Nineteen-year-old Sotika Cheunoi was late, and she was starting to worry. It was an early July morning, a little before 8 AM, and around her thousands of other teenagers were stuck in their cars on their way to school, frustrated by and contributing to Bangkok traffic at its formidable worst.
Unlike her fellow teenagers, however, Sotika was heading not to school but to the hospital. Nine months pregnant with her second child, she had gone into labour that morning and by the time her sister managed to find a taxi to pick them up from their home in a north Bangkok slum, the streets were already in the throes of school traffic.
Alarmed, Sotika and her sister soon realised they were not going to get to the hospital on time.
In a last-ditch effort, the panicking taxi driver called the police, requesting their aid in clearing the road to allow them to pass through quicker. Still, in the bumper-to-bumper gridlock, they knew they would not make it.
"I couldn't bear it anymore," Sotika recalls, her eyes widening as she revisits the experience. "There I was in the back seat of the taxi, just sitting in my underwear, trying to force the baby out."
Salvation in uniform
Salvation came in the form of an unlikely saviour. Within minutes of the taxi driver's call, Mana Jokkoksung, 43, a rather portly traffic policeman with a round, friendly face arrived at the scene on his motorcycle and proceeded to deliver his standard introduction.
"My name is Mana," he said in a composed voice. "I am an officer of the Royal Thai Police. I have been trained by many hospitals to help you give birth, so please be calm and let me help you." Then he knelt down and got to work.
| Officers are trained in delivering children [EPA]
Roadside emergency births take place in other countries too. But Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, with expressways and interior roads alike coming to a grinding halt for hours almost every day, have forced city authorities to come up with innovative ways to deal with an unconventional problem - what to do with the increasing number of pregnant women who get stuck on their way to the hospital.
More than five million cars, pickup trucks, and motorbikes are registered in the Thai capital. In contrast, New York, another city noted for its congestion issues, had 1.9 million registered vehicles according to 2010 statistics, despite being two and a half times the size of Bangkok.
All these vehicles are crammed into Bangkok's inadequate road network. The city has a road surface area that accounts for only 8 per cent of the metropolis, compared to 20-30 per cent in most Western municipalities.
To cope with the problem, a special unit of police midwives was formed under the auspices of the Royal Traffic Police Project, which was set up in 1993 to help people stranded in traffic. It was this unit that was called into action by the traffic control hotline contacted by Sotika's taxi driver.
The officers are trained every year at Bangkok Hospital, and also receive training from Honda to drive safely, a critical element of their preparations as they frequently hit speeds of up to 150 km/h when rushing towards an emergency.
Earlier this year, the police delivered their 100th baby, and since then the tally has risen to 107. "At the beginning, people thought it was strange," says Mana. "Now they see we can actually do this."
Mana, who says he has delivered 47 of these newborns, is one of the unit's star officers.
"When I volunteered for the traffic police, I thought I'd be directing traffic. The first time [I delivered a baby] I was shaking, I was excited, scared. Scared of the blood coming out, scared of the head coming out. Even now, I wonder if I'll get there on time, if I'll find the car. I didn't know if I could do this, I wasn't confident, but after training I can now do the job of a doctor," he says.
Shaken at first
Mana sees his own initial hesitancy in new recruits, who are at first paired with experienced officers.
"There was a case in Ratchada [a neighborhood in north Bangkok] with a pregnant woman about to give birth, where my trainee, Chalee, became so nervous he started shaking, so I had to get him to calm down."
Another rookie at the unit, Araya Pomkhai, is more serene at the prospect of being confronted by such a situation.
"I have to be calm," he says. "Otherwise, the mother will get nervous."
One factor behind Araya's phlegmatic attitude may be that he has been in a similarly harrowing scenario once already, which he thinks contributed to his superior assigning him to the midwives unit.
"Seventeen years ago I delivered my own son," Araya says.
|Some taxi drivers believe a birth in their cars will bring them good luck [EPA]
"We were stuck in traffic. I was with my wife, my mother, and our maid. I had no idea what to do. My wife was in pain, she was screaming, but she worked at a hospital lab and was able to tell me what I needed to do.
"But my son had fluid in his throat, and I didn't have the equipment to suck it out. My wife was yelling that if it wasn't cleared our child would die. So I used my mouth to suck out the fluid myself. When he was young, everyone called our son Nong [little brother] Expressway."
According to Araya and Mana, crowds gather quickly with cellphone cameras ready in these situations, presenting police with a quandary as to how to protect the woman's privacy. The reactions of the taxi drivers are also often interesting, they say, as many of them think a birth in their car will bring them good luck.
Araya's son had to stay in the hospital for a month, as he was prone to viruses. Sotika's newborn, Cream, is also experiencing problems after her traumatic birth. Mana says giving birth in the back seat of a taxi is obviously not ideal, but acknowledges that at least a few such incidents are inevitable.
"The problem is you never know when you will go into labour. And you want company, so you want to find someone who will go with you. Sometimes the traffic is unpredictably bad, and sometimes the delivery is unpredictably quick," Mana says.
"Another important factor is expenses. The rich can go to the hospital early. The poor wait. Most of the families [whose babies I've delivered] are low-income, sometimes they are migrant workers."
Sotika lives in the Tuk Daeng [Red Building] community, a slum on the northern edges of the city, beyond the reach of Bangkok's skytrain and subway network. Her home is deep within the slum, accessible only by a narrow walkway that would be unable to accommodate two motorcycles passing each other.
Even within the slums, a hierarchy exists. A neighbour living closer to the road gives directions to Sotika's place, adding "oh, they're very poor" in a tone that manages to be both sympathetic and condescending.
Inside the one-room home, which is missing a wall, two-month-old Cream sleeps on a sheet spread out on the floor.
"Her [Cream's] skin was yellow at first, and her blood sugar is low, so she has to go for regular check-ups at the doctor," Sotika says, inadvertently explaining the origin of her daughter's nickname.
On the morning Cream was born, Sotika woke up with labor pains around 5 AM, but couldn't leave for the hospital immediately.
"I had to wait for my sister," she says. "Cream's father had just been released from prison, and he was visiting his mother after getting out.
"I had heard some stories about the police midwives service, but I had never thought it would be me. Afterwards, all my neighbors said I was famous now, they couldn't believe I was on TV."
Because he views the city's traffic problem as "not solveable", Mana urges expecting mothers to plan ahead. Sotika has a simpler solution.
"No more babies for me," she says.