The heartache of losing my baby was made more painful by the NHS's callous indifferenceHelen Carroll hoped for a daughter but came into complicationsShe was told she had lost her baby during a scanWas then left waiting for an operation which never took place
07:50 GMT, 19 December 2012
Nurses were unable to find a heartbeat when Helen Carroll attended went for a scan following complications during her pregnancy
From the second those two blue lines appeared on the pregnancy test stick, I’d looked forward to breathing in my baby’s scent and nuzzling its soft, downy cheeks.
In the first few weeks of my pregnancy, I’d fantasised about the wonderful life that lay ahead for my little one. Already the proud mother of a 20-month-old little boy, I had hoped to be blessed with a daughter — beautiful, clever and kind — who might one day become a doctor or an artist — and even a loving mother herself.
But Mother Nature had other plans: eight-and-a-half weeks into my pregnancy, I started to bleed and was referred for an ultrasound scan to the North Middlesex Hospital, close to my London home.
As the image of the tiny baby growing inside me emerged on the screen, I dug my nails into my palms, waiting anxiously for the nurse to tell me all was well. Instead, she said: ‘Helen, I’m afraid I can’t find a heartbeat.’
It took a few sickening seconds for me to compute that no heartbeat meant my baby was no longer alive.
Feeling winded — as if someone had kicked me in the stomach — my first thought was that April 19, 2004, the day my baby was due to be born, no longer had any special significance for our family.
The news was all the more difficult to bear as the previous day, a casualty doctor had told me he could ‘confidently say’ I was not miscarrying, despite the bleeding, and that he was referring me for a scan merely for my peace of mind.
However, it was not this false hope that caused me the most distress. It was the events that followed my sad discovery in that stuffy, windowless ultrasound room — treatment so inhumane I would be shocked to hear of it happening in a Third World hospital — that haunt me today.
So when I read last week that the NHS watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), is demanding that staff be retrained to show ‘dignity and respect’ to women who have miscarried babies, rather than treating them as though they are on a heartless ‘conveyor belt’ system, I was relieved and angry in equal measure.
Angry, as I imagined all those women who have suffered this loss in the nine years since my own miscarriage — up to one in three pregnancies ends this way — being treated as callously as I was.
Relieved because it seems at last that someone has finally realised that women like me deserve real care and consideration.
Before my own miscarriage, I hadn’t given much thought to what losing a baby entails, but had assumed that an unviable embryo would naturally expel itself without much pain or fanfare, a bit like a menstrual period.
Helen has been left both angered and relieved by NICE's announcement that staff be retrained to deal with women who have miscarried with 'dignity and respect'
Yet, as women who’ve experienced traumatic miscarriages will know, this isn’t always the case.
Following my scan on that mid-September morning, I was asked by a matter-of-fact doctor if I wanted an operation to have the baby suctioned out of my womb.
Surgery would be undertaken under general anaesthetic — something I would have preferred to avoid, given the risks, however small those might be.
But the alternative was to let nature take its course: bleed heavily — possibly for weeks — and perhaps discover, among the blood loss, my tiny, lifeless embryo.
'Back home, as the only person who had a physical connection with the baby, I felt isolated in my misery'
Squeamish and scared, I booked to have the operation, named Evacuation of the Retained Products of Conception (ERPC) the following day.
I was not offered counselling, and not one of the medics — who were, granted, rushed off their feet — so much as spoke to me about how I might be feeling.
Neither did they explain what was likely to happen if the baby expelled from my uterus of its own accord. I don’t recall even being told a great deal about what the surgery would entail.
At the very least, a woman whose dreams of a new baby have, in the blink of an eye, been replaced with the fear of undergoing an operation deserves a kind word or reassurance.
Back home, as the only person who had a physical connection with the baby, I felt isolated in my misery. How could I expect my husband to have bonded with our baby the way I had So I bottled up my feelings.
I was also aware how common miscarriages are, and felt pressured to get over my loss and move on.
At the age of 35, I was no stranger to grief, having lost my father and sister — and, of course, I knew this would be far easier to recover from than their deaths.
My husband, Dillon, took the following
day off work so that he could drive me to hospital for the operation and
arranged for our son, Daniel, to go to nursery.
Helen booked to have the ERPC operation but was not offered any counselling
I was told not to eat or drink anything after 6am in preparation for theatre, and to call at 10am to check if there was a free bed on the ward.
When I rang, none of the staff knew whether there would be a bed available, and a nurse said someone would get back to me shortly.
I sat by the phone, fantasising about soothing cups of tea, the essential British cure for trauma, and waited. I wasn’t just on hold physically, but emotionally. I didn’t feel I could begin properly to grieve for my loss with the baby still inside me.
Having heard nothing by 1pm, I called the ward again. Still no news.
Helen became terrified as she was left waiting for hours for the operation
When I phoned back at 3pm, I was told someone should already have informed me that there would be no bed that day and to try again the next.
/12/19/article-2250312-0E3F047400000578-138_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”Helen was told she would have to wait four more days for a re-scan after her operation did not go ahead as planned” class=”blkBorder” />
Helen was told she would have to wait four more days for a re-scan after her operation did not go ahead as planned
Too small to tell if it was a girl or boy, it looked just like the diagrams in pregnancy books of an eight-week-old foetus.
Sitting on the loo seat, I wept for this poor little mite, who we’d so looked forward to welcoming into our family.
In need of a hug, and at a loss to know what I should do, I gently wrapped the baby in loo paper, put it in my handbag and went to find my husband and son.
‘The baby’s out,’ I told Dillon, struggling to find the right words to describe what had just happened.
He put his arm around me as our son looked on, perplexed by my sad face. Huddled together, our little family of three walked back to the car.
Had the surgery I’d opted for gone ahead on time, as planned, I would have avoided such trauma.
I was relieved when a scan the following day showed that all the ‘tissue’ had come away and there was no longer a need for an ERPC.
But when I told a nurse that I had kept the embryo and had it with me as instructed, she explained that, as this was my first miscarriage, it was unlikely any analysis would be carried out.
When a woman miscarries repeatedly, embryos are tested for genetic problems — but if it’s the first time it has happened, doctors write it off as just one of those things.
So when she handed me the saline jar to deposit the embryo, I felt a little foolish.
She was clearly humouring me. It was unspoken — but we both knew my baby would simply end up in an incinerator.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I said ‘Goodbye, little one’ — conscious that this would be the only motherly duty I would ever perform for a baby I had so looked forward to nurturing.
'Had the surgery I’d opted for gone ahead on time, as planned, I would have avoided such trauma'
I never heard anything more about what happened to my baby.
As soon as I felt strong enough, I sent a letter of complaint about my treatment to the hospital’s then Chief Executive, Clare Panniker.
Her reply, which arrived more than a month later, said: ‘Unfortunately we are unable to guarantee when a patient will have an ERPC as these are performed on the emergency theatre list, which is prioritised according to medical emergency.
‘I am, however, aware that this system is highly unsatisfactory, something which your unfortunate experience has highlighted only too clearly, and I have asked that the process be reviewed as a matter of the highest priority.’
I don’t know anyone who has suffered the misfortune of being treated for miscarriage at the North Middlesex Hospital in recent years, so I cannot say whether things have improved.
Helen has said she does not know whether things have improved at the hospital where she suffered her ordeal
However, NICE has clearly noted that women who have lost babies are still being treated brutally in many NHS hospitals.
I’ve been blessed to have two more children — Isobel, eight, and Christian, four — since my miscarriage. They were born, at my request, at a different hospital.
Watching them this week with their big brother Daniel, now 11, in a rare and precious moment of unity trimming our Christmas tree, I felt a pang for their brother or sister who never made it.
In an over-stretched, under-funded hospital that baby may not have counted for much, but I will never forget my little one — and will always wonder what might have been.