Evening Standard - ES Magazine
Where better to gauge the state of the nation than an NHS labour ward. After her front-row seat in the delivery suite, Susie Lau can’t wait for a rebirth
There are times where you glance at newspaper headlines, absorb them for 10 seconds and then brush them away because they don’t really affect you. This autumn however… well, to put it bluntly, shit got real. Cuts, shortages, understaffing, strikes. None of this was felt more viscerally than at the moment I went into labour with my second child a few weeks ago.
I want to preface all of this by saying I’ve personally had nothing but attentive and brilliant maternity care under the NHS at various hospitals in north and east London. And that my own birth this time round was nothing short of smooth-as-you-like, so this isn’t a personal labour war story. While we were lucky enough to breeze calmly through, it was hard to ignore the storm around us.
When my waters broke, we scurried to a heaving labour ward reception. All the dads were asked to sit outside on the hallway floor. A heated verbal exchange was ensuing between an orthodox Jewish family and a Black couple. One group was accusing the other of being seen first. The delicately held-together tensions of our better judgement break, especially when the arrival of new life is concerned.
There are moments as you’re ebbing and flowing through labour contractions, when your surroundings are suddenly pronounced. Later on that evening, after being sent home to a curry and a birthing ball for a few hours, I came back as pushing was imminent. I was crouched over a cracked vinyl chair, breathing through contractions only minutes apart, and I spotted a woman staggering around with splatters of blood on her pyjama bottoms. She had come in because her postpartum bleeding was getting more serious. She was trying to muffle her tears when explaining her pain to the guy in reception. She had to take a seat and wait of course. We all did. I’d like to thank that spot of blood on her PJs for distracting me from the last contraction before the delivery suite was ready for me to be wheeled in.
After my remarkably short labour, in the postnatal ward the hours between 4am and 10am were punctuated by listening to my baby breathe but also by conversations floating in from the beds around me. The dad who was calling up his zero-hours contract job, trying to get time off without being sacked. The frustrated woman who wasn’t passing enough urine to be discharged. The terse conversations between the midwife and another woman about not being given postpartum pain relief. ‘I don’t feel listened to here,’ the new mum said. ‘We’re doing our best,’ was the reply. I believe her.
I felt sheepish asking if the communal tea kettle would be refilled. My tea needs were the least of the ward’s problems. The midwives looked weary before the ‘day’ had even started. I felt the urge to get up and make them rounds of toast and tea. If only there were tea about. I mean, I could go to the loo on my own and it didn’t feel like my bowels might fall out when I took a step. This to me, was a triumph.
Hence why I was discharged after barely being there for 12 hours. My bed was obviously coveted and I was happy to give it up. Then in the week following the birth, one PM resigned only for another to come in. Shit hasn’t just got real, it’s now farcically surreal. But real people are feeling the very real sharp edges of a government tenure that has hammered blow after blow on the NHS. Those muffled tears, slanging words and ill-tempered, tense conversations are haunting me still as we patiently wait for change.
“The midwives looked weary before the ‘day’ had even started. I felt the urge to get up and make them rounds of toast and tea”