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Opinion: Maternity hospitals have no excuses left - they must lift restrictions

Natalie Britton says women are being ignored when it comes to the lifting of the restrictions on partners during maternity care.

Image: Shutterstock/Motortion Films

EXACTLY ONE YEAR ago today, on 29 July, I was 10 weeks pregnant and attended an ultrasound appointment at my maternity hospital.

We were six months into Covid, so my husband was not permitted to accompany me at the scan. It was there that I heard the dreaded words that I had, unfortunately, been subjected to before: “I’m so sorry, love. There’s no heartbeat”.

This was my fourth pregnancy loss but it was my first where I received the news on my own. I remember I was shaking. I had been shaking with nerves since I walked into the room, wracked with the fear that this could potentially be an outcome.

I couldn’t bring myself to phone my husband so I sent him a text. “There’s no heartbeat.” He was in the playground with our then 2.5-year-old son. He wrote back “No. No. No….” We had so hoped this time would be different.

Our loss before this was at 14 weeks, two weeks after we had told everyone the good news. They were starting to pile up and I felt like I was running out of room in my heart to grieve them all.

A week later, I checked into the hospital at 8am for my third D&C, this time, alone. It was one of the longest days of my life. I cried my way through all the paperwork, the repetitive questions about my medical history, the self-advocation when I needed more pain medication.

Following the procedure, I sat propped up in the bed for five hours staring at the cold salmon pink walls, echoes of newborn babies crying down the hall and mothers pushing life into the world as I had just said goodbye to another one of my babies.

It was at that moment I made the decision I couldn’t put myself through this again. We had been trying to conceive naturally for two years at this point and had been pregnant four times. My body was wrecked. My heart was beyond broken.

The doctors told us it was bad luck; recurrent miscarriages are very uncommon. After all, we had a healthy son who was conceived naturally and we should really think about trying again. We made a decision that day that the only way we would consider it was if we went down the IVF road, where we could test the embryos in advance to ensure they were healthy.

One year on and two return trips to Prague under my belt and I’m currently 36 weeks pregnant with a healthy baby girl. The IVF was a success, first time around. And my husband was allowed to be by my side for the entire retrieval process, with appropriate Covid safety measures.

The pure happiness and relief hits me afresh every morning when I wake, even though, truth be told, pregnancy after loss is far from a happy state to exist in. I have spent this entire pregnancy waiting for the other shoe to drop. Living from scan to scan. Dreading every sharp pain, every trip to the bathroom, every test result.

Restrictions

But that’s to be expected and I’ve managed that anxiety as best I can. The tougher and more unexpected element of this journey has been the rigid restrictions that are in place in Ireland for all my maternity visits. My husband has been allowed to be present at one ultrasound at 20 weeks.

Apart from that, he has not been allowed to accompany me to any medical appointments, despite his very strong desire to be there to hold my shaking hand and see his baby girl growing from week to week. He will meet my doctor for the first time on the morning of the birth.

It has been a challenge for us thus far. We have our own independent anxiety about this birth due to our history but the bigger struggle for us now surrounds the birth of the baby and the subsequent days in the hospital due to the continued strict visiting restrictions in place.

I am due to have a scheduled C-section, given my high-risk medical history. My husband and I are vaccinated. We have a private room. He can and will, for his own peace of mind, get a PCR test two days prior to the birth and can self-administer antigen tests on the subsequent days before he visits me as the hospital doesn’t provide them.

Mask wearing and hand sanitising are a given, of course. I genuinely believe pregnant couples must be some of the safest people around when it comes to wanting to avoid catching Covid. We lost my husband’s father to Covid last year, we know it’s not to be messed with.

As it stands, we know that I will have to be admitted on my own and he will have to wait outside the hospital and will only be allowed in once I’m ready to undergo the Caesarean. He can stay with me through the birth and join me for the recovery.

