Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meet Mrs. W - She isn't who you might think she is...

The other week - an anonymous someone - made the following comment on my blog:

AnonymousNovember 14, 2012 11:41 PM You strike me as one of the type of upper class white person who feels entitled to anything she pleases. This sort of arrogant mindset does not serve you well, it only makes you come across as snooty and reprehensible. Not everything should be accessible simply because you want it. This is a product of the over-consumption way of living that is not healthy nor admirable. It's not anyone else's problem that you have issues with squeezing a baby out of your vagina. It's not anyone else's responsibility to make sure this doesn't happen. It's YOUR responsibility to mature a bit and realize not everything in life is convenient, clean and pain-free. And it's nobody's job to make it that way.

They revealed their assumptions about me - and in doing so, demonstrated what the stereotype is of a woman who wants to avoid delivering her child vaginally and requests a cesarean. It's not a pretty picture. Entitled. Arrogant. Snooty. Reprehensible. Over-consumptive. Self-centred. Immature.

Such vitriol - no wonder this person wished to remain anonymous, it is easy to hate a stereotype and even easier when you can choose to remain nameless and faceless yourself.

So who am I really - and how does it compare to the woman this person thinks I am?

I am 33 years old. I'm caucasian. The second born child of three to two high-school drop-outs - a farmer and a waitress at the time of my birth. I was baptized Anglican. My parents divorced when I was 6 - after the farm failed in the wake of early eighties interest rates. My father graduated from college when I was nine. I went to Catholic school from grades 2 through 7. My father remarried when I was seven - and separated again by the time I was nine. I was bullied in grade school. I was confirmed Catholic. I elected to live at my father's house when I was thirteen. My mom graduated university when I was fifteen. I taught Anglican Sunday school and volunteered at the local hospital in high school. I graduated when I was seventeen. I moved out on my own and started at the University of Victoria when I was nearly eighteen. I worked full-time for most of my undergraduate studies - as a waitress at a family restaurant, as a cashier at Tim Horton's, as a hostess at Japanese Village, as a copy editor for the student newspaper, as a telephone surveyor. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Economics and Sociology and more than $18,000 in student debt. I then worked as an employment standards officer and started graduate studies in Economics. My mother remarried when I was twenty-two. I was a teacher's assistant during graduate school. I did work terms with the Ministry of Forests and Tourism British Columbia. I worked as a labour relations officer with the federal government for a year. I graduated with my Masters Degree when I was twenty four. I then did economics consulting for a year, at which time I was offered an economist position with the Vital Statistics Agency. After a year with the Vital Statistics Agency my position was transferred to the Ministry of Health. I met my husband shortly before my 28th birthday - at which time his children were 9 and 5. We married shortly after my 30th birthday. His vasectomy was reversed shortly after the wedding. I lost my grand-mother, aunt and uncle to a drunk driver the summer after I married my husband. Our daughter was conceived in the fall. I became a mother at the age of 31 and again to my son this past September.

So who am I? I am a devoted daughter, sister, step-sister, wife, step-mother, mother, and aunt who has worked hard to get where she is. I am a devoted friend. I am educated. I am an economist. I am principled. I am confident. I am independent. I am open-minded. I am responsible. I am articulate. I am thoughtful. I am hard-working. I am respectful. I refuse to be bullied. I am determined to be the kind of woman and mother that I would want my daughter to be - and to do my part to make her world a better place.

So to Anonymous - I say the following, "I know who I am, I am not ashamed, I will not be disempowered and abused - I am not the stereotype you think I am - and it's rather telling that you make such assumptions to begin with."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Silk Purse from a Sow's Ear

I am still angry about the circumstances of my daughter's birth - and I do not think that I will ever find that set of circumstances acceptable. Not for myself. Not for my friends. Not for my sister. Not for my daughter. Not for any woman living in British Columbia or Canada today or in the future. Women deserve better, their children deserve better. Not for any patient.

I am not angry that my daughter was born healthy - I am thankful for that every day. Motherhood has been a tremendous blessing - and has given me tremendous amounts of joy and wonder as I watch my children grow. Indeed, having a healthy child was my primary goal during my pregnancy - and one of the reasons I had elected for a cesarean delivery: to reduce the risk of truly adverse and life-long health consequences such as severe disability or death.

