Birth trauma – its ok to not be ok

“Well at least you have a healthy baby, thats all that matters!”

How many of us have heard that sentence when our baby’s birth hasn’t gone as we planned? People mean well. They have a point of course, having that precious little bundle here safe and sound is important! But it means that its hard to tell people how you really feel. Because then you seem ungrateful. Like maybe you’re being selfish for feeling the way you do, for not just sucking it up and being happy that your baby is alive and well.

Its an odd feeling really. Because you are happy. You are grateful. You shudder to think of how things could have gone, and you hug your baby a little bit tighter. But there is this nagging voice at the back of your mind, saying “What about me?

I know there are people who have had it worse than me. People who have been left physically disabled from how badly their birth experience went, people who have lived through the worst possible outcome. People who just barely came through the whole thing. But that doesn’t make how I felt, how I still feel to a certain extent, any less valid. My experience was traumatic, for me. And I wanted to share my story, which I touched on in my last post. Hopefully it will make people think twice before they utter that dreaded sentence to someone after a bad birth.

My first child was born in hospital. It was a horrific experience from start to finish. I was admitted with contractions and leaking waters. I was ignored, belittled, lied to by midwives. My family were told differing things whenever they phoned to check up on me. I was 19, single and wholly unprepared for labour and birth. The ward was understaffed, and I was looked after predominantly by a brand new student midwife, who hadn’t attended a birth yet. She was lovely, but as you can imagine, I didn’t feel particularly looked after! When I was ready to push, everyone was in a room down the hall with a lady having twins! I was told I had to wait, as the student wasn’t allowed to attend to me unsupervised. When the midwife eventually arrived she was impatient and grumpy. It was nearing midnight, and I got the sense that she wanted to be anywhere but there. I had had an epidural, which meant I couldn’t feel contractions, only pressure. But she allowed me to keep pushing and pushing, even whilst baby’s head was crowning. As a result I tore, badly. On my birth notes it says 2nd degree tear, but I have since been told that another 2mm would have meant 3rd degree, and surgery. As it happens, I think that may have been a better option! The same grumpy midwife gave me local anaesthetic and stitched me up. I was then sent for a bath. I felt very very swollen “down there”, it didn’t feel normal. It also felt alien to me that I was separated from my newborn baby. I was exhausted (3 nights of no sleep, and then giving birth. It was gone midnight by this time), barely awake. But I was left alone. When I came out of the bathroom I found the room I had delivered in in darkness, and my baby all alone, sleeping in the goldfish bowl cot. I had no idea what I was supposed to do next, so I just stood and gazed at my baby girl, stroking her cheek. I must have stood there for a good 10 minutes in the dark before someone found me. I was then told I should be on the ward, and ordered to get in a wheelchair, had my bags dumped on my lap. I mentioned to the (same, grumpy) midwife how swollen I was, to be told “You would be dear, you’ve just given birth”, in the most patronising way possible.

Things didn’t improve once on the ward. I was repeatedly looked down on, shouted at for daring to doze off  during a demonstration on how to bath a baby (told “You, especially, need to watch this!”), even though I was beyond exhausted. The whole experience was just horrific. When it came for the Dr to check me over before discharging me, I was found to have a massive hematoma. The midwife had failed to cut off a major blood vessel when she did my stitches, and it had bled heavily into the surrounding tissue. I essentially had a balloon of blood between my legs. Not just “normal” swelling at all. But no-one had found out for 24 hours, despite me keep telling the midwives it didn’t feel right. No-one had checked. It took weeks for me to heal. I had to have ultrasound treatment in the end to disperse the blood.

Fast forward 7 years, and I planned to give birth in the closest MLU (midwife led unit) with my next baby. Everything went brilliantly. The moment of his actual birth was scary, but the midwives were wonderful and I felt in control and empowered throughout.

So when, 2 years on, I fell pregnant again I decided to plan a homebirth. Lots of things contributed to this decision. The fact my husband didn’t drive and the MLU was half an hour away (my Dad took us before, but he was due a hip replacement so we didn’t know if he’d be available), the fact that we had a toddler and a 9 year old at home and it would be easier all round. And obviously, the fact that I wanted to avoid hospital if I could help it!

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Everything was going well. At 20 weeks we were told our baby was probably a girl. We booked a 4d scan for 28 weeks to find out for sure. But at 27 weeks I awoke to niggling pains in my stomach and back. When I went to the toilet and wiped, the tissue was streaked with blood. I was due at work, had already been threatened with disciplinary action due to absences with morning sickness and sciatica, so I struggled in. But by mid morning the pain was worse, and I phoned my midwife for advice. She told me to go home, and to go to the hospital to be checked if it didn’t stop. I burst into tears telling my boss that I had to go home because I may be in early labour.

By that afternoon the pain was worse, and we headed to the hospital. I was asked to give a urine sample, which I did. It looked like pure blood. I was given antibiotics for a suspected kidney infection, and sent back home.

Later that day I took a turn for the worse. I was literally rolling around the floor in agony and throwing up. My husband got our neighbour to drive us back to the hospital, where I was immediately admitted, and given intravenous morphine and anti-emetics. It didn’t even touch the pain, I was in agony. Worse than anything I’d ever felt before.

