CONTENT WARNING: The article mentions suicide, depression, stillbirth and trauma.
All around were signs of life. New mums cuddled their healthy babies as they left to take them home for the first time.
But Kiera*, who’d just given birth at 20 weeks to a stillborn baby boy who weighed only 250 grams, was racked by anger and grief instead.
Not just at the way she’d been treated, which she described as completely unempathetic.
“I felt like I had nothing to show for what I’d been through,” she said.
And, despite multiple inquiries and reviews into maternity care at the Canberra Hospital and the release of a new maternity strategy, Kiera isn’t convinced anything has changed.
Her birth experience, which took place in February this year at the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children, was marked by understaffing, stressed staff, long waits, inadequate pain relief and having her own experience, voice and pain minimised by healthcare staff.
Kiera, a health professional herself, is now speaking out about her experience in the hope that no other mother is subjected to a similar experience.
Kiera’s labour was long and painful. She was told she’d be induced at midday, but this didn’t happen until much later in the afternoon.
All of this waiting made an already difficult experience even more challenging.
Epidurals or other pain relief were also not made available to her in a timely manner due to communication issues and the lack of an available doctor, despite her having been told she would need it as she was giving birth before her body was ready and it would therefore be a more painful process than usual.
“I was astonished and asked the nurse whether she was really expecting me to give birth to a dead baby with no pain relief when my cervix and uterus aren’t ready for it,” Kiera explained.
“I asked for pain relief and an epidural because I was in agony, crying and screaming – I just wanted the baby cut out of me – and the midwife kept telling me she couldn’t do anything because there wasn’t a doctor available.”
Later on, equipment failures meant other pain relief also wasn’t available to her, and by the time the epidural was ready, birth was imminent.
She’d also been promised a special, self-contained room so she wasn’t forced to endure the sight and sounds of other women giving birth to healthy, live babies.
That didn’t happen in the end.
Kiera claims she was told by a midwife in the immediate aftermath of her birth, “don’t worry, you can always try for another one” – a comment she now describes as “unbelievable”.
“I was told I’d just get over it and move on.”
She thinks trauma-informed training is lacking for midwives and doctors – if only to stop comments like that.
After her son was born, Kiera’s negative experiences with the hospital didn’t end.
She had to be readmitted to hospital with an infection and underwent three dilation and curettage (D&C) procedures over the course of several weeks. During these times, she was repeatedly forced to explain to medical staff that her baby was deceased, an experience she found incredibly difficult.
On one occasion, Kiera said she was told by a doctor that her pain and fevers were in her head and caused by grief.
“I just found it rude. I couldn’t believe it. I was just horrified,” she said.
“Being ill for so long robbed me of some of the precious time I should’ve been able to spend with my baby before he had to be taken away.”
Two months later, it was found she still had the same infection.
Since the birth, Kiera has been diagnosed with PTSD and depression and has tried to take her own life. Her family and friends have also had to seek mental health support after watching her suffer.
She thinks the supports she was provided with by the hospital were minimal – only a few brochures. She has since lodged a formal complaint with Canberra Health Services (CHS).
But despite being promised a response, five months down the track, she has yet to hear anything back.
A spokesperson for CHS said they apologised if the feedback process had not met the patient’s needs.
“Consumer feedback is investigated and responded to and we do our best to resolve all concerns raised in a collaborative and compassionate way,” they said.
“Our clinical staff debrief women and their partners should they experience any deviation from their expected care or clinical outcome.”
The government recently announced a 10-year maternity strategy which it says will put the mental and physical health of mum, bub and healthcare staff at its heart.
It followed years of ongoing allegations of under-resourcing and issues within the midwifery unit at the hospital and recent allegations of staff being subjected to trauma daily.
But Kiera isn’t convinced enough is being done and she doesn’t want to see another woman go through what she went through.
*Kiera’s name has been changed upon request.