HAVING not eaten for over 24 hours, new mum Hannah Bartlett had to use what little energy she had left to crawl to the bathroom.
But she hasn’t fallen ill at home with no-one to care for her – she was in hospital, on a ward, having just given birth to her fourth child.
Although she had a private room at North Middlesex Hospital, Hannah claims she was left with nothing to eat for 36 hours, had no support with baby Harvey and even had to remove a canula herself.
The 34-year-old claims it is clear the Covid 19 pandemic has put a huge strain on maternity care within the NHS.
“I had to almost crawl to the bathroom to wash myself,” she tells Fabulous.
“I had my third child in the same hospital two years’ earlier and I’d had a fantastic experience so I know this was all down to Covid. I do sympathise with the staff, but patients should still be treated with dignity.”
It’s a view which is being echoed among professionals, with The Royal College of Midwives saying the pandemic is compromising the delivery of safe maternity services.
Chief executive Gill Watson said there is a shortage of 3,000 midwives in England alone leading to existing staff working ‘beyond their hours’ and ‘facing burnout’.
“Maternity staff are exhausted, demoralised and some are looking for the door,” she said.
I wasn’t given anything to eat from when I arrived at 8am on the Friday morning until I left on the Saturday evening. I kept asking, but nothing came. At one point, I was told, ‘Sorry we forgot you were here’
More than three-quarters of midwives think staffing levels in their Trust are unsafe according to survey carried out by the college.
A senior midwife told Fabulous some maternity units are akin to “battle grounds” as tired and deflated staff struggle to care for pregnant patients as well as those with new babies.
“Many maternity wards have been closed to make room for Covid patients,” she says.
“The wards we have left are full to overflowing. There are not enough beds, too many patients and not enough staff to deal with them.
“No-one has any fight left in them. Midwives are exhausted. Morale is low.”
The midwife – who could not be named but works in a busy maternity unit in the South East of England – said staff shortages are a major issue.
“We do have had staffing problems and I don’t think we are the only hospital with a problem,” she says. “It’s happening up and down the country.
“We know that women are being left with no help. Sometimes they need help breast-feeding, but we can’t get to them. Sometimes they just want something to eat.
“Observations like blood pressure checks and temperature checks are being missed. These may not sound important but for many new mums, they could be the first sign of an infection or that something needs attention.”
I do sympathise with the staff, but patients should still be treated with dignity
Hard-working NHS staff are regularly the target of verbal abuse, our senior midwife adds.
“Having a baby can be overwhelming and Covid has heightened those worries,” she adds. “Women are emotional and often they can’t have their partners with them for support.
“Dads can usually only stay a couple of hours. Many staff have been the victims of verbal assault as parents try to navigate their way through what is happening to them. It’s not a good place to be.”
Experts have warned that the difficulties faced by maternity services is already creating a ‘mental health epidemic’ among new mothers who have been left traumatised by their distressing experiences up and down the country.
Hannah went for counselling after giving birth to Harvey, now one, in March 2020.
“I was never tested for Covid but I was treated as if I had the plague,” she recalls.
“It was very early on in the pandemic and everyone was scared, but it was a terrible time to have a baby. Lockdown was announced just a few days before I was admitted for a planned c-section.
“The delivery team was amazing but unfortunately when I arrived on the postnatal ward it was a very different story.
“I had a private room as they decided I was vulnerable but I was given no help. I wasn’t given anything to eat from when I arrived at 8am on the Friday morning until I left on the Saturday evening. I kept asking, but nothing came. At one point, I was told, ‘Sorry we forgot you were here.’”
Hannah, 34, from Chingford, London, phoned her partner Jay, 42, who brought sandwiches but wasn’t allowed in to deliver them.
“He arrived on the Friday evening as I hadn’t had anything in 12 hours. I was exhausted from surgery and breastfeeding. But he wasn’t allowed in and they wouldn’t touch the bag to bring it through for me. I had a jug in my room and I was filling it with water from the toilet sink if I wanted a drink.”
Hannah claims she had to apply her own blood pressure cuff and was asked to remove a canula herself. At one point, her sheets were soiled with blood but no one helped her to clean it up.
When Hannah left, no one would help carry her things out of the ward.
“I asked for help as I had a car seat with the baby in and my bags but they said they couldn’t help me as they were not allowed to touch anything. I wasn’t meant to lift anything heavy after a caesarean,” she says.
“My partner was going crazy at the door, asking for somebody to help. I was going backwards and forwards trying to get the bags to the door.
“We left but after I go home, my stomach didn’t feel right. I ended up with a haematoma on my scar and I’m sure it was because I did too much lifting. I’ve had a lot of problems since the birth and I am still taking painkillers.”
