Editorial comment: *Try this in a hovercraft*

Islander in labor endures airboat trip across lake in snowstorm

Staff writer News Herald

March 8, 2003

PUT-IN-BAY, OHIO -- Engulfed by blizzard and blackness, atop 20-plus feet of freezing dark water, Margaret Couch waited for her first contraction to strike. Couch was in premature labor, more than a month ahead of schedule. She sat inside a roaring, jiggling airboat, creeping her way to safety over the jagged Lake Erie ice during a January snowstorm, miles offshore. Her water had broken two hours earlier, and it was past midnight, pitch dark.

"It wasn't a white-out, but (snow) was coming down pretty hard," recalled her husband, Dennis. "With the (mounds of) shove ice everywhere, sometimes you couldn't see anything but ice, everywhere around you."

The Couches' nerve-jangling journey Jan. 29 had all the makings of a Harlequin novel -- or a horror movie, for that matter. But this tale had a happy ending: Margaret bucked the odds. She escaped ice-choked South Bass Island and gave birth to a tiny son, Charles Joseph, at Firelands Community Hospital in Sandusky. "I just couldn't believe it," said Dana Blumensaadt, Dennis' sister. "I can't imagine being in an airboat going across the ice being in labor. "I thought that would never happen -- they were going to go (to the mainland) three weeks early to stay at my mom's. But surprise, surprise. That's island living, I guess." Alas, planning and preparation don't always solve the perils of pregnancy at Put-in-Bay.

South Bass Island has no hospital, and wintertime access to and from shore is severely limited. Airplanes don't fly at night, because Put-in-Bay Airport doesn't have landing lights. Life Flight medical helicopters from Toledo and Cleveland can't reach the island during storms or foggy conditions. And high winds wreak havoc with airboats, blowing them across the ice like sailboats. Therefore, Charles Joseph's escape-the-womb timing could have hardly been worse. Initially, doctors set Margaret's due date at March 5, three days ago.

The couple planned to move to Sandusky in mid-February and stay with Dennis' parents in anticipation of the birth. But Margaret's water broke during a snowstorm at 10:08 p.m. Jan. 28 -- and because she was a full five weeks early, doctors at Firelands told her to get to a hospital immediately. "This was just, no plan at all," Margaret said. "I always told people, 'Don't worry, there's always Life Flight.' What was I thinking?"

The Couches' adventures at Put-in-Bay began when they moved to the island from Wilmington, Del., in November 2001. Dennis quit his job as president of a screen printing company, and the couple fulfilled a dream by buying Gayle's Island Guest House. They reopened the historic farmhouse as Black Squirrel Bed and Breakfast, catering to tourists and fishermen. The couple was hosting three ice fishermen the night Margaret went into labor. After she "woke up feeling like someone had beat me up," Margaret's water broke as she shutting off her computer for bed.

After placing calls to Put-in-Bay EMS and the hospital, she learned an airboat ride was her sole hope of reaching shore. An ambulance drove the Couches to a beach near Bay Club Cottages. There, an airboat awaited, owned by Put-in-Bay Mayor Bernard "Mack" McCann and Todd Blumensaadt.

The couple climbed aboard, along with Blumensaadt, the pilot; his brother, Bill Blumensaadt; and Karen Wilhelm, a Put-in-Bay EMS emergency medical technician. The quintet motored into the darkness across the ice about 12:45 a.m., beginning the three-mile frozen safari to the tip of the Catawba Island peninsula. Temperatures had dipped into the teens. "This night, it was almost like blizzard-like conditions," said Wilhelm, who had never taken an airboat ride. "At one point we hit a bunch of shove ice, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing here?' "It was pitch black. You could see the snow coming down all around you, but you couldn't see anything else." Dennis said Margaret remained "calm as a cucumber" during the ordeal, though her mind was racing. "We did not know how dilated I was," she said. "I felt he had dropped, which is kind of early at that time."

Todd Blumensaadt estimated the airboat trip wrapped up within a half hour. After reaching shore near the Miller Boat Line dock, the Couches boarded a Catawba Island EMS ambulance and braved unplowed, icy roads during the drive to Sandusky. Margaret finally settled into a hospital room about 2 a.m. "After they had me hooked up to IVs and had me in the bed and everything, I thought to myself, 'That's the fastest four hours of my life,'" she said. And within a half hour, the contractions came. Charles Joseph was born at 10:50 a.m., clocking in at 4 pounds 14 ounces. He would spend the following week at Firelands Community Hospital, then return to South Bass Island with his parents in early February. "I would have hated the thought of having to deliver on that island without any pain medication or anything," Margaret said.

"Looking back, all I can say is, I'm so thankful that everything went as smoothly as it did. "Because there's a lot of things that could have gone wrong."