This article was first published on 11 March and republished here following the government’s announcement of a €34 million redress scheme.
Warning: Some readers may be upset by the graphic nature of the descriptions.
THE SURVIVORS OF Symphysiotomy’s submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture makes for difficult reading.
Within the 50-page document, some of the 300 survivors recount their personal experiences of the childbirth operation which has been described as barbaric and cruel.
A symphysiotomy was a procedure carried out on pregnant women before, during or after birth in the place of a Caesarean Section. It involved breaking the patient’s pelvis and leaving it permanently enlarged.
The women, the majority of whom were in their early 20s and having their first child, have suffered chronic pain, incontinence, walking difficulties, sexual problems and other issues for their entire lives as a result.
One survivor described the experience of the chainsaw used to incise the pubic bone in pubiotomy (an even riskier but related surgery) as like being cut with broken glass.
Some of the methods used for symphysiotomy were more painful than others. Zarate’s method was preferred at the IMTH in Drogheda. A former master explained the technique:
The upper and anterior portions [of the symphysis] are severed together with with part of the arcuate ligament leaving the last fibres to be gently torn by the slow abduction [splaying] of the legs. By further abduction of the legs, the separation of the pubic bones, to the desired extent, is brought about.
Here are more of the survivors’ stories, in their own words.
“I just remember being brought into a theatre and the place was packed with people. I wasn’t told what was happening … I was screaming and being restrained. I couldn’t see much except for them sawing. It was excruciating pain, I was just 27 and I was butchered.”
De Valera said, ‘I’d like it [the baby] to come on naturally.’ I was almost a week at home, I was small, and the baby was getting bigger and bigger. I went in again – they induced me. ‘I normally do a Caesarean section,’ De Valera said, ‘but because you are such a good a Catholic, I’ll do a symphysiotomy, you’re a Catholic family, you’d be expected to have at least ten – if you have a Caesarean, you can only have three. And, as a Catholic, you need to go through the pains of childbirth – if you had a Caesarean, you wouldn’t. The baby is as big as yourself – why do small women marry big men? I’ll have to stretch your hips and straighten your pelvis. I’d no idea what a symphysiotomy was.’
“I was screaming. It’s not working, [the anaesthetic] I said, I can feel everything … I saw him go and take out a proper hacksaw, like a wood saw…a half-circle with a straight blade and a handle…The blood shot up to the ceiling, up onto his glasses, all over the nurses…
“Then he goes to the table, and gets something like a solder iron and puts it on me, and stopped the bleeding. …They told me to push her out, she must have been out before they burnt me. He put the two bones together, there was a burning pain, I knew I was going to die.”
They put a needle in my arm, to induce me, but it didn’t work … [Dr] Feeney came in … He took off his beige leather gloves ands coat – he was after being at Mass – and said, I’m going to do a little thing for you. The most I thought I could have was a [Caesarean] section … I woke up at 2.30.
‘Where’s the baby’, I said. ‘Your pelvis bone was split,’ the nurse said, ‘and you’re only going into strong labour.’
Feeney was very abrupt. ‘You can have ten children, all normal,’ he said. ‘Who wants ten children?’ I said. They did it without my permission. I was cut from the navel down. Feeney brought in a Canadian doctor to have a look at me. ‘Look how well she is doing,’ he said. ‘I’ve lost the use of my legs,’ I said.
“I worked for six years in Bewley’s before I got married, as a waitress. We got married in 1958. We were lucky, we got a corporation house for newly-weds. I worked for the Medical Missionaries of Mary. They were wonderful.
“It was 1961. I suggested going to the Rotunda myself. I was a public patient. One Friday morning, I got pains. My husband came into hospital with me. I was in an ordinary bed for two days, nothing was happening. Saturday and Sunday, I had the odd pain, no more, they weren’t strong. I was due the next day, then they got anxious.
“On Sunday night, they told me I’d be going down the next morning, they brought me for a shower. On Monday, they brought me down to the labour ward, then they brought me to the operating theatre, I thought I was going to have the baby. I was put out, I nearly suffocated with what they gave me, it was sickening. When I woke up, I asked the nurse, ‘Is the baby alright?’ ‘You didn’t have it yet,’ the nurse said, ‘You’ve had your pelvis broken.’
