This is the story of Verlie, a truly inspirational mum who wanted to share her story about her very powerful experience of birth trauma, her babies time in NICU and the way it impacted her life and that of her husband.
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The birth of my son Dexter wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t joyful, it wasn’t an exciting moment I will remember for the rest of my life, it was brutal and it has tortured me for nearly 4 years and it probably will for many more.
When I was pregnant with my son I planned a vaginal birth in a private hospital, with a private Obstetrician. My husband and I are from the UK where women go into a public hospital to give birth with Midwives or they have a homebirth. Obstetricians are generally on hand for emergencies or high risk cases, not for normal pregnancy, so obstetric care felt like we were receiving the absolute gold standard, that’s what our GP and our friends lead us to believe. Our OB was lovely, mild mannered but direct which I liked. I explained that I wanted a vaginal birth unless a life or death situation occurred, the thought of laying awake and being cut open to me was horrifying, we also don’t have any family here in Australia and no one was planning to come over when the baby was born, so recovering from a Caesarean for an extended period of time wasn’t optimal when my husband would only have a couple of weeks off work before flying back out to work.
My pregnancy was pretty uncomplicated for the most part. I was having quite severe pelvic pain but in my mind 9 months was a relatively short time in the grand scheme of things, so I got about on crutches and went to Hydrotherapy and I tried not to complain.
At 33 weeks my blood pressure increased slightly and there was a small amount of protein in my urine, my OB instructed us to pack bags and head to hospital for monitoring. Once I was there I was told I didn’t need to be in bed, so we went to lunch and out for walks during the few days I was in. I was placed on some BP meds, given steroid shots to mature my babies’ lungs just in case and discharged a few days later. My OB was going on holiday, I was asked to go for a scan and then see his stand-in on the Friday when I was 34 +6. I hobbled in to meet the Obstetrician with my scan notes; they showed a happy healthy baby, good cord and placenta function. The OB took my blood pressure which was normal, urine was fine, he then told me to lay down so he could examine me internally (no idea why I didn’t think to ask why) then he sat me up and took my pulse………my pulse was racing. That’s not surprising really as I had just been lying down on my back, just shy of 35 weeks pregnant with an unknown Drs hands in my vagina. From this information he decided that I needed to go back into hospital for monitoring. If I’m honest, I thought a day in bed would do me good and I would be back home packing boxes the following day. What I should have done is pinged his stupid bloody bow tie and gone home for a cup of tea.
I rang my husband, I told him not to come home as I was sure it was all a fuss over nothing. I checked into hotel hospital and did as I was told, I urinated when I was asked, had bloods taken, had a monitor strapped on me countless times, had my blood pressure taken with the wrong size cuff too many times to count and immediately wished I was at home as this all seemed very over the top for a racing pulse which was totally normal now I was not being examined unnecessarily.
The door flung open and a gentleman who introduced himself as a Professor asked to check me over, I rolled my eyes. He asked me a few questions and explained that I had a little bit of Hypertension and that I should remain in hospital for monitoring to ensure that this wasn’t the start of Pre eclampsia. As far as I could tell this was no different to when I was admitted previously, or was it? Not 2 minutes after the Professor left, the bow tie wearing OB announced that he had booked me in for a Caesarean delivery the following day. On my notes it is written ‘Dr XYZ has decided to deliver her tomorrow’. I was stunned. What had I got myself into? Through tears I explained that he couldn’t do this as my husband was away and there weren’t any flights until after the weekend, I couldn’t do this on my own, I didn’t want to. The OB dismissed my concerns and said that if my husband missed the birth the memory would fade, what an arsehole. Who was he to determine the feelings and impact missing the birth of a child would have on a father? He said, the baby was a good gestation, we would probably be in Special Care for a few days and then we would be home. That moment is etched in my brain for eternity. That moment and the moments after is when I lost a part of myself, he took away any ownership that I had about my body and my baby, he showed complete and utter disrespect for me as a woman and as a mother, he showed total disregard for my feelings or those of my husband. That OB did not give me any options, he treated me like a child and sitting in a hospital bed in a gown I felt like one. He told me that everything had been booked and that I would be letting a lot of people down and putting lives at risk if I didn’t go through with it. I didn’t believe that this was happening because lives were in danger, if we were in danger why were they waiting almost 24 hours to go to theatre? I felt as though I didn’t have a choice, I didn’t have any way of finding out if what he was saying was true. He walked out leaving me sobbing.
“I didn’t feel like I deserved to be Dexters mother.”
It was almost 5pm when I called my husband; he lost his temper with me, understandable really. I sobbed for hours. I tried to work out how I could leave, I felt like I couldn’t. I had no one to help me, no one to phone. In the end I begged a Midwife to make it stop but she said she couldn’t, she gave me a sleeping pill.
