Premature past inspires research into personhood of premature babies

Cultural Anthropology PhD graduate Zoe Poppelwell investigates how we speak about premature babies—and how this differs depending on our caring role.

Zoe came to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University to study anthropology more broadly, but fell in love with medical anthropology thanks to a paper she took with Dr Catherine Trundle from the School of Social and Cultural Studies. 

“We looked at pre-natal care, particularly in the United States, and that got me thinking about the maternity area, and I realised this was something I was really interested in and had a history in,” says Zoe. She was born premature at 26 weeks gestation, weighing around 1 kilogram.

“My early years were different to those of my peers. I wanted to study the experiences of parents, and of staff caring for the babies. That pushed me to focus on the babies but really focus on the wider network.”

Her key data came from an ethnographic field study at a neonatal unit over a year, blending casual interviews with parents and staff, with 52 formal interviews which included discussions with parents, family members, babies like herself who had grown up, as well as nurses, specialists, and doctors.

“Ethnography is inherently political, in that it is a method of data collection that uses the researcher’s body to interview, survey, and observe,” she says.  “But it is a valuable tool of research, in that it is a snapshot of one researcher’s experience of a particular moment in time.”

The way in which premature babies were perceived and understood by the variety of people who interacted with them interested Zoe. “For parents it was their baby—but for clinical staff, there was a collection of infants that they all had this great responsibility for. There was also a difference between how doctors talked about the baby, and how nurses talked about the baby.”

In her study, Zoe reframes ‘personhood’—a concept that anthropologists are fascinated by—as a ‘multiplicity’. “For instance, the way I think about my personhood, is different from the way my mum thinks of my personhood, and the way that the University thinks of my personhood. My research proposes that the idea of personhood is a multiple, amorphous, constantly moving thing that is in flux.”

Personhood is much debated in abortion and civil rights actions, and she sees her redefinition as something that will be helpful in studying individuals in a range of different situations.

In New Zealand there are no standardised clinical resuscitation guidelines for babies born at 23 weeks gestation—24 weeks is where resuscitation becomes routine. While Zoe realised that she would have been resuscitated no matter where in New Zealand she happened to have been born, she found it confronting that others may not have been.

“Some of the nurses picked up on the strangeness I was feeling, having been premature myself. In the first two weeks of being on the unit doing the research, one of the nurses introduced me to a baby who was born at my gestation and at my weight—I got to see this baby grow up over three months, and go home. That was key in helping me cope.

“And the end of each day I would go home and have a hot shower, wash the neonatal unit smell off me.”

Zoe began at University after finishing Year 12, choosing this University because it felt like home—her mother also studied here when she was a child. She carried on into her PhD because “this is where some phenomenal academics are that I wanted to work with”.

Two of those academics, Dr Catherine Trundle from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor Annemarie Jutel from the Faculty of Health, were her PhD supervisors. “At first their role was giving me confidence that I could do this fieldwork. It was a difficult experience, but Annemarie’s past as a neonatal nurse was really helpful to frame this. They had my back, and were incredibly compassionate and supportive.”

Ultimately she wants others to understand that being premature is not a definition in and of itself. “Every premature baby is a son, a daughter, a treasured member of a family. It’s not just a journey the baby takes, it’s a journey that parents,  whānau and siblings take. It’s so much more than just being premature.”