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'Held down, lied to, and told to be quiet': Readers' stories of giving birth in Irish hospitals

Alleged medical negligence, understaffing and a lack of empathy were recurring themes in the stories shared.

“HELD DOWN”, “TOLD to be quiet”, and “lied to” about their care.

These are not the experiences of women in 1950s Ireland, but accounts of recent births in modern hospitals across the country.

In dozens of lengthy emails to The Journal, mothers told of the trauma they endured during and after labour and delivery. 

Several said they will never return to certain hospitals, or said they’ve lost faith in the HSE altogether.

The Journal asked women to share their experiences following an inquiry into birth trauma in the UK, and calls for the same here.

A 2020 survey of people who gave birth in Irish hospitals found that 52% had a very good experience, while 33% had a good experience. Some 15% of those surveyed rated their overall experience as fair to poor.

Respondents reported problems with their care immediately after giving birth, such as not being involved in decisions, not being supported emotionally, and insufficient information about mental health services.

From accounts shared with The Journal, many of the same problems still persist.

Alleged medical negligence, understaffing and a lack of empathy were recurring themes in the stories shared.

There were also multiple accounts of women not being asked for consent before invasive procedures.

No consent

Laura said that she will be “forever haunted” by her experience.

When she was in labour at 32 weeks, she was told she needed to go for a c-section and that her husband would join her in theatre soon.

“When alone, they tried to insert a catheter while I was in the middle of a contraction. I begged them to wait until the contraction was over but they wouldn’t.

They just held down my legs and shoved it in, while I screamed in agony.

“Then they put a mask over my face and told me to count down. I pulled the mask off and asked if I was being put under general anaesthetic. They had never once informed me of this or asked consent.

“I woke in a dark room alone and had to cry out for a nurse to ask if my babies were okay. After an agonising wait, she returned and told me that they were okay, but that I couldn’t see them.”

Laura says she was put in a ward with other mothers and their babies, but she could not see her own for 12 hours.

“I have attended birth trauma therapy but I’ll be forever haunted by the horrific memories of what was done to me.

“I have lost all faith in the health service.”

Now pregnant again, Laura says she’s paid over €7,000 for a private midwife, to avoid dealing with the HSE.

Getting treated with care and respect in pregnancy and birth should not be such an expensive privilege, but a right afforded to all women.

“It costs nothing to listen to us and respect our humanity and autonomy.”

Linda said a cervical sweep was done without her consent, and the doctor was “rough”, leaving her in pain and bleeding.

Another reader said staff at the hospital she attended were “stuck in the old school Catholic mindset”. 

She said the midwife was “aggressive, mean and impatient”.

She refused to allow me to get pain relief as it ‘wouldn’t be fair to other women who don’t have it’.

“She attempted to do a cervical dilation check mid-contraction. I was in such pain I screamed for her not to and she left her fingers in my vagina in a way that left me feeling completely violated.

“She rolled her eyes at me and sighed loudly while I screamed in pain, and only informed the anaesthetist to give me the epidural when I was fully dilated, so I gave birth without pain relief against my wishes.

“I would never go back and I always worry about other women who experienced the same attitudes. We still have a very long way to go in this country to support women.”

  • Read Noteworthy‘s investigation into maternity care and choice here.

‘The worst experience of my life’

One mother said her labour and delivery was the worst experience of her life due to medical mistakes and staff attitudes.

“During the birth, the baby was facing the wrong way, which meant I would have a difficult, nearly impossible birth, but the doctor didn’t come back from a dinner date in time for me to have a c-section so I was forced to give birth by forceps.

“I had an epidural that only worked in the bottom of my legs. The needle hit spinal fluid. I had to lie flat on my back for two days so I wouldn’t have air rushing to my brain.”

She said she lost a lot of blood and her baby almost died.

“I had no follow up support, only nurses making me feel shame for not persevering with breastfeeding, with them knowing we had both nearly died.”

Scared and alone

Jennifer said she feels women are “treated very poorly” in Irish hospitals.

She had a c-section, immediately after which her baby was taken away, against her wishes. This was a recurring complaint among the women who wrote to The Journal.

“[The baby] was given to my husband and brought outside while they worked on me.

“I’ll always remember someone saying: ‘She’s bleeding but I can’t see where from.’

I was absolutely terrified I’d die and never see my baby.

Jennifer said she never found out what happened to her or why her baby was taken away.

“I was brought through to a recovery room and just remembered a midwife being beside me checking me, but I just wanted my baby.

“I was shaking all over and nauseous. It was absolutely horrible.

It could have been so much better if things were explained to me.

Jennifer added that the midwives are “heroes without a cape”.

