Conditions that threaten women’s lives in childbirth & pregnancy

Father's/ partner's experiences in hospital

We spoke to ten husbands/male partners, and one lesbian partner, of women who experienced a life threatening condition in childbirth or shortly afterwards. Partly, this was to help fill in the gaps of their partners’ experiences, as the women are often unconscious for many hours or days during the emergency. But we also wanted to understand men’s experiences of nearly losing their partner and baby, and how they were treated and supported in the hospital. Women themselves also told us what they knew of how it had affected their partner, and how frightening and traumatic it could be.
The men we spoke to told us of their experiences of their wives’ labours and the start of the emergency. For some, there was a long build up before things started to go wrong. Simon described feeling “impotent” as his wife was in labour, “going through something as intense as that, and as uncomfortable as that, as unpleasant and painful as that”.
For others, the emergency developed very quickly. Mark and his wife had rushed to hospital in an ambulance when she started bleeding. He tried to remain “calm” and “passive”. But once they arrived at the hospital, “all hell broke loose” and “I just watched what was going on. I had nothing to do. I was powerless, completely powerless.” Amy and Sally, lesbian partners, were both in the delivery suite when Amy started to haemorrhage. Sally was asked to leave the room. Other partners, such as John, were also left alone when the emergency was being managed, and said that in the rush of the emergency they were not given an explanation as to why they needed to leave, which had been very traumatic.
Sarah was in intensive care after she haemorrhaged. She described how her husband,  found it “very hard to cope with the fact that the nurses brought him in and he had to say goodbye before they transferred me, when I was sort of in this coma. And it was a complete shock to him, he had no idea that this could happen… he was so unprepared.”
Dean’s wife had amniotic fluid embolism (AFE), a very rare complication of pregnancy in which amniotic fluid, fetal skin or other cells enter the woman’s blood stream and trigger an allergic reaction, and was critically ill. He described going down to see her in the Intensive Care Unit. It was like a “space ship” – “she was like on the bed and it looked like a hundred doctors around her and she was swollen… and I just took one look and I just come back out because I couldn’t face seeing her like that.” Not knowing whether their wives were alive or dead, as Simon said, “Fearing the worst”, was very distressing. Craig was also very upset by seeing his wife in Intensive Care.
Several men described the support they had during the emergency from either relatives or medical staff. Simon was glad he had his Mum there, Sarah made sure her father was with her husband, during her operation, and Alison described how staff made sure her husband had someone with him. Small acts of support from medical staff during the emergency could really help men cope.
Mike and his wife, Joanna (Interview 07), lost their baby after an internal haemorrhage. His wife begged him not to leave her, and so he refused to leave her side. The anaesthetist put her arm around him when he was holding his stillborn baby and his wife – a simple act but one which made a difference to him.
Michael’s partner, Helen had HELLP syndrome (a combined liver and blood clotting disorder)and their baby was born early. He felt the communication from doctors during the emergency was very good, if overwhelming. “I think they did a wonderful job of trying to explain it in a way that a medical dummy like me could sort of understand things.” But other men we talked to did not feel the communication was good at all. Hannah said her husband, Simon, a couple of times “walked up to the doors and had been told to go away. I think that was just a horrible experience for him. He didn’t know anything, he thought I had died.” John felt he was not listened to during the early stages of his partner’s emergency, “a second class citizen”, and was left for three or four hours in the blood stained delivery suite before anyone came back to give him news. While it is difficult for staff to communicate when dealing with the emergency of saving their partner’s lives, when they did communicate with the father, it made a difference.
Rob was horrified when he went to see his wife that the nurses implied she was dying; they told him she might be able to hear him because they said, “The hearing is the last thing to go”. When he went in to see her in the Intensive Care Unit, “I stood there just dumbstruck at what I was looking at. You know my beautiful wife, just you know, dead… you know what else are you going to think?” Mandy, who had a hysterectomy after developing acute fatty liver, also felt that communication with her husband could have been better. “So from the father’s point of view quite traumatic, and again you know, probably could have been handled better by myself, and the midwives and the staff, in that he should have been pulled aside and just said, ’look you know this could potentially be quite tricky.’” (For more see ‘Communication with health professional).
The other aspect of the emergency that men found difficult was dealing with their newborn baby (see ‘Contact with newborn baby and bonding’ and ‘Baby in neonatal unit (NICU)’). For some there was the shock of discovering that their baby was ill and needed to be in neo-natal intensive care. But for others, there was the challenge of looking after their newborn while their mother was seriously ill. Men had different experiences in different hospitals. For Simon it was a frustration. He was not allowed to take his daughter home. She was looked after in the midwives’ station. John was not allowed to take his daughter home either, but he did care for her in the hospital. “I had a few days of intensive training on nappy changing and bathing and things… It was quite hard doing all that with no sleep.” James was allowed to take his new daughter home while his partner remained in hospital.

Men (and lesbian partner) we talked to described how hard it was being pulled in two directions – joy at the arrival of their new baby and terrible fear for the health of the mother. James said, “I was very aware that kind of my head was being pulled in two different directions at the same time. Because there was this kind of, I’d got this daughter, I’d also got this unconscious partner.” 

Last reviewed April 2016.


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