I am angry that the care I reasonably expected and was entitled to receive was withheld. I am angry at an ideology that seems to be driving the system further, and further away from quality, evidence-based, patient-centred care. I am angry that I was lied to. I am angry that I was abandoned. I am angry that the experience was terrifying and painful and physically and psychologically damaging and left me feeling utterly violated. I am angry that the circumstance was entirely unnecessary. I am angry that there exists people out there that find such circumstances acceptable. I am angry that what I experienced was likely the result of either negligence or willful disregard.

It's okay to be angry about those things - actually, I would be more worried if I wasn't angry about those things as it would likely mean that I had given up and thought that such things just did not matter. Indeed what happened was on its face, a Sow's Ear.

However, that sow's ear has supplied the material for, what someday might indeed be a silk purse. If my daughter's birth had unfolded as my son's birth did two years later - I likely wouldn't be sitting here writing this blog post. I would not have spent the last two years thinking about what quality maternity care really looks like, about what really matters and about what is poorly understood. I would not have become acquainted with an entire community of women who want better - for themselves, for their sisters, for their friends, for their daughters - an entire community of women (and some men) who believe strongly in informed consent and patient-centred, evidence-based care. I would not be pursuing a lawsuit (there would be no need to) - that might result in a precedent that other women can depend on - or at the very least will likely send the message that lying to a woman and subjecting her to a treatment that she did not consent to without cause is actionable, even if that woman was pregnant at the time.

What happened was awful (I'll happily concede it was not the worse that could have happened) - but what has happened since has made a difference and will continue to make a difference, hopefully for the better. After all, shouldn't it be the goal of every mother that her daughter should have a better go of it when it's her turn - and that's why I'm not done. Not yet - there's still a long way to go before I'll look at the situation that exists and think that it's the silk purse that it can be.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Fear of childbirth: An unjustifiable barrier to motherhood for some

Imagine for a moment your worst fear.

Imagine your deepest desire.

Now imagine being told that in order to fulfill one of your deepest desires, you must subject yourself to your worst fear.

Now imagine knowing that there is a way to fulfill your deepest desire without subjecting yourself to your worst fear - that subjecting yourself to your worse fear is completely unnecessary, that you can achieve your deepest desire some other way.

Now imagine being told that it doesn't matter that it is completely unnecessary for you to be subjected to your worst fear, that it doesn't matter that there is a perfectly acceptable alternative for you to achieve your deepest desires, that you *must* do what you do not want to do or forego your deepest desire.

This is what it is like for women who desperately want to be biological mothers but desperately want to avoid vaginal childbirth. For many of them, they know a safe, effective method of childbirth exists (elective cesarean) - but they are told that their bodies are "made to birth", that if they do not wish to do it as 'nature intended' that they should forego motherhood or adopt, that cesareans should only be reserved for those with a physical *need* for the procedure, that they are being hysterical.

Unlike some fears (ie. of clowns or non-poisonous spiders or non-venomous snakes) which may be completely irrational - the fear of vaginal childbirth has some rational basis. There is a real risk of perineal tears. There is a real risk of pelvic floor damage. There is a real risk of birth injuries including hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), and brachial plexus injuries. There is a risk that an emergent cesarean delivery may not be available or timely. There is the risk of extreme pain. Indeed, from my perspective, a fear of vaginal childbirth is wholly rational.

Further, it is not like the alternative delivery method (cesarean) available to these women is grossly expensive or inordinately dangerous compared to the conventional delivery method (vaginal birth).

So why is it that so many people think that offering women who fear vaginal birth the choice of either subjecting themselves to a vaginal birth that they do not want, or foregoing biological motherhood is anything less than cruel? And why is it that when these women are subjected to the process that they fear (perhaps without notice) that anyone is surprised that they are at a high-risk to develop PTSD as a result?

This is why it is critically important for maternal request cesarean to be unquestioningly available - because it is cruel for it not to be an option when it is an acceptable choice to meet something as basic as the desire to be a mother or to have more children. And before you ridicule some other moms choice to deliver by way of cesarean, maybe take a moment to imagine what it would be like if you were told you had to subject yourself (unnecessarily) to your worst fear in order to meet a basic desire.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Flawed Assumption of Cost-effective Natural Birth

I'm an economist by training - but more than that, I am a health economist by profession. I understand (probably better than most) the concepts of scarcity, risk, cost, expected cost and cost effectiveness. I also understand the challenges that are facing our health care system - both today and going into the future.