“Shocked, I was. ‘The baby will be born soon,’ she said.
“That night, after the operation, I started [in labour]. Pat [my husband] had to leave. The labour ward was cold, miserable, out of this world, there were tiles on the floor. I was left so long on the labour ward, I was dying, it was freezing cold there, I’ll never forget it.
“The next morning, at twelve, they said you need to go up to the operating theatre. They rushed me to the theatre, they didn’t speak to me, I don’t know who did it. They broke the bone on Monday, and on Tuesday, at twelve, I had a [Caesarean] section.
I came back to the ward. They left me flat, I was so sore, Jesus, they left me in a bad way. When Pat and his friend came in, there was roaring, I was in awful pain – you couldn’t move your head. I was very bad after the first [operation], after the second, it was impossible.
“I don’t know how long I was in [hospital] for, I was knocked out, out of this world. The smell of it, the anesthetic, I couldn’t breathe. It was a miracle I was alive. I was left so long in labour, I’d have been alright if they did a [Caesarean] section [in the beginning], it wouldn’t have been so bad. They took an awful chance on people’s lives, didn’t they?
“I’d like them to go through it, to see how it felt. I didn’t want to live, I was in a week or a fortnight, I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know what day it was. No, they put nothing on my hips. I didn’t know what nightdress I had, or what I had [a boy or a girl]. There were two patients. Pat came in to see me. ‘”Are you alright?’ he said.
“They were worried about me. The nurses would leave you out on a chair, they’d wash your face. I was so ill I didn’t know what they were doing to me.
“She never stopped crying in there, she was left too long [in labour]. Her hair was orange or ginger, I didn’t know what colour it was. I wondered was [the labour] gone so far that the blood had gone to her head. It was a rose colour, she had it until she was two years of age.
“The nieces were in the house when I came home, Pat had the baby. I was freezing. ‘Get a [hot water] jar,’ I said, ‘I want to lie down.’
“I wasn’t able to talk to them, I was sick and sore. I came home on a Sunday, and collapsed the following Tuesday, on the floor, at home. Pat was at work, the baby was crying. Only for a neighbour heard her. I fell asleep, I couldn’t waken up, the ambulance came, they rushed me back to the hospital. They kept me in a couple of weeks, they fed me with mince on a spoon. I lost my appetite, I didn’t feel like eating.
“No, they never sent out anyone to me, the public health nurse never came near me. I thought it was a bit queer, not to give you a chance to pull yourself together. It took me a long time to get back into myself, it was the end of my good days. ‘Was my child going to be affected?’ I asked myself. She was a very cross child.
“My back started to fall down. I couldn’t balance, I couldn’t straighten. My back was very bad, the pelvis bone never goes back. It stopped everything, I was in awful pain.
“The child was crying all the time, my sister took her away. I wouldn’t trust him [Pat] with her, he wouldn’t know what to do. She put her on the sideboard, in a carry cot, and put her son, John, in the pram. She minded her for a long time. I used to sleep on the couch, wrapped in blankets, with a hot water bottle. I couldn’t go up the stairs, no. After a couple of months, Anne brought back the baby.
“It was my first baby, yes, and my last. It scared me stiff, I was scared stiff, I couldn’t go through it again, it was the last thought in my head, to have another child.
“I can’t straighten up my back, I’d like to, but I can’t. I got rheumatoid arthritis. It came on seven or eight years ago. There was a part of my body gone.
I leave the light on all night, my nerves were gone since then [the operations], I was afraid of everything, it was very frightening, from beginning to end. I never visualised anything like it, I was in a shocking state, everything was in a blur.
“They never pointed out to me why they done it. I couldn’t move with the pain, they shouldn’t have done it. No one said anything, I didn’t know I had a pelvis bone. It was very, very, very severe. I couldn’t turn, that part of my body was gone. I had a cross on the stomach [one cut down, the other across]. Why didn’t I have a section in the first place? I can’t understand it. I can still feel the cold of that labour ward today.
“They didn’t say anything about the pelvis, they didn’t say anything about the pelvis bone. They left me with half a back.”
