Guest post by Brenda Gabriel. Content warning: miscarriage and racial bias
The writer of this guest post was paid for her contribution thanks to sponsorship from period and leak-free underwear brand Modibodi, and donations from Hysterical Women readers. Thank you to all of them for their generosity in supporting this #BlackWomensHealthMatters series.
My experience of a miscarriage sometimes feels like it happened to someone else. I hadn’t realised my frustration and anger at how I was treated had disassociated me from the experience.
Three years ago, I discovered I was pregnant with what would have been our fourth child. The start of the pregnancy ran smoothly, and at 12 weeks we were ready to share our news. Around the same time, we booked a weekend stay at the Grand in Brighton as a 50th wedding anniversary present for my in-laws.
On the day we were to travel, I noticed some mild bleeding and cramping. This hadn’t happened during previous pregnancies, so I called the hospital who didn’t think it was anything to worry about. We decided it would be ok to travel.
We had planned to tell my in-laws during dinner that night, but something told me to hold off.
Back at the hotel, still bleeding and cramping, I started to feel concerned. I figured if things weren’t better by the morning I would call the hospital.
At 4am I was woken by cramps that felt like strong period pains. The small amount of blood was now bright red. I knew something was wrong, but figured I’d be fine once I could get seen.
I woke my partner to tell him I’d take a cab to the hospital. He convinced me to call an ambulance.
The paramedics arrived and, instead of feeling relief, I felt under scrutiny. Upon laying eyes on me, arms cradling my tummy on the bed, their demeanour went from concerned to unfazed in less than a blink of an eye. I could sense the exact moment it happened.
It was not the first time I’d been on the receiving end of the very subtle shift that takes place when someone appears bemused that I am black – usually because Brenda Gabriel sounds very English. If you are reading this as someone who has no experience of prejudice, you may question how I could possibly know it had anything to do with my race. After 38 years of navigating UK life, it becomes like a sixth sense.
I can clearly remember, through the pain, feeling disbelief that both male paramedics seemed more interested in our family dynamic – looking bemusedly from my partner, to me, to our sleeping children – than getting me to hospital.
I was eventually escorted to an ambulance, through the hotel lobby, in total silence. There was no feeling of sympathy. I may as well have been being escorted to a police van. I felt embarrassed, like potentially losing my baby was an inconvenience.
I was put on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance. The awkward silence was broken by them informing me I could have gas and air, to which I agreed.
One paramedic was sat in the back with me. He asked a series of standard questions: next of kin, address, etc. There was a slight pause before his final question and, although he phrased it to sound like part of the line of enquiry, I knew it wasn’t: “Are those kids in the bedroom yours?”
In my haze of pain I remember thinking, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ What was he insinuating?
I felt embarrassed and judged. What did he think he had seen in the bedroom? A white man and fair-skinned children in bed, in an expensive room at the Grand? As a black woman, did I not fit the picture?
When we arrived at the hospital, I was handed over to the doctors with a perfunctory explanation.
The first sympathy I received was from a nurse in a miserable looking triage room, off the empty A&E waiting area. “Oh darling! Oh darling! You poor thing!” she said, as I rocked in pain.
I remained on gas and air, and was offered pain relief at least five times without being told anything about the situation that prompted the need for said pain relief. Was I losing the baby? Could something be done about it?
I felt like a specimen. Lots of people I didn’t recognise came in and out of the room, while I lay on the bed in agony, feeling vulnerable. Some medical students came to gawp at the women who might be miscarrying.
After a short while, I felt a massive whoosh and easing of pressure. At the time I remember thinking it felt like a period overflow. I looked under the cover, confused as I saw almost no blood.
The nurse asked if the pain had eased. I wondered how she knew. Then it dawned on me that my waters had broken.
“I’ve lost the baby, haven’t I?”
She replied: “I don’t know darling.”
I’d had no idea what to expect. Up until that point, it never occurred to me that I would leave the hospital no longer pregnant.
A gynaecologist came to do a quick examination. He explained that he would use a speculum to remove the plug of the womb, to let ‘things’ come out. A female nurse held my hand.
