KOFU, Japan - Ambulance services and local residents cooperated to enable the safe delivery of a baby boy in Yamanashi Prefecture last month, as heavy snow kept his mother from reaching the hospital for six hours after she called for an ambulance.
The baby was born just 17 minutes after his mother arrived at a Kofu hospital, as February's record-setting snow stranded vehicles and isolated homes across the prefecture. Local residents cleared the route to help the ambulance crew transport her through the snow.
Homemaker Yoshimi Hama, 28, of Yoshikawa, Saitama Prefecture, began to feel labour pains in the early hours of Feb. 15, while staying at her parents' home in Fuefuki, Yamanashi Prefecture. The city fire department dispatched an ambulance after receiving the emergency call at just past 4 a.m., but it was delayed by the bad weather conditions.
It took two hours for the ambulance just to reach the mountain neighborhood of Terao in Sakaigawacho in the prefecture. Unable to go any further on roads blocked by more than a meter of accumulated snow, five ambulance crew members had to walk with a hand-held stretcher for approximately one kilometer.
Hama's mother, Ginko Yamamoto, 59, and two other family members worked to remove snow in front of the house so the ambulance team could gain access. The crew carried Hama on the stretcher, which they attached to their belts.
Crew member Hiroaki Otsuka, 30, encouraged Hama to "hang in there," but walking through the snow was so difficult that a break was needed every 10 meters. After 30 minutes they had barely made more than 200 meters' progress.
Neighbors watching were moved to help, and one resident used heavy machinery to clear the remaining 800 meters to the arterial road. At 8:30 a.m., the crew was able to reach the ambulance and lift Hama on board.
The ambulance headed for her regular maternity hospital, Shimizu Clinic in Mukomachi, Kofu, about eight kilometers away. The vehicle became stuck in snow after moving just 300 meters, but fortunately a snow removal contractor was able to pull the ambulance free using special equipment. When Otsuka measured the time between Hama's contractions, it had shrunk from the five minutes recorded earlier on the stretcher to just one minute, indicating she could deliver at any time.
By 9:30 am, the clinic was visible from their location on National Highway Route 20, but snow had covered the residential road approaching the hospital, so Hama had to be carried by stretcher again. Dr. Yoichi Shimizu, 57, waiting anxiously for her arrival at the clinic, could see the crew but they could only make slow progress.
Four or five local residents cleared away the snow with shovels and made a path, and Hama finally arrived at the clinic soon after 10 a.m. Just a short time later, her baby's first cries could be heard.
"We couldn't have made it if they hadn't removed the snow," Otsuka said. "If he had been born on the stretcher, the newborn baby's temperature would have fallen and put his life in danger."
Hama and her husband have decided to name their second son Shuji, the first character of which represents a winter tree. Holding her son in her arms, she said, "The ambulance crew cheered me up, saying, 'You're having the toughest time [of all of us]. Hang in there.' It was very encouraging. I thought about how I must work hard to raise him."