"I was petrified and wanted a hand to hold:" Irish women call for the ease of maternity restrictions
"The cure can’t be worse than the disease.”
Emma Carroll became a mother in the middle of lockdown.
At the height of Ireland's Covid-19 restrictions she, like countless others, dealt with the measures imposed in the country's already overstretched maternity hospitals.
Almost six months on and she is yet to receive her six-week postpartum checkup. "Despite tearing and having a postpartum haemorrhage, I still haven’t been checked," she tells Her. "I can only presume I'm okay."
Earlier this month, Emma and fellow new mother Ciara McGuane set up the In Our Shoes Instagram page, an account designed to share some stories from those who have used the country's maternity services since the beginning of the pandemic.
Having given birth in the middle of lockdown, both women experienced first hand the restrictions imposed across the wards. They've also watched as very little has changed since.
"When I was on the ward, there were two other women there and there was no camaraderie," says Emma. "People were afraid. The curtains stayed drawn and I didn’t speak to anyone.
"One woman had an emergency C-section and she spent the entire night on the phone to her partner, panicking. There’s no way the hospitals can’t understand the effect this is having."
Currently, restrictions in Irish maternity wards are location specific. While some hospitals allow partners unlimited visits to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, others only permit them to be present during active labour.
Where some women have received tremendous post-birth care, others are struggling to get a GP appointment. While some have endured traumatic birth experiences and been afforded some time with their partners afterwards, others have been left alone.
"These are public funded institutions providing public care to tax payers and there needs to be accountability," says Emma. "It’s just not good enough.
"It’s such a vulnerable time for a lot of women and the stories we’ve been hearing have been harrowing."
Since setting up the page, Emma and Ciara have received an abundance of stories from mothers, many of whom spent the majority of their first hours as a new parent entirely alone.
Some women experienced hours of excruciating labour, emergency C-sections, and bad news about their pregnancies. Others simply needed a familiar face by their side.
"I ended up with an emergency C-section after a good few sleepless days of no labour progression and a few nights of my partner sleeping in the car in the car park," reads one account.
"The midwives were amazing and tried to comfort me but at the end of the day they are strangers," reads another. "I trusted everything they told me but I still needed a familiar face to reassure me."
Another reads: "I was petrified and wanted a hand to hold."
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I'd like to share my covid experience. I gave birth in April in the height of the pandemic. I was awake all night in pain by the morning contractions started so myself and my husband headed to the hospital. I was lucky I was in established labour so he was able to come straight to the labour ward with me. I laboured for 12 hours in the hospital, had 2 epidurals and ended with an emergency c section. The midwives with us that day were amazing through it all. It was after the birth that has left me scarred. I was physically and emotionally drained,I felt empty. After watching his wife go through hours of pain and have major surgery my husband only got 20 minutes with me and our son in recovery. I barely remember much from that night but I remember the feeling as he was shown the door and we were wheeled to the ward. The next 5 days were my lowest ever. I was left with my first baby feeling alone and scared. Getting in and out of bed to tend to him was a struggle, it was day 3 before I even got a shower as I didn't have anyone to look after my little boy. We ended up being kept in 5 days. I was really trying to hold it together but when I was told each day that we would be another day I would wait until I was left and cry and cry. Calls and texts from family and friends I would let on everything was great, what was the point worrying people, they couldn't come help me anyway. I spoke to my husband about how I was feeling but a phone call just isn't the same. All I needed was to see him and hug him, I know it would have been a very different experience then. I will never forget walking out the door of the ward and physically melting into my husbands arms sobbing just get me home. Women are not meant to do this alone, it's not natural. At our most vulnerable we are being left to fend for ourselves. Partners are being denied crucial bonding time with their babies. I look back now and it's like it happened someone else, I have it shoved away in my mind like a bad dream. I worry if I get pregnant again how the memories will effect me. I really hope restrictions can be lifted soon. Thank you for sharing these stories.
Some women recall struggling to remain calm without the comfort of their loved one beside them.
"My partner watched as I tried to drag my suitcase with my waters leaking down my legs into the hospital," reads one account.
Another says: "He parked across the road, I could see him from my bedroom window, he flashed his head lights to let me know he was there (...) I rang my mother, my sister, my friend. I didn't speak, they just listened to me as I laboured through the contractions."
In recent weeks, the issue of maternity ward restrictions has gained more traction. A petition set up to ease restrictions has been signed by almost 40,000 people. TD Holly Cairns has told stories of women left alone on wards for days.
Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu has vowed to deliver over 700 emails from pregnant women and new mothers to hospital masters in a bid to review the restrictions currently in place. "Lots of positive and lots of heartbreak," she wrote on Twitter.
Over 700 emails from those who were pregnant or currently pregnant in covid. Lots of positive & lots of heartbreak. Thanks for sharing. They will be delivered (except those that didn't want to be named) to the masters of the maternity hospitals with my ask to review restrictions. pic.twitter.com/7BVZYxg3Or
— Hazel Chu (@hazechu) September 9, 2020
Earlier this month, Minister of State for Health Mary Butler told the Dáil that there could not be a one-size-fits-all approach to Ireland's maternity hospitals. Rather, she said the problem needs to be localised to reduce footfall, and to protect new mothers and their babies from Covid-19.
“This has been achieved in part by the introduction of visitor restrictions," she said. “These restrictions are reviewed on a frequent basis and will be lifted as soon as hospitals believe it is safe to do so."
Elsewhere, National Maternity Hospital Master Professor Shane Higgins said that hospital staff won't be forced into "knee-jerk reactions" regarding maternity restrictions.
“That is not in the best interest of anyone," he said. "We have a lot of staff, patients and new-born babies and we will do it as best we can.”
Emma says that she and Ciara are aware that each hospital is different. "There are different needs and reasons for doing things," she says, "but a unified scale of response is needed.
“The hospitals are saying they’ve been fortunate to keep Covid out, but pregnancy isn’t an illness. Pregnant women haven’t been deemed high risk. The cure can’t be worse than the disease.”
Emma and Ciara recognise the pressure that healthcare professionals and individual facilities are under. They are also aware, however, of the movement that other areas of care, hospitality, and culture have seen since the initial nationwide easing of restrictions earlier this summer.
"It's crazy that pubs can open but these women still can't get the support they need," says Emma.
“Our main intent is to give a voice to women. This is all still so raw, but when you’re reading their experiences in their own words, it’s hard not to take notice."