Birth trauma: one woman’s experience

The Irish Independent has a very moving article about one woman’s experience of birth trauma.

Fionnuala Leonard was induced at two weeks past her due date. During labour, the baby’s heartbeat started dropping and an internal monitor was placed on the baby’s head – something that Fionnuala describes in the article as “like no pain I’d ever experienced in my life”.

She asked for an epidural, but was refused one, on the grounds that no anaesthetist was available.

She was eventually given an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic. When she came round, she was alone. She told the paper: “I didn’t know if my baby was alive or dead. I didn’t know what had happened. I was calling for my baby.”

Someone then came in and told her to stop screaming, and that the baby was fine.

It’s not surprising that Fionnuala went on to suffer PTSD. Her story has much in common with other women who suffer PTSD after childbirth: the extreme pain, the feeling that no-one is listening, the lack of communication about what is happening, the fear that the baby has died, the sense of loss when the baby is taken away at birth.

The article talks about the need for better support for women who have had a traumatic birth, and says that such support could prevent PTSD.

It’s true that better support is important. But better care during labour and birth might have been able to prevent the PTSD altogether.

For example, Fionnuala was told that she couldn’t have an anaesthetist because one wasn’t available. This is something women are often told during labour – but, as an obstetric anaesthetist once pointed out to me, there is always an anaesthetist available. There has to be, because a woman might need an emergency caesarean at any time (you’ll notice that once it was decided that Fionnuala needed a caesarean, an anaesthetist magically appeared).

And then she was allowed to wake up alone, with no baby. Why was that allowed to happen? Couldn’t someone have been found to sit with her until she woke up? Was there really any need for someone to come in and tell her to “stop screaming”? Where is the care, the ordinary human kindness?

It’s good to see that organisations such as the Irish charity Nurture are supporting women who have had traumatic births. But the real change we need is for hospitals to improve their care for women so they reduce the risk of women being traumatised in the first place.

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