My life was ruined by Symphysiotomy

Rosemary, a survivor of symphysiotomy, gives a harrowing account to Ann Cahill of the night, more than 40 years ago, when her pelvis was broken by a doctor in a crowded hospital theatre

MY pelvis was broken in 1973 on my fifth child. My daughter was big and in a breech position — feet first. They brought me in to the Lourdes [Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda] at 40 weeks, they said the baby was in an “unstable lie”. There was no emergency.

I was left in the ward for 10 days, then they brought me down to theatre for a Caesarean-section. But Dr O’Brien refused to do it, and said I could deliver normally, so he turned the baby, and I was wheeled back up to the ward. They put me on a drip, and gave me injections. This went on for 24 hours. Then they tried to get the baby out with a vacuum, a machine like a Hoover, but it didn’t work.

Then Dr O’Brien broke my pelvis in front of a crowd, medical students I took them to be. It was very embarrassing, to be lying there with your legs trussed up in front of so many young men.

The doctor said nothing to me about what he was going to do, just went ahead and did it, in the labour ward. No one spoke to me, no one asked me for my permission. They gave me chloroform, it didn’t work. Today, 41 years later, I still have nightmares about a red hot poker going through the bottom of my stomach.

And afterwards, the baby was still inside, I couldn’t believe it. You’ve had a small procedure, the nurse said, now you’ll have to do the hard work. The pushing was desperate, I’ll never forget it, it seemed to go on for hours. With every push, it felt like my pelvis was breaking in two.

The baby was very poorly when she was born, very limp. There was no heartbeat for four minutes. It was touch and go for 24 hours. They put her into an incubator and I didn’t see her for a week.

The only bit of me I could move after the operation were my toes.

I couldn’t go to the toilet, I was in bed with a catheter. They put a binder on my hips. Five days after the operation, the nurse and the physio forced me to walk. I fainted with the pain. But they kept going, getting me to walk with a chair, and I kept on fainting, but they took no notice.

I was nursed in the same ward as women who had had their babies naturally, women who could walk. I should have been put in traction, the way you would if you broke your pelvis in a car crash. But they didn’t want the pelvis to heal up, that’s why they made us walk on it, so the pelvis would stay open, for more babies. I should have been given a Caesarean-section, but they wanted us to have nine or 10 children, and you couldn’t do that if you had a Caesarean –– you could only have three sections, at most, in the Lourdes. But all talk of birth control was banned in that hospital. The Pill was in, in 1973, but they didn’t want to know.

They sent me home after 10 days, even wrote in my notes that I was in a ‘satisfactory’ condition, but I couldn’t walk. I got no advice, no painkillers. There was no follow up, no one from the hospital ever came near me. The family doctor didn’t want to know, either. I got no help from anyone medical, ever. I had four children at home under the age of 8 to look after, including 2-year-old twins. I found it very difficult to nurse the baby or change her for the first year. I could hardly move with the pain.

The operation ruined my life.

I couldn’t do anything other mothers did, taking their children to matches, playing tennis, or kicking a ball. I felt I wasn’t a good enough mother. I got depressed; that lasted for seven years. I got a total breakdown after the operation, physical and mental. They put me on anti-depressants, I still depend on them to this day. I couldn’t sleep at night –– I had restless legs –– so they put me on sleeping tablets. That was 20 years ago, I’m addicted to them now. And I’m still on tablets for my nerves. My husband lost out, too. Our married life was never the same: Sex was too painful and I was terrified I might get pregnant again. I felt guilty.

I felt 70 when I was 30. Symphysiotomy left us old before our time.

My walking difficulties never improved. I walk very slowly today, with a stick, find the stairs almost impossible, and have to be very careful not to hurt myself getting into a car. Vacuuming is out of the question, I could never push anything heavy since the operation. I can still hear my pelvis bones rubbing together to this day. I know it’s unstable, because I’m prone to falls. Last year, I had a bad fall and broke my shoulder. I have chronic pain since the operation, especially on the right side, in my leg. And my pubic bone is very painful to this day. If my grandchildren ran into me there, I’d be in agony.

I have arthritis in my lower lumbar region, my back feels as if it’s breaking if I stand for an hour, or if I sit for too long, and the pain has travelled up into my neck and across my shoulders. This all started three years ago, so it’s getting worse. I used to get injections into my back for the pain, but I had to stop them, they were too severe. The operation left me incontinent as well. I had a bladder repair in 2004, after getting rings put in, but it didn’t work. I’ve had loads of urinary tract operations since that operation as well. They never went.

I left hospital not knowing my pelvis had been cut. I didn’t find out for 30 years. They said nothing to me about the operation, only that they had to do it to save the baby’s life. I still didn’t know what it was. It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. I know now these operations were written up in the Lourdes reports and those reports were sent to the Department of Health, that’s what the nuns said. They blamed the doctors, but they owned the hospital. They’d been at them for 30 years by the time I was operated on in 1973. No one ever shouted stop.

We heard it on the local radio, that’s how it came out. I joined Survivors of Symphysiotomy back in 2002, when it started. Some are worse off than me. We have members who had it done as young as 15, 17, or 18 years of age. Some of those who were done wide awake, like me, remember seeing the doctor coming with a hacksaw, like a wood saw, a half circle with a handle and a straight blade. The ones who screamed were held down, their arms pinned by nurses, their legs in stirrups. There was no escape.

We looked for an independent inquiry back then, but we never got one. No one in the government ever wanted to know, they tried to fob us off. The Department of Health went to the doctors’ union, asking them to investigate themselves. The union stood over these operations, said they were acceptable, and the department left it at that. No one ever said, “this has to be investigated”.

Instead of an inquiry, we got a whitewash report, a draft report that said symphysiotomy was safer than Caesarean-section. But no one had walking difficulties after a Caesarean. After all this time, the authorities still refuse to admit the truth. It’s very aggravating. Trying to pretend these operations were done in an emergency, when we all know they were planned. You can see it in the hospital notes. I know now they were experimenting on us, that we were guinea pigs for the nuns’ clinics out in Africa. They were training staff as well, that’s why there was such a big crowd at my operation.

Now the Government is planning to offer us some scheme or other, a handout for pain and suffering, not restitution for abuse. The scheme the minister has decided on is a no-fault scheme, not based on any wrongdoing. We might be in our 70s and 80s, but we want the truth. Someone has to say, these operations should never have been done. Symphysiotomy was banned in Paris in 1798, but they did it in the Lourdes until 1987. You wouldn’t do it to a cow.

They left me go 12 days over my due date even though they knew I was carrying a big baby. Why didn’t they induce me? She was 9lbs 14oz when she was born and I’m just 5’0”. Why didn’t they do a Caesarean?

The UN Human Rights Committee is urged to conclude that the very limited response by Ireland to women who have undergone symphysiotomy and pubiotomy means that the state party has failed to provide an effective remedy to survivors of symphysiotomy and pubiotomy by failing to initiate a prompt, independent, and impartial inquiry and by failing to provide them with fair and adequate restitution for the damage they sustained as a result of these wrongful operations. The committee is asked to call on the state party to rectify these failings. The committee is also urged to state that these women’s right to privacy was violated and the introduction of any ex gratia scheme to compensate them without an accompanying admission of liability would fail to meet the test for an effective remedy.

* Names and identifying details have been changed, to preserve anonymity

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