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But by the following night the pain had abated, and I was told I was being discharged. By 10pm I’d still not seen a Dr. I wanted to get home, was told that because the Dr had already said I could go home I could just sign a form and not have to wait. I missed my babies, I was exhausted. So of course, I signed the form.

I got home and got in the bath, the pain starting to come back again. I went to bed soon after. In the early hours I was awake again, the pain worse than it had been before. My husband called an ambulance.

I kept being told it was like I had kidney stones, but that was impossible, because pregnant women don’t get them. I was put on a ward with women who had just given birth, due to a lack of beds. I was in so much pain, I felt exposed, vulnerable. I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to be in pain privately, not worrying about how my screams of agony were affecting these other poor women. But I was treated badly, because apparently the form I signed meant I had discharged myself against medical advice. I had either been lied to, or a new shift meant there had been no communication about what had actually happened. I was treated like an inconvenience who had shunned their services previously and they were now reluctant to treat me. Until a consultant came to see me, and actually looked at me properly. She stood at the end of my bed and just observed. Then she said “You’re in a lot of pain aren’t you?” I could barely grunt a reply. She asked if it was worse than labour. I nodded. She said she really was convinced I was suffering from renal colic, caused by kidney stones. She went away to speak to a specialist at a different hospital for advice.

Meanwhile my husband helped me struggle to the toilet. Whilst there I passed two stones. The relief! I was still in pain, but nowhere near the amount I had been. I was discharged the next day.

A week later our 4d scan confirmed we were expecting a little girl. We were over the moon. I ordered my birth pool in a box, and was so excited when it arrived. I couldn’t wait to meet my little bundle.

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Then at 33 weeks I started being sick. A bug, we thought. But it didn’t pass. 24 hours, then 48 hours passed. I still couldn’t even keep water down. My midwife visited, and sent us straight to the hospital. I was severely dehydrated, and obviously this could have had an effect on my still-not-healed kidney.

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I was put on a drip to re-hydrate me, given anti-emetics. Eventually I stopped vomiting. I was kept overnight for observation, but told I’d be able to go home the next day.

But when the Dr came to see me she was concerned, she had noticed I was jaundiced around my eyes. She started asking me questions like had I noticed itching on my hands and feet. I hadn’t, and said so. But I had a sinking feeling. My sister had developed a liver condition called Obstetric Cholestasis (OC) in her first pregnancy. The prodominant, and often only, symptom is an intense itch, worse on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Only my sister hadn’t had any itching. It was only found when she was in hospital for something unrelated. My Dr dismissed it, because without the itch it was unlikely to be OC. But I knew.

I stayed in hospital for another two days, whilst they took my blood and I waited for a scan. I was ignored for the most part, forgotten about. I was finally allowed home, but told to visit the maternity day unit the following day for my blood test results.

My husband was at work, so my best friend took me to the hospital. There I was given the news that yes, I did have OC. A diary was produced straight away and I was initially booked for induction later that week. I was 34 weeks pregnant. I was monitored, had more blood taken and was given my first injection of steroids, to help my baby girl’s lungs to develop. I was told that my bile acid results were more than 4 times a normal level. I was told to prepare for a premature baby. I was warned to be ultra aware of her movements, that if I didn’t feel her for an hour I was to go in to be monitored. OC can lead to stillbirth. No-one knows why. It just happens, suddenly and unpreventably.

I went home and cried. I looked through the drawers and wardrobe of clothes I had bought for my little girl and realised that I had nothing that would even come close to fitting a tiny baby. I sobbed into her baby clothes.

Worst of all, my birth pool was just sitting there, still in its box. Every time I looked at it I was reminded. Not only that I could lose my baby at any minute, but that I would have to give birth to her in the one place I didn’t want to. The place where I had been treated so terribly just weeks ago, and almost 10 years previously. The idea petrified me. My husband sold the birth pool on ebay, I just couldn’t have it in the house.

My life became a cycle of trekking to the hospital for daily monitoring, bloods every other day. I felt like a pincushion. My arms were all bruised where my veins were collapsing and they were struggling to get a needle in. Thankfully, after the first few days my bile acid results reduced, so induction was put back until I was 36 weeks and 6 days.

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A week before that date, my husband had an operation on his foot. He was in pain, wearing a protective boot, when we went in for the induction. We must have looked a funny sight walking around the hospital, desperately trying to get things started. Me waddling, him on crutches.

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But ultimately the induction failed. I awoke on the 3rd day and just burst into tears. I had been told I would need to be monitored for 15 minutes out of every hour, because I was such high risk. A midwife had told me that if they monitored me and couldn’t find a heartbeat they would do a crash section, but it would be pointless as thats the way OC works.

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On this morning, when I woke around 7, it had been 14 hours since I had been monitored. I had been forgotten, neglected, again. And my baby’s life had been put at risk. I told my husband I was going home, got up and dressed and started to pack my things. It seemed pointless to stay somewhere where I felt unsafe. I had a doppler at home, I would just sit with it strapped to me and listen to my baby myself.

