It’s hard to write this without sounding whinging, or ungrateful, or NHS bashing. And I’m none of those. Well, I’m definitely not ungrateful, and I absolutely think the NHS is one of the most amazing things about our country, although, to be fair, I probably do whinge a bit sometimes!
However, despite my massive gratitude for having had a healthy baby, and my recognition of the NHS as an incredible institution with millions of selfless, hardworking, dedicated staff, I want to write this piece to support the Mumsnet #betterpostnatalcare campaign, because it really, really, really matters.
I suffered, still suffer from to an extent, PTSD after a difficult pregnancy and horrible birth. None of that was anyone’s fault, really, just bad luck. However, I do believe that my sense of trauma and anxiety were massively exacerbated by my experience of post-natal care, or rather the lack of it.
I was due to have a planned c-section for medical reasons, but went into labour before the booked date. I had to wait overnight, in labour, for a theatre to become available. Halfway through the c-section, the epidural failed and I could feel everything. I refused a general anaesthetic because I wanted so much to be able to hold and feed my daughter, and so I was given massive injections of morphine to enable me to cope with the pain while the operation was completed.
Unfortunately the morphine affected my breathing and oxygen levels. I spent the next twelve hours needing continual oxygen, and observations every fifteen minutes.
Despite this, my husband was banished from the ward for two hours when our daughter was about 5 hours old, because it was no longer visiting time.
At 8pm that evening he had to leave us both for the night. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours. I had been in labour for 12 of those. I had had major surgery which had gone fairly traumatically wrong. I was still off my tits on morphine, catheterised and had only just had the drip and oxygen mask removed. Yet I was left for 14 hours to be solely responsible for my newborn baby. When she cried, and I pressed the bell for a nurse to come and help me lift her out of the crib so I could feed her, I was told off. I was told that it is important to mobilise after surgery, and she was my baby and therefore my responsibility.
I was too demoralised and intimidated and exhausted to argue. Instead I co-slept with my daughter in the hospital bed. I say ‘slept’ – she fed and dozed, as newborns do. I lay there, digging my fingernails into my arms to try and keep awake because I was terrified of falling asleep and suffocating her or letting her fall from the high bed. I know that co-sleeping can be perfectly safe, but I also know that co-sleeping whilst exhausted and drugged is not recommended by anyone. However, I was physically incapable of lifting her in and out of her crib, and I couldn’t leave her to cry all night without being cuddled or fed, and no-one would help me, so I had no choice. When I drifted off to sleep periodically I would startle awake 20 minutes later from an excruciatingly vivid nightmare that I had suffocated her. My pulse would be racing and I would be bathed in terrified sweat as I checked she was ok, and then redoubled my efforts to stay awake. These nightmares continued for months afterwards; I still have them occasionally 2.5 years on.
The next morning, my husband still wasn’t allowed back on the ward until 10am. A midwife came in to remove my catheter, and told me to go and have a shower, alone, and remove the dressing from my c-section wound.
It was now 48 hours since I had slept properly. I asked the midwife if someone could keep an eye on my baby while I showered. She looked at me like I was mad, and said “she’s not going anywhere, you know” and left it at that. I asked if I could wait until my husband arrived, and was told the dressing had to be removed within 24 hours of the operation or it would become infected.
I went to the shower. I felt faint. I tried, and failed, to remove the dressing which was stuck to my stitches with dried blood. I felt even fainter. I sat on the floor of the shower, blood pouring out of me, and cried my eyes out. I have never felt so lost, so lonely, so abandoned. For weeks afterwards I was terrified of having showers and touching or seeing my scar, even in the safety of my own home.
When the obstetrician did her ward round I confessed that I hadn’t been able to remove my dressing. She did it for me, and was horrified that I had been told to do it myself. She was also adamant that, 12 hours after a c-section, it was absolutely acceptable to ask for help lifting the baby in and out of the crib.
I begged to go home that day, but wasn’t considered well enough. I didn’t tell my husband or parents when they visited what the night had been like. I just couldn’t talk about it. In fact my daughter was 18 months old before I could speak about it at all. Watching my husband leave that second evening was so bleak. I wanted to be happy; I had my much longed for, long awaited, perfect and adorable baby, but I was so scared and traumatised that I just couldn’t enjoy her.
It is unbelievable to me that, in the 21st century, we see fathers being able to spend the time immediately after birth with their partners and new babies as an optional luxury rather than a necessity. Post-natal care seems to be caught in a cleft stick, with hospitals too short-staffed and under-resourced for nurses and midwives to be able to help and support mothers postnatally, but fathers and other family members not allowed to be there the whole time, especially overnight, leaving mothers and babies totally vulnerable and unsupported.
We know that breastfeeding rates are poor in the UK. We know that rates of postnatal mental illness are high. It seems self-evident that poor post-natal care in hospitals is a huge factor in both of these, and I very much hope that the Mumsnet campaign leads to some dramatic improvements. Because there are many excellent reasons why my husband and I now consider our family to be complete, but the fact that I am too scared ever to contemplate another stay on a postnatal ward really shouldn’t be one of them.
This post is entirely my experience of giving birth at the end of 2014, but it was written to support the Mumsnet Campaign to improve postnatal care for all mothers and babies. Click on the link if you would like to get involved.
Oh Helen, what an awful experience and terrifying too. This should never happen to anyone and I’m so sorry that your experience of birth is such a traumatic one.