Caroline suffered from PTSD and postnatal depression after her labour and delivery experience, which she says has deterred her from having any more children.

After giving birth, she hemorrhaged and lost around half of her blood “within minutes”.

“My husband was ushered into a theatre room with our daughter who was just wrapped in a towel and was told nothing,” she said.

“I passed out from the loss of blood, woke up four hours later and went into shock.

“When I asked what happened, all they told me was these things can happen and I was just ‘vascular’. They have never told me the truth.”

Caroline was in hospital for seven days afterwards, where she says she got more than 30 stitches in her cervix and received a number of blood transfusions.

I had one doctor tell me that I should have planned my child. She was very much planned.

“I was offered no help or answers, and I certainly was not listened to by staff in the hospital. I still suffer with trauma.”

Treated like a child

One woman said that she required stitches after having her first baby and wasn’t listened to when she described the pain.

“I could feel every single stitch. The doctor wouldn’t believe me and told me to suck on some gas.

It was horrendous. I was lying there, legs in stirrups, feeling that needle pierce me over and over.

Another reader said she was treated like a child when in labour with her first baby, “left screaming and told to be quiet”.

“I thought that experience couldn’t get worse and moved to [a different hospital] for my second, where they quite literally nearly killed me.”

After having a c-section for her second child, she went home but soon experienced chest pain and difficulty breathing.

“I was told I was just anxious. I returned two days later coughing up blood. I was told my respiratory bloods were showing viral infection and to go home with prescribed anxiety medication.”

She says she collapsed the next day and was brought by ambulance to a hospital before being transferred to a Coronary Care Unit.

“My lungs were filled with fluid. I was in heart failure and diagnosed with often fatal peri-partum cardiomyopathy.

Now on medication for the rest of her life, she blames “negligence” for the progression of her illness.

“All because they said I was just anxious.”

Overcrowding and understaffing

Readers say overcrowding and understaffing contributed to negative experiences and poor care.

Claire said she was denied an epidural for hours as it could only be administered in the delivery ward, which had no spaces available at that time.

Due to complications, she had an episiotomy.

She said she was in hospital for four days and “could barely walk”, but was then sent home and “told to take paracetamol”.

“I ended up back in a few days later as I got an infection and I couldn’t stand up or walk.

“I stood bent over against a wall for three hours outside the ER until a nurse finally felt sorry for me and let me lie on a bed.

“It was horrific. I was sent home with an antibiotic.”

Claire sought counselling after the experience.

People say you forget soon after, but I’ll never forget.

Another reader told us that overcrowding in the hospital she attended made her feel like she “was in a cattle mart rather than a healthcare facility”.

“When my waters broke the day before my due date, there were no available beds in the labour ward, forcing me to labour on a trolley without pain relief or monitoring.”

The same woman experienced a miscarriage earlier this year, and said her care only added to her distress.

“Following a private scan that revealed my baby’s death, I was left waiting for two weeks before [the hospital] could perform a dilation and curettage, adding to the emotional and physical strain during an already difficult time.”

Dozens of mothers reported a lack of mental health supports after their traumatic experiences.

One reader, who had previously struggled with postnatal depression, said: “I felt alone and not listened to.

“They said that I was just low because I had only given birth and to just wait.

“I am now finally getting help after nearly 2.5 years of demands from my doctor, but the HSE clearly don’t think my case was bad enough.”

Rob described his wife’s traumatic birth experience, from which she developed PTSD.

“She was not offered any mental health support by the hospital,” he said.

“Maternity care for women in Ireland is a disgrace and not to modern standards. There is no follow up for women after childbirth.”

Several mothers told us that even when they asked for support or referrals to counselling, they did not get a response.

The HSE offers a birth reflection service, but many mothers reported not being told about it. Some of those who sought appointments had to wait months, and many found the experience lacking, as they felt their concerns were dismissed.

Many women who wrote to The Journal said they will never have a child again for fear of having another traumatic experience.

There were also some positive experiences shared, mainly commending the care provided by hospital staff who were described as being “run off their feet”.

The HSE previously said  that “the quality and safety of the maternity services is of utmost importance” and that it wants to ensure the safety of all women and babies. 

“Listening to women about their experience in the care they receive is really important.”

It also said it will conduct another nationwide survey on maternity care in early 2025, “and the HSE will act on the findings from that survey”.

It signposted its debriefing services for mothers. Birth reflections are available at some maternity units. 

“Debriefing services are recognised as being hugely beneficial, particularly after a traumatic birthing experience or where emergency action was required to safeguard the wellbeing of the women and her baby with a view to supporting the woman to understand what happened and why.”

Some quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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