"As I sat there weeping, my legs covered in blood, I wondered if the NHS would have the sheer gall to treat men this way."
Charity PR manager Vanessa Langford, 41, miscarried five times in-between having her first and second child.
Here, she tells Stylist about her experience at the hands of an overburdened and dismissive NHS service - from the doctor who told her "You aren't bleeding enough" to the hospital letter that demanded to know why she hadn't attended a scan, several weeks after she lost her baby:
"The moment I saw the look on the sonographer’s face, I knew. He ran the palm of his hand flat over his mouth and turned to face my husband and me.
"I’m sorry," he said. "But there’s no heartbeat."
It was my third miscarriage in a year. This time exactly the same as the last. No indication, no pain and no heartbeat at the routine 12-week scan.
I cannot tell you what it’s like to hear those words. Only women who’ve heard them will understand the feeling of the bottom dropping out of your world. Unfortunately miscarriage isn’t rare. The Miscarriage Association states that one in five pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Although I was incredibly fortunate and had already had a healthy son without any problems, I now seemed to be stuck in an awful cycle of becoming pregnant very quickly and then miscarrying around the three month mark. I had grimly gotten use to the grief, followed by the waves of endless guilt.
However, what I didn’t expect and what I found myself battling against for the next three years until I did eventually have another son, was the often inadequate and sometimes downright appalling treatment I suffered at the hands of an over-stretched and bewilderingly disjointed NHS.
Sadly, I am by no means alone. Which is why this week's Mumsnet survey asking a thousand women about their experience of miscarriage is so welcome. As it rightly points out, we desperately need a code of care for miscarriage to replace the ad-hoc treatment which currently exists. Almost a half of all the women who took part say they had to wait over 24 hours for a scan to confirm if their baby was dead or alive. Almost half say they were treated alongside mums who had successful, continuing pregnancies. Although the majority of women wanted counselling – only 12 per cent were offered it.
It makes me furious just typing these statistics. There is one remark from the survey which seems to sum up the whole situation so succinctly and that’s the current situation seems to be lacking a basic "human kindness". How eloquent.
I always thought that the NHS would catch you when the proverbial stuff hits the fan – but it didn’t
No-one could have saved me from the pain of losing those babies but dozens of doctors and nurses over the years could have made it just that little bit more gentle when times were tough. I know the NHS is overstretched. I know there are pensioners lying on beds in corridors waiting to be seen. But I always thought that the NHS would catch you when the proverbial stuff hits the fan – but it didn’t. I fell. And often I fell very hard indeed.
It seems strange to rate your worst miscarriage, they are after all, all pretty ghastly, but out of the five I went on to have, the third stands out as the most grim.
After learning the news, I told the doctor I wanted to have the brutally named Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception procedure, or ERPC as its known. Up till now my baby had been to me - just that - a baby. Already it was reduced to a product. I’d had the procedure before. The brusque doctor told me the earliest I could have the operation was in four days time.
"But that’s too long to wait," I said. She seemed faintly annoyed.
"We can’t fit you in," she said. "You could try calling every morning to see if a gap comes up in theatre, but that’s quite unlikely to happen. If you choose that and come off the list, you may lose your guaranteed operation."
It’s the strangest and the saddest thing, to carry on with life as normal, having that terrible knowledge inside you. What did I do during that time? I played with my son. I put up a curtain rail. I cried. A lot. Three days later I started bleeding. A small part of me was relieved. At last, the hospital would have to help. A gyne doctor examined me. "You aren’t bleeding enough," She said. "You have to go home."
"I want an ERPC today," I insisted. "I’m a mother. I’ve had three miscarriages. This is mental torture."
"I agree it’s psychologically unhelpful." This is what the doctor said to me. That losing a baby was psychologically unhelpful.
