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Birth Trauma Wristband by Rachael McGrath, Birth Trauma Association’s

How a simple wristband can help women receive trauma-informed care

Rachael McGrath, the Birth Trauma Association’s volunteer manager, describes how the new charity’s wristbands are designed to help women dealing with health professionals again after a traumatic birth receive appropriate care.

As I walk into our local hospital, I find my anxiety rising uncontrollably. Whilst the knot in my chest tightens and the room starts to close in around me, ‘I’m not safe here’ is all that runs through my mind at a rate of knots.

Before the birth of my twins almost a decade ago, I used to firmly believe hospitals were places of safety and care. Before the NHS funding and staffing crisis, I recall when a hospital was a hub where people expected to meet smiling nurses with a warm demeanour, and competent Drs, providing reassurance, comfort and solace. Yet, my dramatic emergency c-section with massive blood loss, the birth and appalling post-natal ‘care’ was a desperately traumatic ordeal. Without all the gory details, I sustained physical injuries that I still struggle with to this day, but not visible was the resultant PTSD which gripped my psyche.

After a few months floundering in a turbulent storm of motherhood, I count my lucky stars for the day that a google search led me to the Birth Trauma Association (BTA). An amazing charity which supports those who’ve been left traumatised by their experiences giving birth. I reached out to them, and was immediately offered validation, support and guidance as to how to start to recover.

As part of my path towards healing, I felt it imperative to express just how bad my experience at the hospital had been. I submitted an official complaint, and I was shocked when the reply came back weeks later, essentially dismissing my grievances, telling me to focus on the positives and move on. This disdain fuelled my simmering anger about my treatment, and I began to pursue legal action for medical negligence.

The BTA continued to support me during my legal case, and six years later, I received a substantial financial settlement. This money helped ease some financial strain, and it was certainly recognition of my experience – but it didn’t make what had happened to me any less traumatic. If anything, it served to reinforce my conviction that not all healthcare professionals were competent, capable, or even caring.

Despite a course of high-intensity CBT, I was unable to shake the conviction that hospitals were no longer a place of safety. The staff could do as much harm as good. I developed white coat syndrome and struggled to access healthcare, choosing to ignore a nagging gynae issue – which could have been easily sorted, yet fear meant I couldn’t bring myself to seek the treatment I needed. Unfortunately, in 2021, this decision was taken out of my hands, when I had a bleed so severe I required an ambulance dash to hospital. I was back in the place that had created all my issues, feeling absolutely terrified. I was sent to the ward and told that I may have a hysterectomy.

Medication had controlled the bleeding, but I sat absolutely terrified, as a staff member wandered past, pointed at me and said, ‘That’s a new one.’ I wasn’t Rachael, or Mrs McGrath. I was simply ‘That.’ I lasted less than an hour on that ward before I discharged myself.

‘I gripped her hand in fear’

A few days later, a letter arrived with a follow up appointment date. Despite all my fears, I knew I absolutely had to start engaging with the doctors. I plucked up all my courage to attend the clinic, thinking that as it was just an appointment, no harm could possibly come to me. I was utterly shocked when told I needed to have an endometrial biopsy taken there and then. I’d had this procedure done before, prior to conceiving my twins, and I had been told to take strong painkillers an hour before attending. Once – in a private clinic – I was given gas and air too. On this occasion the only preamble was ‘just hop up on the bed.’

I had thought I’d been coming along for a chat about treatment options, yet suddenly I was having a procedure. Terror consumed me, but I dutifully did as I was told. A nurse chaperone stood by my head, and as I laid on the trolley, I gripped her hand in fear.

As before, things just started to ‘happen to’ me treatment wise. I was trying to quell my panic, but as the tenaculum was clamped onto my cervix, with zero pain relief, I must have winced. The nurse was clearly exasperated by this and firmly told me to calm down. She loomed over me and delivered a stern lecture about how she had been in the colposcopy clinic that morning, and those women had been having ‘proper procedures’ done, yet they’d handled it far better than I was dealing with this mere biopsy. I couldn’t speak, I was too frozen with pain and PTSD induced fear.

The nurse, of course, knew none of this – she just saw someone she believed was making an unnecessary fuss. There isn’t a deep breath or an instruction to ‘calm down’ in the world that takes away PTSD. The procedure was completed, the biopsy taken, and I was sent home.

I came away from that appointment feeling as though, not only had I been retraumatised, but also that my previous experiences had been diminished. My bravery in going to the hospital at all had been disregarded – it counted for nothing. As I lay on the trolley with the nurse leaning over me, clearly irritated by me, I wanted to tell her everything I’d endured, all that I’d been through, and the reason I might not be coping as well as the much braver than me women in the colposcopy clinic. Yet I couldn’t speak. My voice wouldn’t come. I was just ‘That’ again.

A simple directive to use trauma-informed care

After this appointment I started to question how I could make staff aware of my PTSD. I didn’t want to have to explain the whole torrid tale to everyone I encountered, but I needed healthcare professionals to be more considerate to my psychological needs. It was at that stage I settled on the wristband. A simple directive to staff to use trauma-informed care, along with the Birth Trauma Association’s logo.

I knew from the BTA’s Facebook group alone that many women struggle to attend appointments, coming away from hospitals inadvertently retraumatised by stressed and hurried staff, simply by their not taking that little bit of time to acknowledge the patient's history, and establish trust.

In an ideal world, trauma-informed care would be the default, and would be embedded in every aspect of a hospital visit, but we know that this simply isn’t the case. If wearing our wristband can help empower a women giving them a small piece of kit in their armoury which will act as a tool to either alert staff, or at least start a conversation, I’m so glad we can provide it.

The wristband is available for purchase here

* If anyone wanted to buy us some to include in our care packs for our pregnancy after PPROM - please send to Little Heartbeats, 1 Market Street, Whaley Bridge. SK23 7AA


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