All the baby clothes, the ones my grandmother had bought, we had to throw out. Chris had to make the coffin and bury the baby himself, she was buried under a tree. We had no money. I couldn’t walk. Where is she buried? I asked him, years later.
“My feet were tied up in stirrups for the symphysiotomy, I had gas and air. I must have fainted off, the nurse came with a bowl of water and a facecloth, and splashed water all over my face. These are the things you remember. I hated it, it was not nice, I still don’t like it [splashing water on my face]. I was in terrible distress. What he did to me––you have no power, when your legs are caught up like that.
There was one person who was holding my hand, a junior doctor in training, yes, he was the only one who showed me kindness, and the nurse who threw the water on me.
“It was so clinical. They knew she was big, that she was breech, he [Dr Connolly] should have done a Caesarean section. There was no discussion, she was too far down [the birth canal]. That’s where she must have got her damage.
“Things followed on from each other. She was taken away and put into an incubator, into special care. Three days after, the nurse said, ‘Get out of bed.’ ‘I can’t,’ I said, ‘I’m supposed to stay in bed.’ ‘Do you think you’re in a hotel,’ she said. She literally threw me out, took a look at me, then threw me back in. If I’d stood up, I might never have never walked again.
“How was I? Sore and sick and crying all the time. I only had the catheder in for a few days. I had to, I couldn’t get out of bed,
“They made me learn to walk up and down the stairs, up and down. When he sawed my bone or whatever he did, I didn’t realise what was happening, I was given no advice. I thought I’d never get out of the hospital – I was in there for 13 days. She was a big girl, she was 9 pounds, I was very slight.
“I went home to my mother. I was in agony. I was walking, hobbling, you’d call it. My sister had to come over and look after the baby, I got a good bit of help. My brothers helped, too. I don’t know how I managed, I spent two months in my mother’s house. Then I got back into myself.
…I was nervous over the years, always conscious of the need not to break that bone again. My sister said to take cod liver oil, so I took that until I got sick of it, then I took evening primrose oil, I still take it. If I didn’t take it, I’d know about it, it’s small things like that that matter.
“I swore by baths and water, I’d hop into the shower, it gives you a bit of relief. I didn’t realise it [symphysiotomy] would cause so much trouble and pain. Your own relationship with your husband was at risk…running to the toilet all the time. I was always determined never to let it take over my life. I wasn’t going to let it destroy my life.
“Yes, in the majority of cases, it did destroy their lives. I have every kind of an insole, reflexology, heel insoles, you name it, I have it. I had physio, my ankle was so bad, so I thought maybe I’d get physio, it was very sore. I would do anything to try and help myself. I try not to put on weight. I have a medical card, but I pay for the incontinence pads myself …
You don’t take a block out from the bottom of the house, because there’s going to be cracking. The pelvis is the same, it’s the foundation of the house.
“I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I knew it was wrong. My GP [general practitioner] knew it was wrong. It happened in 1957, on 1 September. I was about 31. I’d have been fine if they’d sectioned me. My pelvis was disproportioned. ‘Your pelvis would never deliver a child,’ the doctor said.
“He sent me away to the hospital when I was three months pregnant, into [St] Finbarr’s. I saw [Dr] Sutton, but he never said anything.
The sister tutor had written ‘query section?’ on my notes. ‘Over my dead body,’ said Sutton.
“I was in strong, violent pain when I went in, overdue by a week and a couple of days, maybe. The head never engaged at any stage, I was in very strong labour, stupid with all that gas and air. After three days – I heard this myself – I heard the gynae sister say, ‘Is that woman still in labour? Get onto Dr Sutton at once, and say to him, come please, or else we we’ll lose a mother and child here.’
“And Sutton said, ‘What do you want? She’ll bloody well deliver herself like any other woman.’
“The sister tutor said to Sutton, get down here – he came then. I was weak, in an awful state and he was the cause of it. He didn’t talk to me, he was surly…I was put out, yes [for the operation]. He was six pounds eleven ounces.
