‘Spirit saved my life:’ Estelle Carmona opens up about pregnancy, birth and systemic racism

·5 min read

As part of IndigiNews’ ongoing look into Indigenous reproductive healthcare access, we are speaking to people about their birth experiences.

As the snow started to fall, marking the beginning of the winter solstice, Estella Carmona was on her way to the hospital to give birth to her first daughter, Katiyana.

The all-encompassing birthing process would turn into a life-changing spiritual experience that showed Carmona her “true connection to spirit,” she says.

Carmona sees her daughter Katiyana, who’s turning seven on Dec. 21, as her greatest teacher.

“I knew that I was bringing in sacred life,” says Carmona who is of Sechelt, Stó:lō and Mexican descent, reflecting on the day her daughter was born.

Carmona is a member of shíshálh First Nation, which is located along the Sunshine Coast in Sechelt, B.C., and comes from a strong line of matriarchs.

She says it’s the strong cultural teachings from the smokehouse that pulled her through two complicated birth experiences.

“It showed the strength of spirit,” she says. “I was raised by my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mom, and [strong moral teachings are] something that we live, we breathe.”

She credits her great-grandmother who was a fluent speaker in her language for instilling these teachings in the family.

Carmona was living in Stó:lō Territory in 2013 when she was pregnant with her first daughter. Before Katiyana was born owls and hawks started visiting her, she explains. For many Indigenous people, the connection between birds as a kind of messenger is a part of cultural teachings passed down.

“An owl started visiting me throughout my pregnancy. They’ve never come into my life beforehand,” says Carmona. “I had four owls visit me and two owls came the night before she was born.”

During the delivery, Carmona explains how her cultural teachings helped assist in the birth.

“I did tap into sacred energy, our breath, and prayer,” she says.

Carmona used a birthing tub at the hospital during her labour. “Having been surrounded by water, she came into this world in a very peaceful way,” she says.

However, after her daughter was delivered Carmona says she lost a lot of blood but was not given a blood transfusion. She left the experience wishing she had known her rights.

“If I knew my rights, I would have demanded a blood transfusion,” she says.

“They took my blood count after she was delivered. They took my blood count the next morning. And they’re like, well, it’s already increasing. So we don’t think you need one.”

After suffering from extreme fatigue for six months, navigating being a new mother, working, and being in school, she didn’t realize the severity of the situation until years later. After requesting to see her medical records she says, “I realized this is how women die in childbirth.”

Carmona believes a higher power is what pulled her through this experience.

“When I say spirit saved my life, I believe that Katiyana chose me as her mother. She chose her father. And those owls visited me throughout,” she says, “it was spirit all the way.”

As they left the hospital, she remembers seeing a hawk on the side of the road.

“Her spirit is the owl spirit,” Carmona says smiling. “There’s no question about it, she sees truth.”

In 2015, Carmona was pregnant with her second child, a daughter named Ivy.

Still living in Stó:lō Territory, she returned to give birth at a local hospital.

This time, she says, the delivery was excruciating and there were complications with baby Ivy being delivered.

According to her medical records, baby Ivy was born face up, blue and limp with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

While Carmona says her mother and mother-in-law knew what was happening, she was unaware of the severity of the situation.

“I did not know the severity of the situation being like you just delivered a baby,” she says.

The medical records show that baby Ivy was not breathing when she was born, and Carmona says they called a “code pink” signalling an emergency.

“She’s a miracle that she survived,” says Carmona.

“My belief in the Creator, my belief in the teaching saved us a hundred percent. We had people watching over us.”

Reflecting on the experience, Carmona once again wishes she was given more information in the moment.

“There was no, how long was she out of breath for, what’s her cognitive ability kind of thing. Like, your daughter could have died,” she says. “It was, she can sit up in her car seat. You’re fine, go home.”

For other expecting parents Carmona says that due to the lack of cultural safety, systemic racism and stereotyping of Indigenous women, it’s important to “trust your intuition.”

“Whether it’s the doctor, a white midwife, the stereotyping that you receive, whether it’s in the doctor’s appointments, leading up or in the delivering room, having multiple Indigenous family members there, there’s a lot of racism that happens in these experiences,” she says.

Many Indigenous Peoples who access the healthcare system in Canada feel the impacts of systemic racism. On June 19, 2020, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was appointed by Health Minister Adrian Dix to lead an investigation into Indigenous-specific racism in the B.C. health care system.

“If I could say anything to a woman who would be giving birth or in this process, trust your intuition, pray for protection and guidance,” says Carmona. With two healthy young girls, now one of the most important things for Carmona is that her kids are raised traditionally so that they too are equipped to navigate the world.

“I can say that practicing our cultural teachings benefits new mothers and their babies, that little plant, that little seed,” says Carmona,

“Every thought, every feeling that we think our baby experiences and my daughters are very cultural beings.”

Our series on reproductive health access is made possible in part with funding from First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

Chehala Leonard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse