20 Mar 2017

Maternity unit felt unsafe, says new mum

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 20 March 2017

Wellington Hospital has apologised to a new mother after she complained about an unsafe and traumatising experience at the hospital earlier this month.

Wellington Hospital.

Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Mary-Lou Harris gave birth for the first time two weeks ago to a son, and it went well despite complications.

But the RNZ employee told Nine To Noon that things went downhill afterwards, on the second night when she was exhausted from a lack of sleep.

"By that stage I was entering the third night without any sleep, because I'd laboured right over the night on Sunday night, and so I was just absolutely exhausted physically. I guess coming down off the adrenaline of birth as well, and just felt incredibly alone and unsupported on the post-natal ward."

She said the daytime went well, but not the nights, with a baby screaming while she continued trying to learn how to feed her son.

"Someone would come eventually but the person that came, I was pretty sure they weren't a midwife, and they didn't introduce themselves.  And when I asked them, 'Are you a midwife here?' she said 'Oh no, no, I'm a nurse just helping out.'  And when I said I was having trouble latching, she just basically grabbed the baby and shoved him on my breast and said, 'There' he's feeding' and went out really quickly."

Ms Harris said women who had just given birth needed physical and emotional care and that was lacking.

She said her partner, Nick, was not allowed to stay overnight to help her in the double room, and she was not permitted to transfer to Kenepuru Hospital, as it had no room.  

"The thing that I find most full-on is that I'm a very privileged person, I'm health literate and I had this terrible experience, I mean it blind-sided me, and I can't imagine what would happen for someone else who was even more vulnerable."

Ms Harris said she discharged herself early to go home, where she continued struggling to breast feed and required help from a lactation specialist who told her other women had had similar experiences at the hospital.  

"She said she'd heard quite a lot of anecdotal evidence of women going through similar experiences. And she said it was quite a common experience for women to have a really rough time on the post-natal ward and for it to be really a triggering event in terms of post-natal depression and anxiety."

Capital and Coast District Health Board director of nursing and midwifery Andrea McCance apologised, and said the DHB would like to meet Ms Harris to find out more about the problems and try to make amends.

Ms McCance said the DHB was grappling with 10 percent vacancies within its registered midwifery workforce. There were 97 registered midwives and it needed to recruit another nine, she said.

"We've got a very aggressive recruitment campaign at the moment. Not only are we advertising kind of locally and we're interviewing three midwives, for example, last Friday. But [we're] also now looking at a campaign overseas, this week in Ireland we're advertising for midwives and in June in England itself. So we're taking this fairly seriously."

She said the DHB was also working closely with the nurses' union, midwifery groups and the Health Ministry to ensure good management of staffing to better match demand and staff supply.

"We need to get that balance between midwives and registered nurses, and it looks like we really do need to look at our night-duty shift as well. That seems to be the one that we really need to work on."

Karen Wakelin, the chair of the College of Midwives' Wellington region group, said midwives were also feeling the pressure of staff shortages.

"So we have midwives working on shifts that are, you know in some cases they're working double shifts or call-backs, just trying to keep the place rolling over and trying to enable women and babies and keeping them safe."

She said the pressure affected midwives as well as mothers. "Midwives are feeling stretched, they're feeling tired, they're getting sick, and I think it's just that, yeah, that they're just inadequately resourced."