I felt a little pain, and when he’d finished he wrapped something up in a bed pad, which I presumed was some blood clots. He asked me to fill in some forms to say I give permission for an autopsy to be completed.
At this stage I wasn’t aware my baby had been removed. As I lay waiting for the next stage, it occurred to me that at 14 weeks my baby would look like a baby. I expected to be told I might pass the baby soon, but nothing further was said before he left the room.
It never occurred to me that the ‘trash’ he wrapped up was my baby.
Another doctor came into the room. He read some notes before sitting down beside me, getting down to my level, and telling me I’d had a miscarriage. He apologised, saying there was nothing that could be done. I questioned in my head if there was.
He stayed in the same position, looking at me in silence. I started to feel uncomfortable, wondering why he wasn’t getting up to leave, before I realised he was waiting for me to cry.
I felt like an actress in a soap opera, who’d just had her cue. Only this was real life. I raised my hands to my eyes in a dramatic fashion any soap star would be proud of and burst into tears, not quite sure if I actually wanted to cry or was just doing what was expected.
Though the tears were real, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a staged performance.
Seemingly satisfied he’d done his caring bit, the doctor returned to full height and apologised again before leaving the room.
No one at any stage volunteered to tell me what they were doing. When I asked the doctor what had happened, he tells me the clots have all come out. At no point did he tell me he had taken my baby.
Still in a state of shock, I didn’t even think to ask if my baby was still inside me or where they had been taken.
A final young doctor came in to tell me there wasn’t much more they could do for me, and I can return to the hotel.
I was handed a yellow copy of my autopsy form, with a single leaflet about miscarriage and support numbers. No follow up advice, nothing about what had happened to my baby, or what to expect over the next few days.
I got dressed alone, feeling shell shocked. I have never felt so alone as I did at that moment.
Back in London, I call my local hospital to explain I wouldn’t be able to attend my scan because I had miscarried my baby. The lady on the other end of the phone said, matter of factly, “Ok, thanks for letting us know”, adding that she will amend the records accordingly. She didn’t ask if I was ok, or offer any platitudes. I put down the phone feeling worse than I did when I started.
I called the hospital in Brighton to find out if there was anything I should do after a miscarriage. I was told I should have been offered post-miscarriage support from a bereavement midwife, and the hospital arranges to have one call me later.
The bereavement midwife promised to find out what had happened to my baby, and make sure it wasn’t disposed of. She also told me of a local funeral parlour that offered free funeral services for babies born too soon.
As she asked questions, I got more and more upset because I realised I should never have had to suffer the indignity of passing my baby in a triage room. She told me I should have been taken to the early pregnancy unit or the labour ward. With every “no” I responded, I felt more and more heartbroken by what had been taken away from me.
Her final question broke me: “Did you get to see your baby?”
I responded: “I didn’t even realise that was an option.”
At that point I started to cry, realising I would never have the chance to see, hold or say goodbye to my baby.
If I hadn’t insisted on calling the hospital I would have no idea about the treatment and support I should have received, and it still breaks my heart.
I don’t often call race into question around my treatment in life. But this experience was one occasion where I couldn’t marry up the treatment I had as a 35-year-old black woman with what I would expect a middle class white woman to receive.
If I could go back and give myself advice it would be to speak up at every stage where things didn’t seem quite right, even though I felt vulnerable. As women we are too often quick to dismiss our own feelings and experiences as not valid, and we are often treated as such.
Being afraid to cause a fuss meant I missed out on the chance to say goodbye to my baby – something I can’t ever get back. If my story helps just one woman find the strength to take up space, my experience and loss will not have been in vain.
Throughout October, Hysterical Women readers can get 15% off Modibodi’s collection using the discount code HystericalWomen. This excludes sale items and bundles.
Modibodi’s sponsorship of #BlackWomensHealthMatters has paid the contributor fees of three of our five guest bloggers this month, while donations from Hysterical Women readers helped to fund an additional two paid guest posts.