment within the hospital for clients.
“It’s about making sure people and their whānau are receiving the best care, and feel comfortable, at ease and supported.”