Perhaps that is why I am particularly perturbed when time and time again I hear that reducing the number of cesareans would save the health system money and in particular how reducing the number of maternal request cesareans would save the health system money. On it's face it seems to be such a no-brainer, after all how could an expensive surgery (cesarean birth) compete with the free birthing procedure that nature gave us (unmedicated vaginal birth)?

Of course not using health system resources is cheaper (on its face) than using the health system.

Have a heart attack and die where you stand: $0 health expenditures, alternatively have a heart attack and go to the hospital, get a coronary artery bypass and go on to live another decade or two: A whole lot more than $0 health expenditures. Develop cancer and let the disease progress as nature intended: $0 health expenditures, alternatively going to your doctor, get diagnosed (likely via some screening program), get chemotherapy/radiation therapy, and either cure the cancer or buy some additional time: A whole lot more than $0 health expenditures.

Yet there is no widespread calls for natural heart attack therapy or natural cancer care. Anyone who stood on the corner saying that people should put the needs of the health care system ahead of their own needs - would be told to apply their 'natural therapies' to themselves and to stuff it.

The natural childbirth movement is standing on the corner and shouting (rather loudly) that women should forego medical care during birth because it will save the system money. What's worse is that government seems to be encouraging them to shout even louder.

The assumption that is behind this is that intervening in birth does not buy better health outcomes. Either that or, because the better health outcomes accrue to women and their children, they simply aren't "worth it". I would hope that it is the former rather than the latter driving the "save the health system money by avoiding cesareans" mantra.

Unfortunately this assumption is flawed and very likely, very wrong.

Intervening in birth by providing pain relief or access to surgical delivery for those who want or need it does buy better health outcomes and may even save the health system money over the longer term.

Those who choose cesarean are doing so for a wide variety of reasons. They are doing it so that they may avoid the risk of an emergent cesarean. They are doing it to avoid the risk of a perineal tears. They are doing it to avoid a pelvic floor injury. They are doing it to reduce the risk of developing urinary or fecal incontinence. They are doing it to reduce the risk of severe disability or death to their unborn child. They are doing it to better arrange the support resources they need during and after the birth. They are doing it to avoid the risk of having a traumatic experience. They are doing it to reduce the risk of developing PTSD or PDD. They are doing it to protect their sex lives. They are doing it to avoid the risk of severe, uncontrolled pain.

Chances are they are doing it for several reasons and in all circumstances they are doing it because the benefits of choosing to intervene exceed the costs and/or risks of not intervening at an individual level.

I would even be so bold as to argue - that the government would do well to spend MORE on maternity than it does now as the expenditures on maternity are likely to buy more than expenditures in other areas of care. Those served by maternity services tend to be young and as such any gains in health outcomes are likely to accrue over many years. A single case of cerebral palsy that is averted could save the health care system millions of dollars in costs of future care. Avoiding a pelvic floor injury that requires subsequent repair, would likely save thousands. Avoiding a case of PTSD or PDD, again would result in significant savings.

Further, it is unclear whether or not maternal request cesarean is even significantly more expensive than planned vaginal delivery to begin with. A study entitled "Cesarean delivery on demand: What will it cost?" in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Volume 188, Issue 6, pp. 1418-1423 found that the average cost difference between women who attempted a vaginal delivery and those who had an elective cesarean was just 0.2% in favour of vaginal delivery. Hardly a cost savings to deprive women of their treatment of choice - which is perhaps why many US health insurers (arguably even more keen to save money to boost profits than Canadian medicare) now cover elective cesarean section.

So why don't we start with the assumption that healthcare providers and mothers who choose cesareans are doing so in their own best interests and that they are no more "milking the system" than those with cancer or cardiac problems are "milking the system"? And maybe, just maybe we ought to look at the real economics of birth choice - the answers might be very surprising indeed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is CDMR a societal and professional failure?

In this month's edition of Lamaze's journal Birth - Dr. Michael C. Klein will publish an article entitled "Cesarean Section on Maternal Request: A Societal and Professional Failure and Symptom of a Much Larger Problem".

I wish that this article would focus on the professional and societal failure associated with maternal request cesarean and the much larger problem. However, knowing Dr. Klein as a staunch natural childbirth advocate who is ideological in his belief that medical intervention should play a minimal role in birth; I know that this article will disparage the choice that some women make to deliver by way of cesarean as being driven by misinformation and fear and will completely fail to address the much larger problem.

I would argue that the rates of maternal request cesarean are indeed driven by misinformation and fear. In short, I believe the risks and negative impacts of vaginal delivery are understated and the risks and negative impacts of an elective cesarean delivery are overstated. Further, I believe that the advantages of vaginal delivery are systematically inflated, while those of cesarean delivery are systematically discounted. I believe that the fear of surgery drives many women to avoid it - even when a surgical delivery would have resulted in a better outcome for either mother or child than a vaginal delivery. I also believe fear and misinformation drive a lot of women to forego epidural pain relief. Yes, fear and misinformation are a big problem when it comes to birth - and likely result in lower rates of maternal request cesarean and use of epidural pain relief than would be 'ideal' as many women who would have a much better birth experience by having an elective cesarean or using epidural pain relief forego doing so based on misinformation and fear.

I also believe that the situation around maternal request cesarean is a symptom of a much larger problem. That problem is that not all women are supported when it comes to the choices that they need to make during pregnancy, labour and delivery. That the information given to women regarding pregnancy, labour and delivery is heavily biased. That many women have difficulty finding a provider and a care facility that will be supportive and respectful of a mother's requests for cesarean delivery and in many cases even access to epidural pain relief. That many other women seem to think that it is okay to criticize the informed choices some women make to deliver by way of cesarean or use epidural pain relief.

I will also agree with Dr. Klein that the system of maternity care, particularly in British Columbia, is in dire need of reform - all pregnant women need to be supported and empowered to meet their own needs with unbiased information and access to medical care including access to surgical delivery and epidural anesthesia on request. All pregnant women need to know what their choices are, the risks and benefits of those choices and to have the right to informed consent. Further, all pregnant women need to know that their choices will be respected and confident that just because they are pregnant does not mean that they lose the right to decide what is done with their body.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mum's the Word on Maternal Choice Cesarean

I never had any desire to have a vaginal birth. In another time or place, I may have considered foregoing motherhood or adopting rather than subjecting myself to the conventional whims of nature. However, knowing that cesarean was an option, I knew that foregoing biological motherhood would be an unnecessary toll for wanting to avoid a vaginal birth. I knew that cesarean birth was a feasible (safe and effective) way to have a baby - I lived in a first world country and could find nothing that indicated that women in Canada weren't allowed to have cesareans on demand or that such a choice would be inaccessible in my own community. For myself, it was clearly preferable over conventional birth. It seemed to me that the biggest challenge would be finding a doctor to accede to the request-but given the controversy around maternal choice cesarean, I knew that while many doctors would not accede to a request, that many other doctors would. I felt confident that I could secure a maternal choice cesarean before I even got pregnant - even if it would have meant travelling to access care.

That being said, I also knew that rejecting a conventional birth (a trial of labour in a hospital) would not be a socially acceptable choice. None the less, I was open about my plans during the pregnancy with my daughter. Not because I wanted the stamp of approval from others, but because I felt that it was important for others to know that it was an informed choice that I had made freely. A choice I felt best met my needs and those of my child. That I was happy with choosing cesarean, and that any concern about my birth plan was misplaced.

By the time I was admitted to hospital for the birth of my daughter, there was nothing that had been said to me that had changed my mind about vaginal birth or cesarean birth - not for the lack of trying by others and a hefty dose of misinformation about cesareans. Others regaled me with the horrors of cesarean birth - It's major abdominal surgery! The recovery is horrid! What about the scar! Adhesions! Infection! They further regaled me with the virtues of vaginal birth - it's the way nature intended! With an epidural, it's not painful! The recovery is easy! Thanks, but no thanks. Conveniently absent in the vaginal birth love-in was any acknowledgement of the virtues of cesarean (indeed it does have advantages) or the genital warts of conventional birth (indeed conventional birth is not completely a thorn-free bed of roses).

I was even open about my choice with hospital staff when I was in hospital awaiting for the cesarean that did not happen for the birth of my daughter.

My experience of vaginal birth proved to me why I had wanted to avoid it in the first place, even in the absence of the worst consequences of vaginal birth. I pooped in front of people. I experienced the worst pain of my life. I was terrified. I tore. My daughter needed narcan and resuscitation. I was left feeling violated and abandoned. I developed a vaginal infection. For more than a year afterwards, I had mild urinary incontinence. My enjoyment of intimate relations with my husband was adversely impacted. Memories of my daughter's birth continued to haunt me, and rather than looking at photos of that day with a sense of joy or accomplishment, they are a reminder of the worst experience of my life. I felt socially isolated among other mothers, particularly those with strongly held beliefs about conventional birth.

After my daughter's birth I understood why so many women who prefer birth by cesarean are mum about their preferred path to motherhood. I understood why some mothers make up a medical reason for their cesarean - it is far more socially acceptable to say you had no choice in the matter and in some cases making up a medical excuse might be the only way to access care. In some cases, where cesarean is seen as being inaccessible, some women are choosing to forego motherhood - choosing to prevent pregnancy, adopting or aborting. Other mothers are paying a hefty financial price for their preferred method of birth.

Indeed, during my pregnancy with my son, I found myself being a lot more mum about my choice.

However, being mum doesn't help other moms who share the same view on birth. Being mum does not make it easier for the next mom to make and exercise her choice. It does nothing to ameliorate the undeserved stigma or shame associated with being a woman who would prefer to avoid a conventional birth and choose cesarean. It does little to address the misinformation or myths about mothers who choose cesarean (the vast majority of whom are not "too posh to push"). It does little to address the misinformation or myths about elective cesareans as medical procedures - or even the misinformation or myths about other birth related medical procedures (such as epidurals). It does little to address the problem of those who would seek to deny moms like me their chosen path to motherhood and it does little to help women make truly informed decisions about the birth choices available to them (have I ever blogged about how little data is out there on maternal request c-sections and how they are not formally tracked in administrative databases???). Maternal choice cesarean needs to be an accessible, accepted, and respected choice - and as such moms like me can remain mum no longer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Is encouraging homebirth in British Columbia to save healthcare dollars going to come at the expense of women and babies?

This morning I woke up to an article in my local paper with the headline Health Minister encourages home births in low-risk cases.

While I support the option of home birth as an informed choice that should be supported with access to qualified and regulated care providers in low-risk situations, encouraging it is another matter, and encouraging it to save money strikes me as being unethical and short-sighted.

I am tremendously thankful that home birth in British Columbia is highly regulated with care providers who are well trained - as it reduces the harm that may be incurred by those who would choose this option anyways. Further, I will begrudge nobody a natural childbirth - if that is what the woman giving birth desires. However, knowing that home birth in the Netherlands has led to low-risk women undergoing home birth to have worse outcomes than high risk women undergoing hospital birth with an OB, gives me pause for thought. The idea that in the vast majority of studies on home birth perinatal and maternal mortality and morbidity is significantly higher than that experienced with hospital birth (with the exception of the one study cited in the article), again gives me pause for thought. Knowing that a low risk woman can go from being low-risk to high-risk in a matter of minutes, further gives me pause for thought. Knowing that some of the consequences of birth gone wrong can be life long and devastating, further gives me pause for thought. Lastly, knowing there's a lot that "low-risk" women, particularly first-time mothers may not be told about birth and its attendant risks, makes me think that encouraging home birth is irresponsible. It also worries me that such a statement coming from the head of the ministry, a former doctor, may make women think that Homebirth is safer than it really is.

Further, such a stance worries me that the Ministry of Health in British Columbia thinks that it is okay to restrict access to medical care for women during labour and delivery for low risk women. After all if low risk women outside of the hospital do not need medical care (epidurals, cesareans) - then why should low-risk women in the hospital need access to these services?

I would further hope that rather than encouraging a risky birth option such as home birth (note this is ALL about saving money) that the Ministry would strive to make safe birth options (in the hospital) more accessible, available, attractive and more cost-effective. Doing otherwise is just saving money at the expense of women and babies - and there's something very wrong with that.