This isn’t a birth story. I’ve written one of those way back when. It’s not even about the moment we found out, that the paediatrician that checked Oscar over, suspected he had Down Syndrome. I’ve talked about the language she used. The fact that she said she was sorry with a crestfallen expression. I’ve talked about how it felt like this news, was in her mind, the worst thing that could have possibly happened to us. But this isn’t about that. This is about recognising, that in spite of all of the above, there were some really significant people who had a huge impact on our birth experience and after care, that at the time, I don’t think I gave enough credit too. People that perhaps some might argue, were “just doing their job” but they’re people who in my mind, went that extra mile for me.
I talk about them because I think it’s so important to recognise how poignant a job these guys have. Not only do they have your welfare and your baby’s life in their hands, it’s become apparent to me, having spoken through my blog to so many women who’ve come into contact with good (and bad) midwives, just how influential a position these women and men are in.
Their approach and attitude, can shape the way you feel about your baby, should that baby be given a pre or postnatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome or any other disability for that matter. But on the flip side. To show when things aren’t handled, some might consider, the right way, it’s about recognising some of the shameful experiences couples have had and how they perhaps, could have been prevented.
“He looks funny” She said
“It’s bad news” said another
“You have a 1:38 risk that the baby has Down Syndrome so I’ve booked you in for an amnio” Said the next
“She looks a bit Downsy to me” She remarked
“He doesn’t look Down Syndrome” another commented
“Both myself and the student midwife went out after you gave birth and had a good old cry”
These comments, ashamedly, aren’t made up. When I asked a handful of my readers if they’d mind sharing some of the experiences they’d had with their midwives, amongst the positive stories were these. You’re probably thinking that these comments must have been made 50+ years ago because surely midwives, being in the profession they’re in, in this day and age, would have the foresight to see that it may be deemed inappropriate to say things like that? But alas no. All of these comments have been made within the last decade.
Although we had the issue with the paediatrician, who i’m pretty certain has absolutely no idea there’s a whole blog title dedicated to her faux pas (I should probably mention it one day… “Have you heard of the blog “Dpn’t be Sorry”? Well….”) on the whole our experience leading up to and there after, was good.
It was 6th July 2012 when I went to my routine 40 week check up at my local surgery, with my midwife Marlene. I remember the day well. It was really hot and after my appointment I was looking forward to heading home to my sofa to watch Andy Murray play at Wimbledon. I was relaxed, I felt calm. Although I was looking forward to meeting my little man, I wasn’t too uncomfortable at that point (unlike my two pregnancies that followed) so was more than happy to let nature take its course, feeling assured that everything would be ok. There really was no indication that that day was going to lead me down a very different path to the one I assumed I was on. I had seen Marlene a few times. I remember the first time I saw her, asking if I could come and see her again. A clear indication that in hindsight, I must have had a feeling she was a good person.
This particular day she took my blood pressure, checked my urine and then asked me to get up on the bed for her to check the baby’s heartbeat. She was talking to me the whole time, but then just as she found the heartbeat she stopped. Not unusual, as presumably they have to count the beats per minute and listen carefully for anything untoward but there was something about the length of time she listened, that I sensed might indicate all was not well. Calm as you like she asked me what I was doing that afternoon and when I said nothing in particular, just watching Andy on TV she said she thought it’d be a good idea if I headed up to the local hospital to be monitored. She didn’t seem overly worried and because of this, I wasn’t overly worried either.
Without going into the details… it turns out, we probably should have been a bit worried. By the time I got to the hospital they could tell that Oscar was barely moving and his heart rate was significantly low. I was induced but before I even started labour, his heart rate dropped so dangerously low (60 bmp) that they rushed me in for a C section under General Anaesthetic and the rest as they say, is history.
Marlene, my midwife. The lady I attribute as being one of the first, in a line of people, who not only saved my baby that day but in doing so, saved me.
