Mothers were shamed and traumatised at Shrewsbury hospital. I was one of them

I have been having so many baby dreams recently. Nonsensical images of babies sliding down chutes and falling into deep water below. Dreams where I dive in and swoop the babies to safety, pushing the water from their lungs and wrapping them in soft blankets, lined up as I watch over them. I know why. There is no deep Freudian meaning to find – the publication of the Ockenden report into failings in maternity services in England has meant that the events of nearly 20 years ago, yet again, have begun to stalk both my conscious and unconscious mind.

I gave birth twice at Royal Shrewsbury hospital. “Gave birth” sounds so everyday, so ordinary, so gentle, but in reality both of my experiences were visceral, violent and have stayed with me for two decades. For the birth of my first child, a son, I arrived at the ward, contracting regularly and close to needing to push. The baby was back to back so I was in lots of pain. I was given pethidine, a drug that rendered me drunk and forgetful, my agency gone. Perhaps it is a blessing that I can only remember snapshots of the next four hours; the abject terror on my partner’s face, the hastily inserted drip to restart my contractions and the fretful scribbling of the CTG machine showing them rising off the scale. After interminable hours, a doctor was called and then another. They attempted a ventouse delivery and I can remember the cup popping off the baby’s head and the doctor reeling backwards. Next the forceps were used and finally after hours of pain my son was delivered. He was big for a first baby and bore the scars of the forceps blades down both sides of his face.

I was so dizzy with love for him that I just accepted what had happened, assuming that my body was somehow at fault for not being able to birth him “naturally”, without the aid of the instruments used. After all, I had read all the books and swallowed the dogma that natural birth was a desirable and attainable goal for all women. That the C-section that I probably should have had was in some way a failure, an indictment of my shortcomings as a childbearing woman. This was the prevailing ethos at Shrewsbury, an attitude that shamed women into blaming themselves when something went wrong. At the time, Shrewsbury was an outlier and in 2002 just 11% of births there were by C-section – a fact that was actually applauded by the Commons health select committee – while the UK average was 20%. It has not been recognised until recently that these figures represented a blinkered and dangerous approach.

I foolishly thought, some years later, that my second birth would somehow exorcise the ghosts of the first. As full term approached, I would tell anyone who would listen that I could feel this baby’s shoulders grinding on my pelvis. At a checkup at 37 weeks, I was dismissed by my consultant when I enquired whether I might need a C-section this time. Due to the “natural birth” dogma I had ingested, it was something that I did not ask for loudly enough, too intimidated by this senior doctor who dismissed my fears and worries; telling me that a 4kg baby was not considered to be large. In what I assume as a compromise, I was informed that I would be induced on my due date.

It was snowing that night. Everything seemed to be proceeding normally – my waters broke at 9pm and by midnight I was taken to a labour room. I was monitored again as I was considered a high-risk pregnancy. I could see marked decelerations in my baby’s heartbeat during each contraction and waited for the midwife to return so I could tell her. In what seemed a matter of moments, the baby was coming out and rapidly the head was born. Then nothing. The midwife told my birth companion that this was a sign of shoulder dystocia – where the baby’s shoulder gets stuck in the pelvis – and hastily banged the alarm bell on the wall. The midwife, eyes darting to and from the clock, shouted out various manoeuvres as she tried to free my baby; each failed. It was brutal and horrific. No additional staff arrived. My poor baby was being crushed by my body, starved of oxygen, primed to expand their lungs but unable to do so. Eventually the midwife managed to free the shoulder and there was my daughter, wrenched out on to the bed, navy blue and seemingly lifeless, an image I will never forget. Silence roared around my ears. No crying, no breaths even.

At some point someone else must have entered the room. Resuscitation began and I waited, flattened by fear and panic, to hear her cry. She began to grunt, a sign, I later learned, of respiratory distress. The medical staff feared she had a chest infection, and she was taken to the special care baby unit (SCBU) – I didn’t get to touch or hold her and was given a Polaroid to look at instead. The paediatrician attempted to explain that her arm might be damaged. I was confused, I couldn’t understand what he was telling me, couldn’t understand the words. I felt as if I was at the end of a long tunnel where no one could reach me. I was in shock and the stitching had to be delayed as a result. I awoke hours later, still covered in blood, not sure, in her absence, if I had had the baby or not. I was wheeled to see her and found her dressed in borrowed clothes, in a plastic cot, pink now and sleeping.

I began a cycle of self-blame and hatred that, yet again, I had been unable to give birth “properly”. For years I believed that a shoulder dystocia could not be predicted and that again my body had failed me. I have since learned that there are predictors – and that I ticked many boxes. It didn’t have to happen, it could have been prevented. If only I had insisted on a C-section, perhaps things would have been different. But I now know that I probably would not have been granted one anyway. It was Shrewsbury’s failure, not mine.

I had a third baby. That baby was born in a different county after an initial meeting with the consultant at Shrewsbury where I was yet again belittled and my fears dismissed. I was once more refused a C-section. This time everything was different. My views and thoughts were listened to and I gave birth in a controlled and managed environment.

My daughter carries a lifelong anxiety that I have been told by one of the many psychologists, psychiatrists and other health professionals I have employed to help her over the years, could be related to the trauma and massive bolt of stress chemicals she was subjected to at birth. The legacy I carry myself, apart from the scars, is in a box inside my head. Mostly it remains untouched, but sometimes I revisit it. My box has a baby, a child and now an adult in it. Many families were left with an empty box, left with no baby to take home. I weep for those families and for myself but there is also rage, a deep, scorching rage, that so many baby deaths and injuries were preventable. We must all weep and rage to ensure that what happened at Shrewsbury is never allowed to happen again.


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