"But I have a dead baby inside me." She looked at me sharply. Her expression was unmistakable. I realised I’d offended her. I’d mentioned the elephant in the room, said the "B" word. Everything about miscarriage is wrapped in euphemisms. I repeated that that this was my third miscarriage and the foetus needed to be sent for tests. "It’s vital that I don’t lose the baby at home," I said.
"You have to go," she said.
I was scared, shocked and with nothing but a curtain to shield me from the patient in the next bay
By late afternoon, I was bleeding heavily. Sitting on a folded towel, my husband drove me back to A and E.
I was examined by a different doctor. "I’m afraid you are passing the foetus now," she said.
So that’s how it happened. I lost my baby in A and E. I was scared, shocked and with nothing but a curtain to shield me from the patient in the next bay. There was a lot of blood and a lot of pain and I was squeezing the hand of a woman I didn’t know. Three days after they told me I had miscarried. Hours after I’d started to bleed. And as I sat there weeping, my legs covered in blood, I wondered if the NHS would have the sheer bloody gall to treat men this way.
So that was fairly awful.
My fourth miscarriage doesn’t win any points for gold standard care either.
By this time, I had been referred to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, the top unit for recurrent miscarriage in the country. You need to have three miscarriages in a row before you "pass" the referral test. At least they’ll know what they’re doing I thought.
I’d had a successful twelve week scan but a month or so later I was fairly convinced that the pregnancy was far from OK. I wasn’t getting any bigger and I was bleeding. I went to St Mary’s and said I was fairly convinced I was miscarrying. The doctor there told me not to worry, that I’d had a successful twelve week scan and that she’d listen to the heartbeat through my belly. She listened. That’s your baby’s heartbeat she beamed and sent me home.
A week later I was still bleeding and still had a pretty flat stomach. I went in again. A different doctor listened to the heartbeat and he said the baby was fine. I couldn’t understand why I was still bleeding.
Eventually they agreed to send me for a scan where it was confirmed from the measurements of the baby that the heartbeat had stopped at just over twelve weeks. Both doctors had mixed up my own heartbeat with the baby’s. Two different doctors on two different occasions – both of whom worked in a recurrent miscarriage unit. Following a complaint to the top doctor in the unit I received an apology from the hospital.
We need a proper joined up system that treats miscarriage in a holistic and emotional manner as well as a medical one
There are many, many, standout, dreadful moments I could tell you about. And then there are just the bizarre ones – the thoughtless, careless remarks from doctors who seemingly have never stopped for ten seconds to consider what it’s like to lose a baby.
During one early pregnancy I went to see a GP who told me that his friends always considered him "lucky" and to send him a box of chocolates when I went on to have my baby. I didn’t have the heart to tell him when I miscarried a few weeks later. I have a close friend who has suffered four miscarriages and was asked by one doctor at the recurrent miscarriage unit if she was managing to "lay off the coke".
I don’t think that I’m naive or particularly selfish. I know that every miscarriage cannot be treated as an emergency. I know that road traffic accidents have to come first. But I also know that four days is too long to wait. We need a maximum time limit which prevents women from waiting days on end to have the treatment they need. If your body starts expelling the pregnancy on its own accord, women need to be treated immediately.
We need a proper joined up system that treats miscarriage in a holistic and emotional manner as well as a medical one. We need all the agencies involved to talk to each other including the separate departments within a hospital. Following one miscarriage, I received a rather arsey letter from the scan unit demanding to know why I hadn’t attended my twenty week scan. The current situation is not good enough.
Behind every miscarriage is a woman who wanted to be a mum and is trying to come to terms with the fact that this time, at least, she won’t be. Every woman who has a miscarriage has a fight on her hands to recover both physically and emotionally. She shouldn’t also have to fight the very people whose duty it’s supposed to be to help her."
Vanessa Langford pictured now
What do you think? Have you had a similar experience to Vanessa's? What more can be done to improve the experience of women who suffer miscarriages under the NHS? Let us know in the comments section below or on Twitter