I woke up this morning to an apology, an apology from a male doctor who conducted a vaginal examination while I was in post-natal care a few weeks ago. It happened around 2am, when all my stats were down: my oxygen and blood pressure were low and I had a fever. He had a chat with me and I thought what a lovely chap he was. Then, I lost a lot of blood in one big gush. Given that I had already lost a litre and a half of blood the day before during a C-section, he did what needed to be done: he rushed into examining me in case there was a blood clot causing excessive bleeding. Now, my head got that this was potentially a life-saving move. My body didn’t. My body generally has a difficulty in distinguishing a friendly intervention from unwanted invasion, probably because it had a lot of the latter. I asked him to stop. He didn’t, thinking that I was objecting to a bit of pain that came with the examination. So, I fell apart, made a disclosure about the past, and only then he got that my protest was directed at the examination itself.
Luckily, I was under the care of one of the most sensitive and skilful midwives I’ve ever met. When I discussed my concerns, she offered to talk to him.
‘A good piece of feedback can shape a whole career. It may serve him to be aware of his impact on you,’ she said wisely, giving an example from her own practice. ‘What would you like to get out of this?’ she asked. ‘Will an apology feel satisfactory?’
‘No one ever apologised to me in my entire life! And much worse things were done to me…. Being heard by you felt enough. I don’t know,’ I hesitated. ‘I suppose an apology would be nice.’
‘OK, then, I’ll talk to him as soon as possible.’
We left it at that. I got on with my life until I received a call from her this morning.
‘I have finally managed to talk to the male doctor today. He was shocked at the distress he caused you. He sends his apologies. I felt they were whole-hearted, you know. I think he even cried. I was taken aback myself. I didn’t expect that…. He is willing to apologise to you in person.’
I sat in my bed and closed my eyes. In that moment, I felt something melting inside me, softening, healing. This young man has not caused my body to react the way it does to interventions, even the friendly ones. But his apology that came from his heart was able to touch something deep within, causing a shift. It was as if a soothing bandage was placed on a wound that had been opened way too many times.
And it made me realise: Speaking up is very powerful. But being actually heard is even more profound.
I also recognized that I used to shy away from apologies. It’s as if there is something inherently humiliating in the act. Perhaps, as a child being made to apologise when you didn’t mean it left a bad aftertaste. But this morning, I suddenly realised the redemptive power of an apology. If it is offered heartfully, it can be a deeply loving act. It didn’t undo my past hurts, but it certainly soothed a lot of wounds, some of which still feel raw. So, I decided to return the gift: I received the apology with an open and tender heart. I sent my gratitude to the male doctor, who was deeply moved by my message, I was told afterwards.
Later in the day, I went to share my birth story with the Board of Birmingham Women’s Hospital. I was assured in advance that the Board’s members would simply listen to my experience, and will not ask questions. The purpose of the presentation was for the Board to learn from women’s experiences in order to improve the standard of care they offer. The meeting was attended by 25 people.
Looking into the eyes of people sitting around the room, I told them my two birth stories. My first birth experience was a classic tale of disempowerment: I was induced against my wishes, my body was not always treated with respect, and I generally had a sense that the hospital took over. As I recounted specific incidents, for example, the experience with the midwife, who despite repeated requests did not stop a rough and painful vaginal examination, I saw people’s eyes widening in response. I also shared some insensitive remarks which were equally hurtful.
‘You need to be induced because you had a bleed. This does not happen to normal women,’ said a doctor who gave me a sweep in an attempt to start my labour.
‘Why can’t you accept that you are a high risk and just lie down?’ said a midwife in response to my request to have a birthing ball so that I could be active during the labour.
‘I don’t know how you are doing this. I’d have had an epidural long ago. At least have some gas and air. At least have some gas and air,’ another midwife kept repeating while I breathed through contractions and coped rather well. That is until I gave in and had some gas and air, which completely disorientated me….
In contrast, my second birth experience was a story of reclaiming my personal power as a woman and as a mother. The biggest difference was in the attitude of the homebirth team towards me. I was not treated as a ‘high-risk patient’. They connected with me as a person, who was doing the most natural thing: giving birth. On the day, the midwives showed amazing sensitivity and respect. They watched for signs of how the labour was progressing without rushing in to intervene unnecessarily. I saw nothing but admiration and love in their eyes. They were like a cheer squad. Their loving care and tenderness helped to transform me from within.
Telling my story in front of the board touched me in two ways. For the second time that day I felt the power of being heard. I also realised how a truly loving and positive experience can rewire us as human beings. My second birth went far beyond delivering my baby into this world: I returned home healed and whole.