I can still remember so clearly how after I delivered each of my three children, they were checked over and poked and prodded and checked again. By doctors. Nurses. Our own pediatrician. They were all over 9 lbs. at birth, so they had all their chubby little feet pricked every three hours to ensure that their sugar was regulated.
Their eyes were evaluated. And ears. And every other part from head to toe. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But what I can’t help but find alarming, now looking back, is how little we, the postpartum mothers, are worried about and fretted over in those moments after birth, compared to our newborn babies.
A recent NPR article is highlighting this very issue for an important reason, and tells some harrowing tales of women who needed far better medical care postpartum, yet sadly did not receive it.
Usually, within 48 hours of pushing out another human — barring any unforeseen issue — our bags are packed and we’re on our way out the door, baby in hand. We are given a few pamphlets on nursing and postpartum depression. We are allowed to take home the mesh panties and ice diapers. We are told to call the doctor if we pass blood clots larger than a quarter. And for many of us, that’s about it.
NPR’s eyeopening report, “‘If You Hemorrhage, Don’t Clean Up’: Advice From Mothers Who Almost Died”, tells the disturbing stories of many women who suffered severe childbirth complications. Some were life-threatening, though ultimately the mothers survived. Others, however, did not. Survivors tell of placental abruptions, of preeclampsia, of sepsis, of hemorrhages, and of HELLP syndrome (just to name a few).
So why isn’t postpartum care something more people are talking about? It seems that now, after a long period of silence, we finally are. In May, NPR and ProPublica published the results of a six-month-long investigation into the maternal death rate in America. As it turns out, the U.S. has the worst maternal death rate of any developed nation. Just think about that for a second.
And according to new research from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center, more and more hospitals in rural areas are closing down their maternity wards. It’s part of a growing — and disturbing — trend: When hospitals are in financial trouble, maternity ward costs are the first to get slashed.
So now that our ears are perked, maybe stories like the ones featured in NPR — as difficult as they might be to read — will finally get medical profession (and mothers) to pay attention. To be more educated. To self-advocate. To know what to look for and how to respond. Because it’s about time we should.
The article opens with Marie McCausland’s terrifying story of preeclampsia (a condition commonly diagnosed, but usually only before a baby is born). Marie’s symptoms — of intense pain in her upper chest, blood pressure rising, and being so swollen that she barely recognized herself in the mirror — didn’t show up until after delivery. She was already home, ready to start her life with her new baby. It was only because she had heard of the tragic passing of New Jersey nurse Lauren Bloomstein, who had died from the same condition, that Marie thought she had better get to the hospital. Once there, she was initially told by an ER doctor that she was experiencing “normal postpartum symptoms,” but thankfully, she self-advocated and saw another doctor who properly diagnosed her. It was because she didn’t give up on herself that Marie is here to tell her story.
The other mothers interviewed for the article shared the same recurring theme: Many admitted they had known almost nothing nothing about the complications that nearly killed them. Even in cases where they felt strongly something was wrong, doctors and nurses didn’t always believe them (at least not at first). “Mothers especially lacked information about risks in the postpartum period,” the report states, “when medical care is often disjointed or difficult to access and the baby is the focus of attention.”
Like Marie, another mother named Emily McLaughlin says that “Every single nurse, pediatrician and lactation consultant dismissed my concerns as hormones and anxiety.” But as it turns out, Emily had suffered a stroke and other complications after giving birth and required immediate medial attention.
There is good news, however. NPR reports that hospitals, medical organizations, and maternal safety groups are stepping up their game, by introducing “a host of initiatives aimed at educating expectant and new mothers and improving how providers respond to emergencies.”
Honestly, that can’t happen soon enough. Mothers need to know what is normal, what is not, and what could be a possible emergency situation — and they need to be willing and able to self-advocate. I know so many women (myself included) who researched hospitals and ensured their birthplace had a NICU incase baby had complications. But I never thought of asking about myself. What if I had complications? Was I at a state-of-the-art hospital, prepared to handle anything that could go wrong with me?
One mom named Kristina Landrus wishes she had done some homework on her local hospital for this very reason.
“While my doctor was amazing, we live in a smaller town and [the hospital didn’t] carry enough blood/platelets on hand for very emergent situations,” she told NPR. “They have patients shipped to larger hospitals when they need more care. Had I been aware of that, we would have decided to deliver at a larger hospital so in case something happened to me or our daughter, we wouldn’t be separated — which we were when I was life-flighted out.”
Another incredible piece of advice is given by Valerie Bradford, whose story gives the article its title.
“If you have a hemorrhage, don’t clean up after yourself!” she wants. “Make sure the doctor is fully aware of how much blood you are losing. I had a very nice nurse who was helping to keep me clean and helping to change my (rapidly filling) pads. If the doctor had seen the pools of blood himself, rather than just being told about them, he might not have been so quick to dismiss me.”
There are also other small but important pieces of advice for mothers to know — like getting to know your OB or midwife well before birth, asking for more time with him or her as some medical professionals are fully booked and rush through appointments, and to listening to your body. Don’t shrug something off if you think something is wrong. It could be the difference of whether or not you are there to watch your baby grow up.
The message that we need to be sending new mothers is becoming increasingly clear: Don’t forget about you. Your health is just as important as your new baby’s, so fight for it.