There was also the midwife, who the night Oscar was born, sounded the alarm. Who saw that Oscar’s heart rate had dropped so low, who knew to push that button. There was the nurse called Sarah who took Oscar from me the morning after he was born. He needed to go to NICU to be put on oxygen and to monitor the holes in his heart… but she reassured me she would personally look after him and told me (over and over again, every time I saw her in fact) that he was beautiful and that he had a special place in her heart. And one of the midwives who I remember best. Michelle. The lady who was on duty later that evening. It was now the middle of the night. Chris, having had no sleep had gone home and they’d given me my own private room, which I couldn’t quite work out was to give me my privacy away from the other mummies on the ward with their newborn babies or because they didn’t quite know what to say or how to deal with me. A lot of the midwives on that shift seemed to be avoiding me or didn’t seem to know what to say. But Michelle was different. I remember late into the night, her coming in to check on me and sitting with me for a while. She’d found me sobbing in to my pillow, wallowing in my own self pity and in the nicest possible way, told me in no uncertain terms to get a grip. We talked that night about her little girl. How she was into gymnastics and how one day she thought she’d be good enough to do it at national level. I knew what she was doing. It was total distraction technique. Let’s talk to the mentalist in the bed about my kid so she forgets that her life has just taken a very different turn. It worked to a point. But more than all that she reassured me that I would indeed love him, despite what I was thinking and feeling at that point and that we would be ok, because honestly? There was no other choice but to be. She was a straight talking, strong woman and although the journey to acceptance was a long one for me, Michelle was probably one of the first people to make me sit up and dry my tears. I didn’t see her again until just a few weeks before I had Alfie. Oscar and I were sat in Costa coffee and she was sat a few tables away with her daughter. She didn’t recognise us at first. But as she went to walk past she stopped and started talking to me about Oscar, saying how gorgeous he was. I asked her if she remembered me and as I started explaining who I was, I saw, she’d recalled. I told her the impact she’d had on me that night and how much it had meant to me that she’d taken time out to talk to me. Judging by the smiles through her tears, I think she was pretty chuffed. I saw her a few weeks later when I had Alfie and she hadn’t changed a bit. I felt some of the other midwives treated me like damaged goods. You know, “That’s that woman whose first baby had Downs” type thing. But not Michelle. I loved that about her. She treated me exactly the same as she had before.
But all too often I hear other peoples stories, where their experiences of midwives have sadly not been ideal. We know it’s not just medical professionals, it’s definitely society as whole, but I truly believe midwives have a responsibility to new parents to educate themselves in what having a baby with Down Syndrome actually means v’s what they think it means in their minds.
So if i had, like I had with the GP’s the other week, just 20 minutes or so in a room with a bunch of midwives. Whether they be trainees finding their feet or those midwives who’ve worked in the profession from a few months up to 40+ years… here’s a few things i’d ask them
I’d ask them to please celebrate the arrival of this baby, as you would do any other. To offer your congratulations and to hold the baby, treating this precious bundle just the same as the next. Don’t just hand these new parents a handful of crumpled leaflets that have been squirrelled away at the back of a drawer… Do research yourself. It only takes a few minutes to find out where the nearest local support group is, so tell them about them for when they feel they might be ready. In those early few days new parents don’t want to know too much medical stuff, so don’t overload them with statistics and health complications. Allow them to find out for themselves as time goes on. While I’m sure having a baby born with Down Syndrome is not that common an occurrence at your hospital and you/the junior doctors mightn’t have ever come across such a “case”, please please PLEASE don’t treat this new baby like an animal in a zoo – Please no groups of such professionals visiting to “spot the markers”. It feels, to a new Mum, just so uncalled for. Knowing how vulnerable I felt lying there in that hospital post birth and knowing how much focus I put on your positivity (If midwives were positive, then it can’t be all bad right?) I’d ask them to focus on the individuality of each baby and disregard any generalisations about the diagnosis they’ve been given. But above all, If I could ask one thing of them, it’s that you smile at us. For nobody’s died right?
I appreciate that it’s protocol for the Doctors to be delivering the suspected DS diagnosis and it’s not the job of the midwife, but how that midwife acts around a new mum, really is so so important. At the end of my talk last week, I asked the trainee GP’s if they had any questions for me. There was a pause while they thought, then slowly a tentative hand was raised by a lady sat in the from row. She asked
“If you were so unhappy with the way Oscar’s diagnosis was delivered, can I ask what you would have wanted that paediatrician to have said please”
I’m pretty sure I garbled something along the lines of the below. Probably nowhere near as together as this hopefully comes across but I think they got the general gist. If i’d had thetime to really think about it, (for I truly believe it’s something that needs to be thought long and hard about), I think I would have replied with the following…
“I’d ask that first you say congratulations and take the time to really look at the baby in my arms. I’d ask that you comment on how beautiful our baby is remembering that we made him or her. I’d ask that you say that you have some news to share with us, that perhaps might not have been the news we’d been expecting but that all will be ok. I’d ask that when you say that you suspect our baby has Down Syndrome, that you don’t look as though the world has ended. Give us hope. Say that you will help us with any information we might need and link us to the right support. But finally, over and above everything else, tell us that all our baby really needs right now, is our love… That nothing else, in that moment, matters more than that”
Oh and one last thing to ask that Doctor or Midwife… When the lady you’re looking after, goes on to have another baby after they’ve had one born with Down Syndrome. Don’t make it into a big “thing”. Don’t assume everyone is going to want the screening or the tests. Every woman is an individual and every one of them will make that choice for themselves.