Time limits are not clear, though, regarding how long he can stay or how long he can visit me on the following days. We know it must be after 2pm each day so I’m out of luck if I or the baby want or need him in the morning. We have heard some positive stories of our hospital making discretionary exceptions and letting partners stay a bit longer than the two-hour rule but that’s not something they will commit to in advance.

No one is listening

So, we are left with the uncertainty of not knowing when and for how long my husband can actually visit – and more to the point, why these restrictions are still in place at all when they really make no sense.

If it’s to protect the staff, they are all now vaccinated. If it’s to protect the mother and baby – well the partner is already with them 24/7 so..? Covid doesn’t discriminate between mornings and afternoons or between 1cm or 3cm dilations.

If the partner is cleared to be able to be there for some of the time, why not all of the time? It screams of control. This is their child too. Our top clinician, the CMO, minister for health and CEO of our health service have all publicly stated that these restrictions are no longer necessary.

So, again, why are they still in place? It seems no one can really answer that question which only adds to the frustration and anxiety felt by women and their partners around the country.

It’s an open secret that in some quarters of hospital management there’s a benefit to restricting partner access. Partners can physically get in the way and when it comes to advocating for their pregnant partners. The staff on the ground, let’s be honest, are no doubt run off their feet and doing a fantastic job but it is easier for some in higher level not to have to deal with extra voices and it’s more peaceful to have fewer people around.

So, is the Covid risk just being used as the fall guy by the maternity hospital administrations who refuse to release any risk assessments or data relating to any Covid statistics since the beginning of the pandemic? Another unanswered question with no one rushing to answer it or offer any solution.

Weeks go by and yet again, we women are not being listened to. Last September, a petition was started asking these exact same questions about the restrictions. Over 60,000 people have signed it. There have been online rallies with senior opposition party TDs, in-person protests, and many, many media interviews discussing why these restrictions are continuing. And yet again, here Ireland is – not listening to women.

Women are last in line

Our mental and emotional well-being is just not as important as getting bums on seats in restaurants. Of course, we are used to it, here in the back seat.

The patriarchy runs deep in the country but especially in the health system. We are ignored while we scream from the rooftops to the delivery wards for someone to prioritise our basic human needs. One thing is for sure; we could really do with a minister for women’s health, and for it to have been brought in yesterday.

Meanwhile, the government focuses on getting the country inside pubs for pints, getting sporting events up and running and making sure 100 people can support a couple on their wedding day – but one person has restricted access on the day of their child’s birth. Is it a lack of financial incentive? If partners offered to pay €1,000, would the needle move a bit quicker?

Of course, no one is thinking of the mental health cost from the trauma that is being experienced by these parents – and we know there is trauma, thanks to research from the Psychological Society of Ireland.

There are 19 maternity hospitals in Ireland, overseen by six different hospital group CEOs. Each hospital has its own individual restrictions ranging from Limerick UH which currently limits partners to one 45-minute visit a day to Galway maternity hospital which allows partners to visit anytime between 8 am-9 pm.

Pregnant couples are quite literally embroiled in a cruel game of postcode lottery depending on what hospital they are attending. I’m hearing anecdotally that some women are choosing to delay going to the hospital to prolong the time they can be with their partner and some are discharging themselves earlier than they should.

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The restrictions are forcing these women to make unsafe and potentially life-threatening choices because the anxiety of going through an already difficult enough experience like childbirth and post-natal recovery is made a hundred times worse by the thought that they will be enduring a fair part of it alone.

So, the questions remain:

  • Who is the one with the power to lift these restrictions and why as a country are we in a situation where no one knows?
  • Why are we beholden to each individual hospital to make such a huge and weighty decision?
  • Why are risk assessments not being published?
  • Why are partners not being PCR and/or antigen tested?
  • Why are the management of hospitals completely ignoring these questions and reasonable suggestions which all provide solutions?
  • And just how many more babies are going to be born to anxiety-induced parents with damaged mental health for a reason that no one can honestly provide?

It’s time for answers. The women of Ireland deserve no less.

Natalie Britton is an actress and producer.

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Natalie Britton

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