Dad serving in Afghanistan gets to ‘visit’ newborn daughter

Medical videoconference system used to bring family together for Ottawa birth

Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen

Published: Monday, June 04, 2007

Every year, nearly 32,000 patients across Ontario connect with doctors and other medical professionals via videoconferencing.

Saturday morning was likely the first time, however, the system was used to connect a new father serving in Kandahar with his wife and newborn daughter in Ottawa.

"The best thing was being able to see my family all together and knowing everyone was doing well," navy Lieut.  Desmond James said Monday in an e-mail interview from Afghanistan, where he is a public affairs officer.  

As of Friday night, Lieut. James wasn't so sure it would work. But Saturday morning, the images on the screen were as clear as watching television.   

"Seeing them made it so much easier for me, and knowing my wife was OK and smiling made me relax over here. The next best thing was seeing Kaia for the first time and seeing how Sean, my stepson, was so caring and careful with her," he said.

"I was on Cloud 9 and wanted to just sit and watch (wife) Lisa and Kaia and Sean." 
The Ontario Telemedicine Network is usually used to connect patients in remote or rural areas with doctors in larger centres. Mrs. James, who was expecting the baby in late May, approached the hospital communications department and Kathleen Nunn, director of the childbirth unit, in February to ask if the system could be used to connect her to her husband, who had left for Afghanistan earlier that month.

"It was just something I thought might be possible," Mrs. James said Monday. "So I gave the hospital a call. They were great."  

What resulted was a three-way collaboration between the Department of National Defence, which has a videoconferencing "bridge" in Ottawa, the Queensway Carleton Hospital and the Ontario Telemedicine Network.

One of the challenges was that babies don't always arrive on schedule. Another is the time difference of 81/2 hours.

Mrs. James went to the hospital on Friday for an induced labour. All the players were alerted and put on standby.

Kaia Rita-Marie arrived a minute before 6 a.m. Ottawa time on Saturday, weighing in at seven pounds, 9.5 ounces. Kaia's parents were linked via cellphone shortly after. At 9 a.m., the family was talking.   

Mrs. James was exhausted but happy. Sean, 8, was thrilled and sat in a chair holding his baby sister for part of the time. Mrs. James brought Kaia as close as possible to the camera for her father to see. The videoconference lasted an hour.

"I wasn't going to miss this opportunity for Des to see his new baby girl," said Mrs. James. "I don't remember what we talked about. I was really, really sleepy. It was just overwhelming."
Lieut. James does remember what was said.

"The first thing I wanted to say was Are you all right?' and then How is the baby?'" he said. "I think my third question was Does she look like a Kaia?'  To which my wife responded Yes.'"

Paula Archambault, regional program manager at the Ontario Telemedicine Network, said the system has been in operation in Eastern Ontario for about six years. Using the system, a patient in Barry's Bay could, for example, "see" a cardiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.  

"It's just like coming into the office, only you don't have to drive two hours," said Ms. Archambault.

The videoconferencing system is also used so that CHEO patients from Baffin Island can "visit" with friends and family back home. But this went beyond even that, said Ms. Archambault.
"For us to reach out to Afghanistan was unusual. So it was exciting for us."

George Regan, videoconference co-ordinator for National Defence, does a few thousand videoconferences a year, including those between soldiers in Afghanistan and families in Canada. On the day before Mother's Day, he connected soldiers in Afghanistan with their mothers in Newfoundland.

"It's hard to say no. It's for a good cause."

Once he found that the telemedicine system could work with the National Defence system, it wasn't difficult linking the hospital to Kandahar.  

"I work with this technology on a daily basis, and you tend to take it for granted," he said. "It still has a wow' effect for people."

Lieut. James is thankful to staff at all three organizations who volunteered to come to work on Saturday to make it happen. Mr. Regan skipped his nephew's birthday in Toronto, said Lieut. James.

"Nothing can replace being there in person, but this was as close as possible and worked out well."