Women have been neglected
In October, Hannah started counselling still feeling traumatised by the experience.
“I tried to make a complaint via the PALS service but I was just told they were very busy because of the pandemic. I hope that since this happened to me lessons have been learned and new mums are receiving better treatment. There should be clear, national guidelines for all hospitals to follow so that women are getting good care across the board.”
Celia Venables, a spokesperson for the campaign group, Pregnant Then Screwed, said it has been inundated with women who have been ‘forgotten’ in the wake of the Covid crisis.
She says: “From having to sit in hospital beds with their babies crying for up to 20 minutes, unable to pick them up after c-sections due to understaffed maternity wards, to a lack of follow-ups with health visitors causing health implications, women have been neglected.”
Chloe Dodd was hoping for a homebirth but she was admitted to hospital with pre-eclampsia when she was 38 weeks pregnant.
Despite high numbers of Covid patients, her experience on the antenatal ward at Milton Keynes University Hospital was positive and she felt well cared for.
“Lots of staff would come to check on me and take my blood pressure readings,” recalls the sale manager, 29, from Milton Keynes.
“They were great at keeping me up to date with what was happening. I was induced the night I went in.”
The ward was full of crying babies and anxious mums. There was no-one to help. My partner was not allowed to stay and help. My blood pressure was sky high
Baby Halle was slow to arrive, but born healthy and well, weighing 6lbs 2oz, after 14 hours of labour and an emergency caesarean in November.
“It was when I arrived on the postnatal ward that I noticed how stretched the staff were and that wards were overcrowded,” Chloe says.
“The ward was full of crying babies and anxious mums. Usually there would be separate wards for women in labour but they closed a ward as it was needed for Covid patients.
“I was struggling to lift my baby after the surgery. She was crying constantly. I was on my feet for six hours trying to settle her. There was no-one to help. My partner Alex, 44, a regional operations director, was not allowed to stay and help. My blood pressure was sky high.”
Halle was jaundiced and struggling to feed and her weight had dropped, but still Chloe was offered little support.
“I know there are many fabulous people working on that ward,” she says. “But they were severely under-staffed. They missed my medication, they missed observations on a night when a doctor had specifically requested readings at certain times. They were just too busy.
“It was so bad I made a complaint but there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t move me, there was nowhere for me to go. I was eventually moved after two days.
“The midwives were doing their best to keep upbeat but you could see the morale was low. I think it is very hard for them. They are doing a job because they like to take care of people and help, but it was impossible for them to do that. I do think Covid has been very overwhelming at the hospital, there were a lot of cases.”
Chloe remained in hospital a week after a difficult delivery and continued high blood pressure. And when she was finally well enough to leave, a doctor refused to discharge her as the observations had been missed.
“My baby was fine by then and I was so happy to go home. When he said I couldn’t go, I was devastated. I agreed to stay one more night so they could do the readings but they weren’t done that night either so I decided I would discharge myself.
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“I felt I could look after myself better at home,” Chloe says. “The community team were wonderful and they came out every two days to monitor my blood pressure. I did feel sad afterwards. You can’t get those early days with a newborn back and sadly, it was a very stressful experience.
“When I got home I just broke down in tears. It was lovely to see Alex with her as he hadn’t been able to visit for more than two hours a day when we were on the ward. Fortunately, we have had lots of family time since and we are really enjoying being a family.
“We did pop back afterwards to deliver hampers to the staff. We know they were doing their best for us and all patients, but if the pressures of Covid continue, this is a huge worry.”
A spokesman at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said: “We’re pleased Chloe’s experience was broadly positive, but were sorry to hear her time on our postnatal ward wasn’t as good as it should have been. We have been extremely busy in our maternity service throughout the pandemic, particularly with the challenge of looking after some very sick pregnant women with Covid-19. We have needed to carefully manage the care of women who were Covid-19 negative separately to those who were Covid-19 positive during their labour, birth and postnatally, and this has meant using our ward space differently. Providing safe care for women and babies has always remained our priority. We are grateful for feedback like Chloe’s to help us to keep improving.”
A spokesperson at North Middlesex University NHS Trust said: “At the start of the pandemic, staff were working with rapidly changing guidelines, under exceptional circumstances, to ensure women who used our service, their babies and staff were kept safe.
“The health and well-being of our patients and our staff has always been a priority for us and hearing from patients remains a very important way to ensure we can continually improve the services we provide; we encourage Hannah to contact our director of midwifery who would be keen to hear about her personal experience as we take all feedback very seriously.”