Angela Cuming gave birth to twins in Northern Ireland, under the British National Health Service. She reflects on the difference of care she received there compared to her oldest child’s birth in New Zealand.
When my identical twin boys were born via c-section the doctors had me walk, crying and in pain, into the operating theatre by myself. I was told to hike my dress up over my waist so they could stick needles in my spine and get to work.
I was scared, vulnerable and had no idea what was going on. And because I was in Northern Ireland I had no midwife to help me.
So it is with a heavy heart I read reports about the midwife shortage in New Zealand and of the bloody tough working conditions and poor pay they battle with.
I know what it is like to give birth without proper midwife care and it’s horrible.
My twins were born in 2016, in Northern Ireland. They do things a lot differently over there to New Zealand.
As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland falls under the strained National Health Service (NHS). Under the NHS pregnant women don’t get to personally choose a dedicated midwife who looks after them during their pregnancy, delivers (or is present at delivery) their baby and gives post-natal care. If you have a low-risk pregnancy you go for your allotted pre-natal appointments at a local clinic and whoever is rostered on that day will see you. Most births take place in hospitals and so it’s luck of the draw who’s there to deliver your baby when the time comes.
I had a high-risk pregnancy (two babies, one placenta) and in a cruel twist was thrown well and truly into the absolute omnishambles that is the Northern Irish maternity services machine.
Each week I needed to have at least one ultrasound to make sure my two babies were still alive. So I would drive over to the hospital, take a number from a vending machine and wait until they called my number. I’d usually see a different doctor each time. They would ask me questions I had no answer to (I still don’t bloody know which is fucking Twin A and which is Twin B you twats, you tell me!) and be prodded and poked.
When they suspected I had Twin to Twin Transfer Syndrome (which can be fatal for one or both babies) they stopped the scan, threw my ultrasound photos in the rubbish and wrote down on a piece of paper the name a website that could give me more information.
I kept thinking about my friend back in New Zealand who had recently had twin boys of her own, and how she would tell me how wonderful her midwife had been, going with her to all her hospital appointments and literally and figuratively holding her hand through the whole process.
I remembered the birth of my first son in Hamilton. I remembered our wonderful and kind midwife who was by my side for my whole pregnancy journey. I wished the twins could have been born in New Zealand too.
I was eventually booked in for a c-section at 34 weeks. I remember being desperate for someone to guide me through what to expect. I wanted to know what me what to pack in my overnight bag, what I needed to bring for the babies, to tell me how long I would be in hospital. Hell, someone to just tell me ‘don’t worry, it will all be okay’. But all the doctors would tell me was what time to be at the hospital.
As luck would have it, my waters broke the night before I was booked in and by the time I arrived at the hospital I was shaky and scared and had no bloody idea what was going on.
They sent my husband home and stuck me on a general labour ward for the night – all I could hear was women crying in the dark as pains hit their backs and bellies.
By morning I was taken to a holding room with all the other women who were booked in for c-sections. It was like some perverse taxi rank, huge swollen bellies, all sitting there waiting to be called.
When my time came the doctors made me walk into the operating theatre alone. I was crying and scared and trying to be brave but it was hard to focus on anything.
Not given a hospital gown, I was made to lift up my dress above my waist while strangers injected my spine with anesthetic and then told me to lie down on a steel table. I wasn’t given a hospital cap either. I remember my pony tail digging into my neck but I was too sick to talk.
I kept looking for my husband but no one had thought to go and get him. He almost missed the birth.
They cut me open and rummaged around in my womb and pulled out two tiny babies. Tommy was first and they briefly held him up for me to look at before a nurse took him away. Henry came next. He was a caul birth, meaning he was pulled out still in his amniotic sac. All the doctors gathered around to marvel at this rare birth, no one thought to show me. I wish someone had thought to take a photo.
After they were taken out I was stitched up and they took my husband away. They left me on the table, dress still up over my waist, unable to move. After a while a hospital orderly took pity on my and covered me up with a sheet. ”Oh you poor thing, dear, never mind,” she said. ”We don’t want everyone staring at you do we?”
They only gave me paracetamol for pain relief.
Left alone in a hospital room, I couldn’t move to grab my buzzer to let a nurse know I was in screaming agony. I was calling out ”help me, I can’t move, help me” and no one came. I kept thinking, ‘If I had a midwife, she would have come to check on me by now’.
In the end I managed to drag my iPhone close to me and text my husband, who rang the hospital and asked someone to come and help me.
I had to badger nurses for a wheelchair to go and visit my babies who were in neo-natal a couple of floors below me. No one helped me in our out of the bed. It literally took me 45 minutes to get into the chair. The neo-natal nurses did a wonderful job looking after my babies, but their job wasn’t to look after the mums. That was a role that a midwife should have filled, I just sadly didn’t have one to look out for me.
Would things have been different if I had my own, personally-selected midwife as my LMC? I believe so.
I would have had an advocate, a support person, someone to ask the right questions at my weekly scans and be in my corner. I would have had someone to to help me emotionally and physically prepare for life with twins, someone to make sure I had adequate pain relief and to help me to the shower and check on my stitches and to make sure I HAD A BLOODY HOSPITAL GOWN.
I’ve never known fear like I did that morning I walked into the operating theatre by myself or when, 24 hours later, I was lying in a sterile room, cut open and stitched back up, unable to move or call for help.
We are back in New Zealand for good now and mercifully the twins’ birth will one day be a distant memory. But I worry for the midwives here. I don’t want to see them become so overworked and underpaid and driven out of the profession that it collapses and we are plunged into a world like Northern Ireland, where women have little choice but to deliver in a hospital staffed by midwives you’ve never met before.
I’ve experienced a birth on both sides of the world and I know in my my heart New Zealand’s current system, while not perfect, is one of the best in the world. I would never want a woman here to experience what happened to me in Northern Ireland. I will fight with all I’ve got for our Kiwi midwives. I hope we all will.
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Angela Cuming is a print and radio journalist and a mum to three boys under three. Follow her on Twitter.
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