Mother advocates for better care in hospitals

By Maurice Garvey

A MOTHER who gave birth to premature twins at the height of the pandemic back in May says she wants to advocate for “better care in maternity and neonatal care through the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance.”

Tallaght woman Richelle O’Byrne O’Toole gave birth to twins Ezra and Avery in May at the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, but was only allowed 15 minutes a day with her babies, as per the visitor guidelines in the hospital at the time.

Richelle Byrne OToole2 1

Richelle O’Bryne O’Toole with twins Ezra and Avery and sister Ziva

Conditions in Irish hospitals back in April and May were unlike anything the country ever witnessed before, and the unprecedented circumstances surrounding Covid-19 meant that mothers of premature babies in Holles Street were only allowed to see their newborn premature babies for 15 minutes a day.

The National Maternity Hospital told The Echo that visitor restrictions were lifted in June once the situation with Covid became a bit clearer.

Richelle said her partner was not allowed in with her for the birth, and she found the experience incredibly upsetting.

“Once checked over, we were allowed quick photos before they (babies) were taken to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit),” said Richelle.

“Then my partner was told to leave and I was taken to the postnatal ward. I was put in a room with five other women who all had their babies beside them. Whenever a baby cried I started crying. I wanted my babies beside me.

“In the morning I went up to the NICU. I was told I had two hours. I wasn’t allowed hold them. My partner wasn’t allowed in. They were four days old before I held them individually and nine days before I held them together again, then they were separated again because they needed to go back on breathing support.”

Prof Shane Higgins, Master at The National Maternity Hospital told The Echo: “We are very aware that the imposition of visitor restrictions added to the distress of parents, especially those with babies in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The pandemic, particularly the first wave, posed specific challenges for us as we worked to retain the largest complement of specialist staff to care for these, most vulnerable babies.

“We constantly review guidance available and watch domestic and international developments. As soon as infection rates decreased and it was safe to do so in June, unrestricted visiting to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was reinstated for parents whose babies were being cared for there. Unlimited visiting for parents has remained in place throughout the second wave.”

This was not Richelle’s first premature birth. Her daughter Ziva was born at 27 weeks in 2014 during “a near three month NICU stay and multiple readmissions to the Childrens Hospital.”

Not being able to hold her twins in the early days was upsetting as Richelle says it prevents bonding and “the only non-painful touch for babies is during “Kangaroo Care/Skin to Skin contact with their parents, especially their mother.”

Her entire pregnancy was “a mess from start to finish.”

“We knew it would be high risk because of my medical history and after meetings with her consultant anything after 24 weeks was a bonus.”

She needed medical treatment in the lead up to the birth for “horrendous hyperemesis” and at 19 weeks, a kick by a twin aggravated a previous spinal injury.

On another visit back to the hospital mid April, “I was upset about how much I wanted my partner to be with me, or even my mum, just anyone.”

Richelle says she spent 47 days in the hospital advocating “for my babies and for other mothers” and six months on, has been diagnosed with PTSD and PND, “which is extremely common for parents of NICU babies.”

“NICU is hard enough without restrictions. It was July before my partner saw the twins again.”

Speaking to The Echo during the week of the recent World Prematurity Day, Mandy Daly from the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance, said Richelle endured a “difficult pregnancy.”

“The decision for 15 minutes a day was based on a lack of evidence. Hospitals were making their own decisions.

Our own statement in May was that it is essential that the mother and her partner are never considered to be visitors within the neonatal unit.

They are partners in their baby’s care.

“I’ve had a premature baby at 25 weeks, it is difficult to have to walk down that corridor. Richelle had a difficult time. It affects you as a mother. When we wrote that statement, families said to us that they couldn’t ask those questions, and felt completely disempowered.

We had a mum whose baby died and she only saw the baby for 15 minutes a day.

To be fair it was similar across the world. We are in a better place now but the treatment needs to focus on both baby and family.”

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