“The next day they heard the roaring and screaming. They didn’t tell me what they were doing, I thought I had paralysis, I couldn’t move my legs up or down, I was so sore I couldn’t move. I couldn’t hold him [the child]: they kept him in [hospital] three months. I was in six weeks, my legs were as dead as dead could be. I asked what was wrong, nobody told me. It was a case of shut up – you felt you were up against a brick wall. He [Sutton] didn’t come to my bedside. I was too paralysed to walk.
After the second week, they put me walking on a corridor, I fainted with the pain, it was like walking on thorns, the pain and the soreness. I got no help, no, no help whatsoever from them [in hospital]….
“[At home], the wound was discharging; there was a terrible smell. I dosed it with Dettol. There was no nurse [to look after me]. I remember, it was the winter, the pain in my back [was so bad], it would be fine thing to be dead, I thought. The doctor came in, turned the key in the [front] door like they did then. ‘My God, my love, I’m so sorry,’ he said, ‘You’ve suffered so much. It didn’t work out for us, things didn’t go right for you, it never crossed my mind that that would be done to you. Take little strolls, little ones.’
“I took a stroll down town, but I couldn’t keep going, I got locked in, I couldn’t move, it was the soreness of the bones. A woman on the other side of the road asked me to come over and have a cup of tea, but I couldn’t cross the road.
“They thought I was going to die, I was so white. There was no binding of the pelvis, no, I was shuffling for six months. Once, I went up the stairs, but I couldn’t keep going, and I couldn’t come down, I was jammed in the middle, frozen to death. My husband came home to find me shaking. Arthritis set in straight after [the surgery].
“My sister got married and I couldn’t go to the wedding. It was like I was walking on springs, like this [showing two separate, unconnected springs, one going up as the other came down, with her hands]. I had this dragging down pain in my back, the pain was in the spine, at the bottom of the spine. They treated it [the arthritis] with tablets, I got over it.
“The pain eased off, it was bad the first year. I had a friend who came in to help me with the baby, I couldn’t get up the steps, my pelvis stayed [making a rocking motion with her hands from side to side]. It was very hard to keep your balance, I could write a book about it, it was so sore and painful. I was never right after it. It took the wind out of my sails.
“Everything was thrown to one side, the doctor said. I couldn’t enjoy myself, I couldn’t go out, I was walking on thorns. If I landed on my back, my children would have to pull me up. I couldn’t sit up [by myself]. I had a bad prolapse of the womb after. I had to have a total hysterectomy, my bladder, everything, all gone.
“He [my husband] was a cross man. ‘You’re only half a woman,’ he said, after the hysterectomy. What kind of a thing was that to say to me? He made out that I wanted it [the hysterectomy]. I couldn’t take it any more, I came down here.
“The doctors were gods, absolutely, in their own minds they were. Who knows the child better than the mother? The child’s doctor would say, ‘Did you ever hear any mother saying anything right? They haven’t the brains.’ Or some woman might know her [due] dates, and the doctor would say: ‘She doesn’t know anything, she’s too stupid.’ They won’t say that now, women won’t take it.
“Stiffness now is what I have. I wear a [pelvic] belt, but I can’t wear it all day. I am completely incontinent today. I was called to the Regional [Hospital] a couple of years ago to see a gynae. There was supposed to be a special [medical] card [for survivors of symphysiotomy ] but that never came … I have a home help, yes, one hour a day, five days a week. I know her very well, she is very kind. If I went down to clean out the fire, I couldn’t get up, so she has the fire set.
“I have no [hospital] notes. [Dr] Kearney didn’t believe me [when I told him what they did to me], so he sent away for my notes. ‘I didn’t get your notes,’ he said, ‘they said they never had a patient of that name that year.’ It was my word against theirs. All I have from there is the baptism certificate of the child [stating where she was born].
“I never got my note, it was a trick of the trade, wasn’t it? Making a confounded liar of a person.
…I was reared in the country on a farm, we had calving cattle. The vets were so nice to the animals [in labour], they would talk to them, and encourage them, and [rubbing the flank of an imaginary animal with her hands] stroke them. The doctors were so horrible to a human being. There was no way a vet would put an animal through what we went through.
“My mother had six children, all at home. She had her own private nurse for a week after [calling to the house]. She had the doctor as well, for no reason, she didn’t need him. My mother had a great time in those days, long ago…Her daughters never had it as good.”
First published 1.45pm