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“I can’t detect the heartbeat” -A dreaded sentence. It still hits me in the face.
I was 23 and pregnant -unplanned but I knew I didn’t want to have an abortion. I had been using contraception, but these things happen. Shortly after we found out I broke things off with my boyfriend as I didn’t see a future with him anyway, and decided to go it alone. It was going to be tough, but I knew it would be the best thing to do for me and my future child.
My first appointment went normally, the nurses were nice, and I filled in the usual forms. I looked a lot younger than my actual age and I was very aware of this, it’s always been something that has worked against me. As there was a query over gestational ageing I was sent for a scan. I think I had missed at least two periods, but was unsure if more. The doctor had guessed I was about 10 weeks along.
Going for the scan by myself everything happened so quickly. “I can’t detect the heartbeat” was all that was said at first, that sentence ringing in my ears and hanging in the air for what seemed like an eternity. As utterly devastating as that moment was, I knew there was no hope. I knew I was far enough along for a heartbeat to be detected. They estimated the foetus to be around 8 weeks or so, meaning the pregnancy had ceased about two weeks prior to my scan. I waited, shocked, to hear about how they would go about a D&C. But it was not mentioned. Instead they hurriedly tried to tell me “there’s still hope as you aren’t bleeding”, and “we just have to wait and see, but there’s nothing we can do”. I was confused, even more confused and lost than I had been at hearing the news I had miscarried. What did they mean, was the scanner broken? Even still, they knew the growth should have been more than 8 weeks along…
I got the bus home and waited to bleed. Still hanging on to a tiny bit of hope that they were correct -that somehow the machine was broken and that all their vast knowledge had failed them. I knew that wasn’t the case, they knew that wasn’t the case. This was simply protocol in a country where doctors and nurses fear prosecution, fear for their jobs. In a country that lets their women run the risk of infection, while trying to deal with an already tragic situation. They booked me in for another scan, 3 weeks after this incident. I went home and told a select few family and friends, although I had no answers to tell them. And waited for the pain and bleeding to begin, while still clinging to a tiny shred of hope.
Fast forward two weeks, a couple of days before my next scan. I began to bleed. Finally. It was a relief, and I say that with utmost honesty. This story could finally be over, and I could grieve and get on with my life. In between scans I had no medical help or contact with a doctor. I was left confused, upset and then terrified as I realised the deceased foetus in me was ticking time bomb for infections and issues. At last, I was bleeding. For those of you who have never been through a miscarriage in Ireland, let me tell you -It’s not like what you might see on American TV. You don’t just get to rock up to the emergency department and ask for a scan, or even pain killers. Your told you’re just bleeding, like a miscarriage is a normal thing, so there is nothing they can do. Usually with an “I’m so sorry” thrown in. But you need an appointment for a scan. Even though I had never been in this experience, I knew my own country. Still, I rang the hospital, explained the situation. They instructed that I come to the appointment time as normal.
Back to the early pregnancy unit for my scan the following week, I was waiting hours for the appointment and surrounded by both happily pregnant women and crying babies zipping past in trolleys from the maternity ward nearby. I was still bleeding from before the weekend. I have a pain condition anyway (Ehlers-Danlos syndrome), so I can handle pain quite well, but I was uncomfortable. I was exhausted and weak and didn’t feel right at all. Eventually I was brought in and scanned, and they confirmed that I had definitely miscarried. They had my first scan on file I noticed, and I asked if I could have a copy of the photo, feeling quite silly for even asking... Part of me thought it would be a nice momentum, the other part of me was just so physically weak from bleeding that I thought they would think I was being morbid and overly sentimental. I was sharply told no. I wasn’t given a reason. I wasn’t given pain killers, or antibiotics, or advice. The nurses were lovely -kind, compassionate… but nothing was their decision. I was told everything had passed and sent home.
But I kept bleeding. Days passed in a haze; I was so weak and tired. My hips were in agony, I could barely walk. I went to my GP who took one look at me and said it was a medical emergency. Infection was overtaking, and it was clear I needed a D&C. Being over polite (as I can be, especially back then) and being so confused mentally from blood loss, I rang the early pregnancy unit to ask advice. I explained what my GP had said but was wondering if best to show up now (evening time) or wait until the following morning, when they might be less busy. The nurse I spoke with was incensed, how dare my GP tell them how to do their job. She told me I was fine and didn’t need to be seen, before hanging up. This began an argument between my GP/ the receptionist and the hospital, all over phone. I eventually went in, but was very wary after everything. The same nurse greeted me, and I could tell she was still annoyed…
I wasn’t kept in, there was no mention of it at all. They were busy, the hospital was like a warzone. I was given an injection to help close the uterus. I wasn’t given pain killers, I wasn't given anesthetic, I wasn’t given antibiotics. I was told “things will be better one day, when you’re married” and “god will bless you one day when you are older”. The annoying assumption of religious beliefs, as forever rife. Either way, what a ridiculous comment to make to any human being. Looking young was biting me in the ass again, they thought I was a child. Not that that matters, no one should be spoken to like that. A lot of sane, healthy, normal people have children without being married! You’re told the pain is “normal”, you should be in pain. Along with the other comments, this is beginning to feel like a punishment for being unwed. Ridiculous notions that no one would get get away with saying to healthy people, who aren’t in the midst of infection and confusion. I was too sick to say anything back. My head was in a spin, this wasn’t the 1950’s -it was 2008. I could barely walk and was left to get bus home to my own town.
My GP gave me painkillers and antibiotics the next morning, screamed the place down, put in complaints. But none of that can change the laws. I should have had a D&C to begin with, the very moment we found out I had miscarried. Though the extent of it lessoned, I still bled for weeks. However I never went back to the hospital.
Other people may wish to point out that “these things happened before the 8th amendment was introduced in 1983”. True. And that was also very, very, wrong. But now we have it shrouded in law, written in stone that these things are ok, that these things should continue to occur. Without overturning the 8th amendment, we can’t change anything. Maternity healthcare should be progressing along with everything else in society, not staying stagnant or moving backwards.
I didn’t decide to tell this story lightly. Like many Irish women, I have several stories to tell about how the 8th amendment has affected me -during my cancer diagnoses or having to wait for x-rays/ not being believed that I wasn’t pregnant, even with a pregnancy test. But none of these minor annoyances really cut it. I knew at some stage I would have to talk openly about my miscarriage experience, in raw detail, and why I was left at risk like that. I have no idea yet of the long-term implications of it all, and we won’t know until I try for children. But I knew at some stage that I wanted to be open about it all, if it reached just one person who didn't understand life under the 8th.
This is my story. This doesn’t always happen during miscarriage. Some women are “lucky” (and obviously I use that term lightly) in that it’s more straight forward… But my story should have been straight forward. I should have had a D&C when my body failed me. I shouldn’t have had to wait, because of some archaic law that a foetus is the same as me, holds the same rights… My wanted pregnancy had ended. All the hope in the world was never going to change that. All the most ridiculous laws in the world WAS NEVER GOING TO CHANGE THAT. Instead I was left riddled with infection and an uncertain fertility future.
And you know what? I’m still here. I *was* lucky.
I was made suffer because of the 8th amendment, but I lived.