Saturday 18 November 2017

'I was in agony', says survivor Rita who still bears painful scars 60 years later

Rita McCann at her home in New Terrace Monaghan Town
Rita McCann at her home in New Terrace Monaghan Town
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

The night after news broke that almost a third of symphysiotomy claims have been officially deemed 'unfounded', Rita McCann suffered a nightmare that she was back, almost 60 years ago, in the room where the procedure was being performed upon her.

Her hospital notes from the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street were scant but on them was clearly marked the once obscure medical term that had never been explained to the young prospective mother in 1956.

Judge Maureen Harding Clark
Judge Maureen Harding Clark

It took until 2000 for her to realise what had happened - and to find relief in meeting other women who could share the same story she did.

The process culminated in a Redress scheme described by campaigner Marie O'Connor of Survivors of Symphysiotomy as having taken a "prejudicial view of women", adding that this was borne out by the report published by Judge Maureen Harding Clark on the Surgical Symphysiotomy Ex-gratia Payment Scheme.

The report found that over 30pc of applicants' claims were unfounded.

The Judge found 185 applicants showed no physical evidence of a symphysiotomy having been carried out.

She also said it was "highly probable" that several applicants had received awards in error because she was unable to rule out the possibility that they had undergone the procedure and the medical evidence was "unsatisfactory".

Read more: €34m payout for victims of symphysiotomy

Judge Harding Clark, later in the report, said the explanation of a symphysiotomy as the unhinging of the pelvis was "too simplistic" but instead likened it to "perhaps the slight opening of a book to allow an enclosed letter to slip out".

The Judge criticised media reportage of women who had come forward with claims of symphysiotomy as "sensationalist".

However she neglected to observe that balanced reporting was not possible given that most if not all of the obstetricians involved had passed away many decades previous.

At another point, the report highlighted how some victims had used their funds with Judge Harding Clarke noting that one woman had purchased a hat - as though this was a matter that required to be addressed in an official Government report.

Marie O'Connor told the Irish Independent that the scheme's policy of not taking survivor testimony coupled with its insistence on inaccessible medical records to prove injury led to the majority being denied the disability payment.

She claimed the report "defended the practice of symphysiotomy, minimised the injuries caused, discredited applicants whose claims the scheme rejected and ignored the human rights violations of women who were subjected to this surgery".

As someone who underwent a symphysiotomy herself, Rita McCann, who received a redress payment, is clear as to how the confusion may have arisen in some women who may have thought they had undergone the procedure when in fact they did not.

"The doctors told us nothing," she said simply.

She was in the labour ward for 36 hours and given no information before she was wheeled into a single room and given a local anaesthetic, feeling an incision.

"Then I got a cramp in my right leg and then my left leg and that didn't help matters because it left me in complete agony throughout."

Rita said she went into shock. "I was looking forward to the birth of my baby," she said. "I hadn't a clue what they were doing."

She had known other woman who had a caesarean section and so expected to hear a baby's cry but when she questioned the doctor, he said her baby would not be born yet.

She recalled a trainee doctor at the time saying something about "the severity of the procedure".

Afterwards, she was given an injection to put her to sleep.

"It didn't seem to be for too long and when I woke up I was struggling for breath with a mask over my mouth," she said.

Her baby had been delivered by forceps but it was another two or three days before she got to see her son, Shane.

"I was terrified," she said, thinking her baby had died.

When she finally met him, she couldn't lift him out of the cot because she was in such severe pain from the procedure.

Two weeks after the birth, she was allowed home but she had to go to her parents for help with the baby.

It took six months before she was able to walk again properly and Rita said she was left with a deep fear of giving birth which dogged her for her next four pregnancies.

Read more: Woman who alleges unjustified symphysiotomy was performed on her didn't know for decades what procedure was carried out

Almost 60 years later, the anger over what happened is still there. Confusion over the procedure would not have arisen if the women had been told what was happening, she believes.

"Mistakes can be made but whether they did or they didn't have them, they obviously had a bad experience," she said.

Rita O'Leary from near Mallow, Co Cork was another who received a payment under the redress scheme.

"I hadn't a clue what was happening. I was knocked out," she said.

Afterwards, doctors told her it was "God's will" but never told her what procedure they had carried out on her.

After leaving hospital she recalls being "thrown to one side by the pain".

"It took a whole year before I could walk straight," she said.

She had five children in all and throughout their childhood would go upstairs to try to hide the bouts of pain she still experiences to this day.

"I was unlucky. But I didn't blame anybody. That's life. What can you do? Not a bloody thing," said Rita.

Irish Independent

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