'We will see 40,000 in Croke Park and I can’t have my husband there for early labour'

'We will see 40,000 in Croke Park and I can’t have my husband there for early labour'

Rachael Bermingham from Limerick criticised the HSE’s focus on Dublin hospitals: 'There is an entire country outside of the Pale, and women suffering out here.'

A woman due to give birth this month has vented her frustration at seeing large crowds at sports events while her husband has never been allowed to hear their child's heartbeat. 

Rachael Bermingham is almost 37 weeks pregnant but her husband is still being refused access to maternity care appointments because of the failure of some hospitals to implement new national guidelines. 

“Everything else is opening up,” she said. 

“We will see 40,000 in Croke Park and I can’t have my husband there for early labour. It really gets under your skin.” 

She described this pregnancy as “night and day” compared to giving birth in the same Limerick hospital in 2019. Then her husband was with her and ran to fetch a midwife at a crucial point in her labour as the bedside buzzer was broken.

“He feels really disconnected, and he is struggling with how to support me when he physically cannot be there,” she said.

University Maternity Hospital Limerick does allow partners at the 20-week anomaly scan but this is only given to women having a high-risk pregnancy. 

Emergency visits

Ms Bermingham said while partners can now attend emergency visits, they must wait outside until staff confirm the situation is an emergency.

She said this placed midwives in a difficult position and stressed her complaints are not about staff but managerial decisions. Ms Bermingham also criticised the HSE’s focus on Dublin hospitals.

“There is an entire country outside of the Pale, and women suffering out here. Our voices have to be heard as well,” she said.

HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said he expects all 19 units to be in full compliance with the latest guidelines this week.

Ms Bermingham works with Doras, an NGO promoting migrant rights, and said she was concerned women with poor English skills were labouring alone as hospital interpreters may not have time to sit with them. 

A survey of 1,900 women who almost all attended maternity hospitals in July found 80% attended alone and one in 10 said their partner was excluded from visits allowed under the guidelines.

The Better Maternity Care campaign found a “wide variety of practice” across the units. Cork maternity advocate Linda Kelly said the survey showed "90% of those who responded don’t believe the restrictions on partners are warranted; 6% are unsure and 4% believe they are.” 

Women who responded to the Better Maternity Care survey also shared comments on their experiences over the last few months.

One woman wrote: “I have felt lonely and scared. I feel like my husband isn't included in this pregnancy. We are a team. We made a joint decision to have this baby.” Another described a harrowing experience, saying: “I was bleeding at 10 weeks and knew something was wrong. At my A&E attendance I was told my pregnancy had stopped progressing. I was on my own getting this news and having to see the scan etc on my own.

“My partner was sitting in the car just waiting for news. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life and I don’t understand who the maternity restrictions are helping.” One woman said she often felt rushed through appointments, and wished her husband had been there to advocate for her.

“The restrictions have impacted my mental health hugely,” she said. “This is my first pregnancy and had to attend a&e alone in twice, each time sitting for hours on end in a tiny, packed waiting room with no ventilation and poor mask-wearing from many others present.” Other women talked about having a cesarean-section and the difficulties of caring for a baby alone, with many noting they could not lift their baby.

'Utterly traumatising'

Women said they felt “totally alone” and found the experience “utterly traumatising”. Others said there was “no one to advocate for me”. 

Women wrote of their partner feeling “uninvolved” or “left out”.

An international study on visiting restrictions led by Professor Joan Lalor at Trinity College Dublin found “many changes are not evidence-based”.  

The study, published in the August issue of BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found restrictions were at first brought in to keep people safe.

But the authors found guidelines from agencies like the HSE are not consistently applied. They wrote: “The exclusion of companions and the separation of mothers and babies is particularly antithetical to a human rights-based approach to quality care.” 

A statement from the UL Hospitals Group said the restrictions are in place "to protect our patients, their loved ones, vulnerable new-born babies, and our maternity healthcare staff from the very real and present threat of Covid-19.

These are restrictions that no maternity unit management team wish to introduce,” Eileen Ronan, UL Hospitals Group director, said.

“Pregnancy and childbirth are joyful times at which familial togetherness should be facilitated. But the prevalence of Covid-19, and the disease’s highly contagious Delta variant, means that we are unable to provide as much access to the hospital as we would like for partners and loved ones of the women and infants in our care.” 

A hospital spokesman said they have been undertaking “a gradual relaxation” of the restrictions since late April.

Since July 9, partners have been able to attend the Early Pregnancy Access Unit (EPAU) and there are 45-minute visiting slots for partners of women on the hospital’s ante-natal ward, M3, from 6-9pm daily.

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