Obviously this concerned my husband. He went to find a midwife. When he eventually found one, and told her what was happening, she sneered at him and said “Well I can’t stop her!”, then turned her back on him. He came back to me and told me he agreed with me, we needed to go.

Thankfully the shift changed, and a wonderful midwife who had looked after me on my first day came to see me. She apologised profusely, told us to make a complaint about the midwife when we got home. From my husband’s description she gave us a name. I couldn’t believe it. It was the same midwife who had treated me so badly all those years earlier. The same one who let me tear, who messed up my stitches. Who patronised me and failed in her duty of care by not even checking me over when I reported an issue. That same midwife was the one who was supposedly looking after me through the night, who had snapped at my husband! I was furious. It was honestly, looking back, just as well she hadn’t come to monitor me. As had I seen her I would have sent her away, and I would have been in even more of a state than I already was. Patsy, the lovely midwife, told me the consultant was on his way to see me. He arrived shortly after, and laid out my options (such as they were). My body needed a break from the induction process. I had made no progress, wasn’t even close to going into labour. Despite two previous deliveries, my cervix wasn’t even open enough to break my waters. So I could stay in hospital for 3 days, being monitored and awaiting another cycle of induction. With each day that passed my baby would be at more risk. Or I could have a c-section that day. Baby would be delivered safe and sound, just as son as they could get the correct staff together and get me into theatre.

What would you choose, if confronted with that same choice? They call it a semi-elective caesarean. But its not elective, not really. Given a choice between putting my baby at more risk, or getting her out safe of course I would choose the latter! I signed the forms, and we let our families know. I was so scared. I’d never had an operation, let alone major abdominal surgery. But Patsy took me down to theatre and showed me the room, she reassured me and said she would stay with me.

The actual operation was fine. Even the recovery wasn’t too bad. I bled alot, needed a pressure bandage to stop it. And passed out in the shower when I was told to wet it and try and remove it, which entertained everyone briefly! Once I came home getting around was a pain, and getting the other children to school and nursery was almost impossible. But it was ok.

But I just couldn’t bear to hear those words, “At least she is here, safe and well. That the most important thing!”. I was relieved, grateful, so so happy that she was here. I didn’t have to worry any more. She was safe, my body couldn’t poison her any more. But I mourned my perfect homebirth. I was traumatised by what had happened, what could have happened. The consultant had told me that he thought my induction had failed because my body entered fight or flight mode. I didn’t feel safe, so it refused to send me into labour. I felt guilty for feeling this way. And every time I was told that she was healthy and thats what matters, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Like I shouldn’t feel this way and it somehow meant I didn’t love my baby as much as I should do. I felt cheated. This was supposed to be my last baby. It was supposed to be perfect. Instead, my body had let us both down. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

As time went on I started to feel a burning need to do it again. I talked to my husband, he didn’t take me seriously. He thought we were done. He didn’t want to see me go through that again. He took some convincing, but eventually he agreed we could try again. A month later, when my little girl was 10 months old, I was pregnant again.

Of course I was scared. I had fortnightly bloods taken, to check for signs of OC. But by some miracle I remained clear. I didn’t buy a birth pool, didn’t dare. The trauma of watching my husband package it up and sell it had just been too much to bear. When I got my final blood results at 38 weeks, and it showed no sign of OC, I could finally relax and start to plan for the birth. A wonderful local lady loaned me her pool. I just bought a new liner for it. I still had all the other things packed away from the last time.

Then finally, the day before my due date, my waters broke. Contractions started, and I thought this was it. But all day the contractions stayed the same. Even my fantastic community midwife, who had been so supportive throughout, was starting to gently try and broach the subject of going to hospital, as we approached 24 hours since my waters had broken. I was demoralised, devastated. I could feel it all slipping away again. Inconsolable, I went to bed. But awoke a few hours later to strong, real contractions.

4 hours later, in the pool in our front room, with my 10 year old daughter looking on, I caught my baby as I gave birth to her, and brought her to the surface of the pool. She had her eyes open the whole time, gazing up at me. She was covered in vernix, so slippery and messy. But she was beautiful. And not only that, she was healing. Her birth showed me that I could do it. That I could give birth naturally, without stitches, without issues. I felt so empowered, so at peace. She saved me. I could finally begin to heal.

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Birth trauma doesn’t have to be blood and tears and almost losing your life. Everyone reacts differently to challenges. We need to be kind to each other. And we need to stop trivialising other women’s feelings. Because yes, baby is here and healthy. And that is a fantastic thing, the absolute best outcome without any shadow of a doubt. But your feelings matter. Its ok to not be ok with how things turned out. Don’t be afraid to talk it through. Talk to your husband, your friends, your Mum. Ask your midwife, health visitor or GP about accessing a birth debriefing, (often called Birth Afterthoughts). This is where someone takes you through your notes, so you can identify exactly what went wrong, and why, and try to come up with a plan for what could be different if you were to have another baby.

In severe cases, birth trauma can lead to post natal depression, or even to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Its important to seek help if you feel you are not coping, even if you feel like you should be. Don’t minimise your feelings. They are yours. They are valid. Be kind to yourself. Its ok to not be ok.

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