My husbands boss had paid for a flight and driven him 150km to the next airport to get him back to Perth. When he arrived I was prepped and petrified but happy that he was here with me. I had what I assume was a panic attack as they got me into the anesthetic area, staff were piling warm blankets over me, my heart rate was through the roof and I couldn’t understand what was going on. Once in theatre I was still panicking and asking for it stop, I could feel the tears running down the sides of my face. There was no pain but I felt the clamps go into my stomach and being pulled open, I would describe a caesarean like being Mary Poppins handbag with people rummaging around. Finally our baby was born; I don’t remember his face I just remember as they lifted him away a few seconds later we asked what the gender, so Dexter was here.
Mark went over to be with him and I was alone again. Everyone was talking and tugging, I could see a tiny arm and a leg and then he was gone. Mark came over to tell me that Dexter wasn’t breathing very well and needed to go to the nursery, he also had a birth defect which required surgery and would be going to the Children’s Hospital that day. I didn’t know what to say, I had barely even seen my son and now I wouldn’t see him at all, I was scared for him and for us.
Once I was back in my room Mark came in with a photo of Dexter wearing a CPAP hat, I couldn’t really make out his face. The NETS ambulance arrived and Dexter was wheeled into my room in a huge portable NICU crib, there were monitors, drugs and wires everywhere. I asked if I could hold him but I couldn’t, I touched his hand and he was gone, Mark went with him. I was numb. I couldn’t believe that this was happening, I was pregnant a couple of hours ago and now my belly was empty and so was I. My baby was being taken to another hospital for tests and surgery and I couldn’t be with him because I had had major surgery that I wasn’t sure I actually needed. The OB came in, he made a comment about cutting Dexters face with forceps and how it was unfortunate that he had needed to go to the Children’s Hospital. I didn’t talk to him, I think that was the last time I saw him. Coward.
Dexter made it through his first surgery to have a stoma; Mark took me to see him the next day in a drug induced haze. I had managed to hand express a tiny amount of colostrum it was all I could do for him. We couldn’t hold him, we just had to watch and wait whilst they did tests. The pain meds were making my eyes roll into my head, I felt terrible both physically and mentally.
Back at my hospital that night the phone rang, Dexter had suffered a severe pulmonary episode and he had been ventilated, I was asked to give my consent retrospectively which I did and we were asked to go to the hospital urgently. I called for a Midwife and explained I needed to leave; no one was available to help me change as they were busy on the ward with women and their newborns. Dexter was suffering from a severe condition called Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn. In short his blood hadn’t commenced normal circulation like it usually does at birth and his blood flow was still that of a baby in utero, his organs weren’t receiving oxygenated blood and it would be 72 hours before we knew if he would survive. The only part of his body that was moving was his chest which was vibrating at hundreds of breaths per minute by the High Frequency Oscillating Ventilator (HFOV) for the Nitric Oxide gas to do its work. There were tubes coming out of his arms, mouth and umbilical site and there were banks of drugs lined up next to him. We weren’t allowed to touch him. The risk for PPHN in general is 1-2 per 1000 births. The risk among infants who are delivered late term (34-37 weeks) by caesarean section is 1 per 100 births. This was my fault. I hadn’t made myself clear to that OB that I didn’t feel the Caesarean was necessary, I had cried when I should have questioned, I crumbled when I should have fought, I should have demanded more of an explanation but really, it should have been offered to me with evidence to support it.
There aren’t any words to explain what it is like to not know if your newborn baby is going to survive, you just put one foot in front of the other and breathe in and out because that is all you can do. It was 9 long days before we were finally able to hold Dexter, 9 days before we saw him open his eyes and 9 days before I heard him cry. It wasn’t until he was 12 days old that we actually saw his face properly for the first time where he just had a nasal gastric tube and nothing else, he was so handsome.
So forgive me if I am not grateful for the caesarean birth of my son. I do care how he was born, I do care about my experience because it had a profound affect on my son and on me. Next month my incredibly fierce little man Dexter turns 4. This time 3 years ago I was a shell of the woman I used to be. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be Dexters mother or anyones mother, I didn’t deserve that title. Dexter deserved better, Mark deserved better. I was barely functioning, constantly cloaked in a thick dark fog, constantly interrupted by flashbacks and dreams.
I eventually sought help from a Psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PTSD and general anxiety, she prescribed me an array of drugs and set me up with a Psychologist. Sometimes I would hide behind Dexters pram in the shops when it all got too much and panic set in, I would sob to my husband down the phone because I didn’t know what to do, he would talk me out of my frozen state and I would go home empty handed once again. Scenes like this happened often, I didn’t know who I was.
When I was strong enough I went through my medical notes and I made a complaint, several actually. Unfortunately AHPRA didn’t care that I had been coerced into a caesarean unnecessarily, or that my BP, bloods and other monitoring results were unremarkable in comparison to those taken when I was admitted previously. They didn’t care that it is written in black and white that the decision to operate had been made for me and that the Professor hadn’t seen any immediate threat to life. When I crumbled again reading their short, shitty, condescending reply I knew I was fighting a losing a battle. I knew that I was right though. I knew that what had happened was wrong and I had made a horrible mistake and there would never be an apology, none of my questions would ever be answered, I would just have to learn to live with this raging hate for that OB for the rest of my life.
You can read the rest of Verlie and Mark’s story and how they went on to have a wonderful home birth here.