Dehumanised, victimized and traumatized…

I’m really grateful that Trish is back from hospital and that this ordeal is over with for now. We chose to follow this route so that we could understand what so many of our friends who have no other choice face. It was really a traumatic experience utilizing the government healthcare facilities at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital. During every stage of the birth we felt out of control and excluded from the process. Vulnerability and powerlessness are extremely complex and difficult issues to encounter and at many times left us feeling completely immobile, not knowing what to do. It seems that the protocols and systems of the hospital are not designed with the patients comfort or dignity in mind.

During the Caesarean, Trish was not greeted by the doctors and they did not explain to her what was happening, despite her being fully awake. At no point was it explained to her that a student would be performing the operation while being watched, and constantly commented on by his supervisor – something which made Trish feel a bit like a lab rat. She felt alone and completely uninformed. She felt she was treated as if she was not present. It was only at the very end of the operation, which lasted 30 minutes long, that the doctors greeted her.

Once Trish was transferred to the maternity ward, where she took up her bed on a collapsed and very uncomfortable mattress with blood stains all over it, matters got even worse. During her first night, the night staff were abrupt and unwilling to help her get our of bed, feed the baby, or bring the medicine required despite all of the signs on the wall which clearly laid out their responsibilities. One nurse in particular was extremely rude and kept telling Trish she was doing things wrong. When the morning staff took over, they too were abrupt, rude and extremely unhelpful. They told Trish (a mother of 5 other healthy children) that she did not know what she was doing as a mother, criticized how she was holding the baby, mocked her use of a pacifier, laughed about the “mlungu” (white person) in Zulu, kept telling her she was doing things wrong, and continued to break her down until she phoned me in tears at 9 o’clock in the morning in absolute emotional turmoil. She was also in extreme pain from the Caesarian and was on Pethadine, which did not help her feel any better. She asked me at that point to assist her to be discharged from the hospital and to continue her recovery process at home. She also felt like she could not breastfeed little John Francis any more. I asked my friend, Sue King , who is a midwife to call her. When I spoke to Sue afterwards, she was incredibly angry that this competent mother of five children had been completely broken down by these medical staff. We also spoke to a gynecologist who strongly advised that she not go home or refuse medical treatment. I also phoned our GP and asked her advice. She too strongly advised against Trish leaving the hospital so early in the process and explained that there would be a higher risk of Trish developing sepsis on her wound. I phoned a good friend, and fellow social worker, Douglas Racionzer. His advice to me, together with the advice of the GP, and the advice of the doctor was to go and negotiate with the head of the maternity ward for her to be treated with dignity and in accordance with the medical protocols of the hospital. During this process I was very grateful for the comforting calls Trish’s good friend Daphne Nel made to her and for the many prayers of our friends all over the world.

I decided that rather than going in and demanding our rights, I would go in in humility and in submission to their authority and request their assistance. I took Becky, our student social worker with me. I couldn’t get hold of the head of the maternity unit, and ended up speaking to the head of the shift. I told the story of how my wife had been broken down by the staff and was now incredibly emotional, wanting to be discharged, and feeling incompetent and unable to breast feed our baby. I pleaded with her to assist as these would clearly not be in the best interests of either my wife or child. She listened to the story in detail and agreed that Becky could go into the ward and spend some time with Trish to help restore her. I explained that I did not want my wife to be treated in any special manner, but only how all women should be treated at this hospital. Trish then later overheard a conversation where the staff had discussed their unprofessional behavior and how they had torn down “this patient”. This led to one of the sisters coming and apologizing to Trish and her being treated a lot better for the rest of her stay.

In addition to all of this, there were many items at the hospital which were not available when they were required. These included: importantly, a catheter bag for Trish’s surgery; a surgical gown, hat and shoe covers so that I could visit Trish in the post-op ward; pillows on beds of the maternity ward; and they ran out of painkillers at one stage for all the ladies in the maternity ward. The support services were also problematic. Breakfast, for example, which was supposed to be served at 6:30 AM was only served at 9:30am this morning. Trish had her first cup of tea since being admitted on Thursday, on Saturday morning at 10 o’clock. The hospital walls in the maternity unit were dirty, and had torn pamphlets on them. In the emergency maternity ward area, women who arrive to give birth, wait on very uncomfortable plastic chairs. One woman who was in the ward with Trish, spent a whole night on one of these plastic chairs while in labor because the hospital had run out of beds. The beds themselves were very old, many frames were broken and as mentioned earlier most mattresses were so old that they had collapsed.

Also as a father I was excluded from every single part of the birth. I was not allowed into any part of the labor ward which meant I could not be present during the birth, I was not allowed to visit Trish in the post-op ward (although they made an exception for me eventually), I was also not allowed access to the medical sisters to find out what was happening to Trish while she was in theatre and ended up getting information after she had been in the labor ward for two and a half hours from the security guard who I convinced to go and find out how she was doing. Her feedback was that she thought that my child had been born and that she did not know how Trish was doing. I eventually stood in the passage and started asking nurses passing by to go and ask how my wife was doing. Eventually one took pity on me and took me into the labour ward to see the head of the shift who made the exception for me to see Trish. I was then not allowed to visit Trish in the maternity ward except during the very strict visiting hours of 3 to 5 pm, in which only fathers are allowed to visit. To top it all off at the very end of Trish’s stay on being discharged the staff refused to include my name as the father of the child in the record of the birth.

Dehumanised, victimized and traumatized we are now at home to rest and recover from what should have been a celebratory moment in our lives. I can now imagine a little of the difficulties so many of our friends who are forced to use these facilities on an ongoing basis face.

We will be writing up our experiences in more detail, including the pre-natal visits and the birth and seeing how we can use them to bring about dignity and more appropriate care for those who have no other choice but to use these facilities.

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