Content Warning: This article contains a recount of a traumatic birth which may be a trigger for some people.
Research has long held that redheads need more anaesthetic than individuals who don’t have red hair. It is also well known that some surgeons dread operating on redheads because of their tendency to bleed. Given my own experience of haemorrhaging during surgery and experiencing pain during one of my C-sections, I can absolutely understand why!
I am the mother of six children, all born via C-Section. It was deemed necessary that I should birth by caesarean given the size of my pelvis on X-Ray, this was back in the day when X-rays were taken to determine a woman’s suitability for natural childbirth if she was past her due date.
C-section number five was by far one of the biggest tests of my life. My consultant anaesthetist didn't make it in time and was substituted by a junior anaesthetist. The spinal anaesthetic was commenced and on initial testing no sensation was felt.
However as soon as the scalpel made the first cut into my body I felt it, I felt every stretch and every pull I knew it wasn’t right, this had not happened with my previous 4 C-sections. Panicked, I looked to the anaesthetist for help, he looked bewildered and seemed unable to offer any solution.
I was wide awake and all but one segment of my abdomen was numbed by the spinal anaesthetic. My midwife and theatre nurse alerted the obstetricians, but they said they needed to continue with the surgery, I remember in my mind trying to kick them away but of course, my legs were numb.
I realised in that moment there was no help coming for me and I had to take control myself.
I squeezed my husband’s hand so tight I nearly cut through his skin with my fingernails. I closed my eyes and prayed for help and then went into a deep meditative state. During that time two powerful scenes of human resilience came to me and gave me the courage to endure the rest of the surgery. In one scene I saw a battlefield with slain soldiers in a field staying alive until they were rescued and the other was a scene from a sacred scripture which resonated with me and gave me hope. I knew then I could get through the pain, and I did. To this day, I still have no memory of seeing my baby after he was born and before he was transferred to the nursery.
Five days after baby number 5 was born, I was home and a Mum to five kids under the age of 8. I functioned well, got on with life and slowly regained my strength. Before I left the hospital, I had arranged a review with the anaesthetic consultant who apologised for not being there and explained that the incomplete pain block was probably caused by scarring form my 4 previous C-sections.
I rarely thought about my traumatic experience in the operating theatre, that is, until the day I was triggered.
The trigger happened about three months after my C-section. At the time, I had been reading a newspaper report about a woman who had experienced a failed anaesthetic during surgery. She recounted “when the scalpel cut through her, it felt like a hot knife cutting through butter” that was it, I resonated with that sensation and suddenly all the emotions and memory flooded back to me, my life fell apart as PTSD symptoms set in and became very debilitating.
I felt scattered, my memory started failing me, I had little ability to concentrate on anything, even writing a shopping list was too much. I was hyper anxious and absolutely everything became amplified in my mind. I couldn’t sleep, I became anxious about cot death, the children's asthma fearing impending doom constantly. During the nights I’d tip-toe around the pitch-black house into my children’s bedrooms holding my hand near their noses to make sure they were still breathing. I became hypervigilant and hyper-anxious and I was making weekly visits to the family Dr with yet another 'mildly' ill child. At the same time, I was needing a root canal filling, however mysteriously my dentist was unable to deaden my gum despite several attempts, it was suspected, probably due to a mental block my brain had created after the trauma.
An intuitive friend was quick to identify something was amiss. She noticed my constant state of anxiety and need for support. Every Tuesday afternoon she would come to my house with her boys for a play date with mine and insisted I take some time out. This allowed me the time to get things into perspective and begin the recovery journey. I read books, I slept, I reflected, and I sought counselling and therapy from a holistic GP. The doctor I saw offered counselling as well as hypnosis. Two sessions of hypnotherapy enabled me to revisit the operating theatre and trauma of the birth visualising it on a screen in front of me, only this time I could turn the pain down with a dial. This was a turning point in my recovery, the memories were dimmed, and I felt order returning to my life and interestingly, my gum responded to the anaesthetic the very next visit to the dentist.
"During my C-section, I had experienced unbearable pain, but I had also found the strength to survive".
I know my experience of traumatic childbirth has positively impacted on my midwifery practice. My antennae alert me when caring for women who have experienced traumatic births or events. My empathy and compassion influence, my ability to connect, and suggest referrals to appropriate maternal health specialists to help in their recovery journey.
Birth Trauma can be either physical or psychological in nature or both if things don't feel right, you find yourself stuck on thoughts and flashbacks, talk it over with a health professional, early intervention is so important to your health and well being and that of your baby and family unit.
Validation of childbirth trauma is important, as is early symptom identification and referral to specialist maternal health professionals to help enhance healing and recovery.
If you or anyone you now have experienced childbirth trauma or traumatic events, help is available, visit one of the websites below for contact details.
AUSTRALIA: https://www.panda.org.au in
These organisations provide diagnostic checklists, education and resources to help in the recovery from the impact of childbirth trauma on women and their families.