Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Until Then I Thought It Was Just Me, Just A Fluke

Nearly four years ago, I remember this time of year.  It was nearly Christmas.  My maternity clothes were starting to feel small.  I kept telling myself not to get disappointed if Grasshopper didn't arrive until the end of January or even later.  After all, his mother was a few weeks late.  And then it was such a shock to feel my water break that morning, the first week in January.

I've told the story a million times.  In print.  In person.  On film.

But what I know now that I didn't know then is that it isn't just me.  It isn't just a fluke.  Back then, I figured that my complications during and after the birth were just a rare fluke, kind of like I'm a rare redhead.  Redheads are like 4% of the population or something like that.  So I figured it was just a deal  like that.  Even after I understood why the complications happened, I still figured it was just a fluke that I ended up with incompetent medical care.  Surely that doesn't happen often.

And then I got this email.  It was from a woman who had had a traumatic birth and had found my story online.  We wrote back and forth, and I eventually went to meet her and a few other women she had gathered together.  I heard story after story of medical care being the cause of complications.  Of doctors and nurses and midwives who were abusive or dismissive.

We formed a group.  And as that group grew in number and in reach, we heard more stories.  Dozens.  Hundreds.  From all over the world.  As a result, the vision and scope of our group expanded.  Now we were not only supporting one another, we were supporting other women.  Soon enough we were advocating for other women and becoming activists.

I never really planned on any of that.

But it happened, and I found purpose and healing in the midst of it all.  Even now, as I deal with the effects of an exhausted pelvic floor due to a long respiratory illness, the work I do provides a sense of peace instead of the bitterness that could arise.

I've come to understand that a lot of what happens to us becomes traumatic because of two things.  Our rights as women are often disregarded, sometimes even by other women.  And medical practitioners would find their mistakes and misjudgments more easily forgiven if they could manage to be respectful and kind to the women they serve.

When a woman's right to informed consent is taken away by a medical provider, she experiences a trauma.  And when a woman is further disrespected through the unkind words or tones of those medical providers, the trauma goes even deeper.

I have shared the truth of this until I'm blue in the face.  Sometimes people have that "Eureka!" moment, and they get what I'm sharing.  But sometimes people are still clueless or unbending.

Today I was told by a complete stranger online that what happened to me was essentially my fault.  She compared what happened to me to someone being burned at McDonald's, explaining that I couldn't be angry because I must not have educated myself enough.

Ironically, she's a labor and delivery nurse.  I wanted to scream at her.  It was obvious that she did not carefully read ALL of my words.  It was surprising that some friend of a friend would feel it necessary to make such an uninformed comment.  I was pretty ticked.  Especially when she did the whole "I'm sorry you feel that way."  Ah, medical providers must take a class on how to make poor apologies.  It seems so many of them are gifted in that way.

But after the feeling of boiling over passed, I thought again about what she said.  And it made me shake my head even more.  She really doesn't get it.  They really don't get it.

Comparing what happens in hospital birthing situations to being burned at McDonald's is quite ridiculous when you think about it.  Even a toddler knows food can be hot, and that you need to test it out somehow or blow on it.  That's common sense that is learned early on.

Knowing all the ins and outs of various specialized medical procedures is not like dealing with hot coffee.  It doesn't matter how much reading I did before I was in labor, there was no way I could have known the risks of the procedures done to me.  And when I was in labor, it wasn't like I could google it or go to the library to read up on it.  Neither could my husband.  We asked for explanations.  We trusted them to give it.  They failed to be completely forthright and honest.  They bullied and hurried and trampled my right to informed consent.  It doesn't matter how intelligent I am.  I couldn't stop them.

I'm not quite sure how to best educate medical practitioners who already believe they are experts in their field and don't exactly display a learner posture.  I'm not quite sure how to help those of them who believe they are little gods discover that they are, in fact, completely mortal and fallible.  I don't know how to help an honestly good-hearted medical care provider understand that not all of her colleagues are honest or good-hearted, that they could, in fact, be somewhat malicious.

Sometimes I want to just throw in the towel.  Stop fighting.  Stop telling my story.  Stop working to support women and bring about change.  I mean, there are bigger, more important battles in this world to fight, right?

But then I think about me.  What if someone like me comes along again?  What will she do?  Will she feel all alone and without resources?  Will she know that she has rights?  Will she know what things to ask, what to look for?  Will her marriage make it through such a trauma?  Will her mothering unfold with joy?  Just because there are more drastic travesties in this world doesn't mean that this is not a cause worth fighting for.

And so I keep on speaking, tired as I am.  One day, maybe doctors and nurses and midwives will finally be up on all the evidence based research that contradicts their protocols.  One day, maybe hospitals and medical providers will abide by the laws and protocols that govern them.  One day, human rights in childbirth may actually be a reality for women everywhere.  And one day, maybe medical practitioners will remember that one of the best tools for professional development is to always have a learner posture somewhere in their psyche.  Maybe one day they will learn that some of their best teachers are not keynote speakers at their professional conferences, but the very people they serve. And maybe some of them will learn to really listen, whether it's words spoken aloud or in print.

It's a dream anyway.