Another week, another tragedy

Feb 02

2024

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Helen Whitten

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Another week, another tragedy

When I was writing my novel, No Lemons in Moscow, it was in the midst of the tragic scandal of the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust’s record on maternity services.  I used the research to form one of the themes of the book as the protagonist, Kate, has lost a baby son due to lack of care during his birth. Last week we read of similar tragedies occurring in Gloucestershire NHS Trust.  Before that, in 2015, it was Morecombe Bay and the regulator was reported as saying that most maternity units were not “safe enough”.  How many more years will it be before real action is taken to protect mothers and babies?

I hear doctors talk of birth as a “natural process” as if they didn’t really have to think about it further, despite the fact that for centuries women and babies have died in this “natural process”.  In addition women with problems such as endometriosis or fibroids are fobbed off for years as their GPs don’t take the conditions seriously, yet these symptoms cause pain and prevent a woman enjoying quality of life.  I read this week that only 2% of the NHS budget is allocated to such problems but we are talking of our future generations at a period when our birth rate is falling, so isn’t it time to take more action?

But a death, whether a miscarriage, stillbirth, or a child who only lives for a short time, is something you never fully get over.  You adapt and get on with life, because that is what you have to do, but that child, or would-have-been child, stays with you for life. We lost our son of a cot death at nine weeks and thinking about him nearly 48 years later can still bring tears to my eyes. And it impacts the parents’ relationship too.  I weave into my novel the fact that men and women, fathers and mothers, may grieve differently and this may draw them together but can, also, push them apart. I have no statistics on same sex parenting, but the misunderstandings of response could still play its part in how they relate after death or disability.

So why can’t midwives, doctors, consultants, nurses and managers get their acts together in these NHS Trusts and work as a team to solve the problems? Can they not put aside their cultural differences, their power struggles, their defence systems, to put the lives of mother and baby first? For it isn’t always the child who dies. There have been too many cases of mothers dying too, which is a loss for their partner and may well deprive other children of a mother.

I believe I was fortunate in the maternity care I received in that I had an excellent consultant, though there was pressure from the NCT to have a natural childbirth, so I felt like a failure in some ways when I was rushed to the operating theatre for a Caesarean section. But my child was healthy so what matters more, the statistics of a natural birth for a hospital or a live baby?  We were encouraged to breastfeed but the nurse in the hospital where I had my first son was really bitchy when I found this difficult, despite the surgery inevitably making this more complicated.

I believe most women simply ask for compassionate and supportive competence.  They don’t want ideology. They don’t want a midwife who is loathe to refer the case up to a consultant and they don’t want a consultant who shrugs off the fact that a mother senses something is wrong. It is such a vulnerable time. You are absolutely dependent on those around you.  You don’t want a nurse to fob off the fact that you can’t hear a heartbeat by saying something like “the baby is probably sleeping”, which is a case I have heard.  You don’t want to be left alone unable to move, with no one coming to your aid. You want to feel held by your consultant, nurses, midwives and the system itself. Yet the admin of the NHS is appalling so notes get lost or previous history not passed on.

When our first son died my consultant decided he would take no risks and give me Caesareans for my next two sons.  I wasn’t “too posh to push” as the media seem to love to scream.  I just wanted a healthy baby, having obviously run into difficulty with my first, though the cot death was nothing to do with his birth.

In my novel I am able to write about such things and enable Kate to set up a charity in memory of her dead son.  I read this week that novelists can be egotists because by writing about things they can control them. So yes, in my novel, I am able to ensure that Kate’s charity is successful, that she creates a maternity home where women are treated with care and respect and competent medical treatment.  It is my dream, too, as I have watched the younger generation of mothers receive such poor care and lack of continuity that I have wished to make a fortune in order that I could leave behind me a maternity home such as the one I describe in my novel.  On paper I can do it, of course! And sure, that is a nice feeling, to bring my dream alive even if only in a book.

Surely now, after all these tragic cases, the consultants can pull together their teams to work together to make the changes necessary to put the safety and health of mothers and babies first?  Please?

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