During the last month, three women have come forward on the television with anguished stories about the deaths of their newly born infants at the Mt Hope Women’s Hospital.
In one case, a young mother was in the hospital and allowed to go to the bathroom to relieve her discomfiture, only to have the misfortune of delivering her baby in the toilet. In the second case, a woman reported that her baby was born prematurely and the baby had bruises on its face which the authorities attributed to tubes used in the process of its care.
In a third case, a couple had triplets prematurely and in a short period of time, all died, on account of what the hospital said were medical complications. Beyond these three cases, two couples found out that the babies they took home from Mt Hope had been switched.
For the two families whose babies were switched, there were happy endings. Although in both cases, the babies would have missed out on early milk from their mothers that is known to be vital to their development of immunity to particular diseases. Still, the babies are with their families. But for the three other families who lost children, how will their stories end?
These are, in the main, humble people, probably without the wherewithal to challenge the hospital in court. But as citizens, they have appealed to us the public, fighting for their dead children by bringing their cases to us in our living rooms. They did not have lawyers standing at their sides in suits as they spoke to the TV. They were not wearing fancy clothes. They were ordinary people who had suffered unimaginable loss in a public hospital, and they were saying with great clarity and pain that something is amiss and they need answers. I think they deserve answers.
What should be the expected response when ordinary families go to hospitals to have babies and these babies die at birth? What should be the protocol for how such cases should be dealt with? And more to the point, do we have any protocol? The first thing we notice here is the great silence of the hospital, and the Ministry of Health. The story is on the TV and there is no representative of the hospital to answer questions. Everyone is hiding somewhere and sending forth bits of paper explaining this and that, and suggesting that it is the parents who might be at fault. The body language of Mt Hope is that the principals in this, the departments in question and the attending doctors, are to be shrouded in a protective cocoon, kept away from the public, not accountable to anyone, not answerable. Just send out some medical mumbo-jumbo, some technical explanation for the deaths, and move on.
What is our national norm in dealing with doctors? Are they expected to conform to codes of practice in the way doctors in the US, Canada or the UK are expected to do? How do we deal with the question of medical liability here, or indeed, does such a concept exist? There is such a word as malpractice. How is that handled here? If a baby comes into the world and that baby is premature, what are the normative medical odds of that baby surviving, and what are our odds here? In the countries mentioned above, doctors have to answer when babies die. They have to answer to the parents, the hospital, their colleagues in the profession, the Ministry of Health and to courts of law. Doctors have to have insurance to cover eventualities of practice.
Here in this country, the doctor does not have to answer to anybody, and certainly not to the public who pay their salaries. They can just go about their business, whether it is one baby or triplets dead. A mother is wailing on the TV, holding her belly and bawling, and the anointed ones at Mt Hope and elsewhere in the public hospital system are not moved. They cannot be expected to come down from the grand pedestal, the high altar of arrogance, to respond to some ordinary woman who gave birth in a toilet while under their care. But if these women were from Westmoorings or Palmiste, it would be another matter. And if they were practising in Miami or Minnesota in the US, they would find themselves with no place to hide, and they would have to answer questions, by people who know the norms, about what we should expect if a baby comes into the world under this or that condition.
There was a time when Mt Hope was thought of as the gold standard of care, but I am wondering if that is the case anymore. I heard an anguished woman on TV the other night, warning other mothers not to go and saying that if she is going to have another child, she would rather give birth in the street than in Mt Hope. Now, surely, that cannot be good PR for the place. The problems that had led to this image have to be fixed. But no one came forward to counter that untoward perception of the place. We know that former prime ministers Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning chose to go abroad for care. Those who could afford it opt for private hospitals where some of the same doctors practise, under different rules, because the family of patients at private hospitals will not be satisfied with a doctor hiding in a room if something goes awry.
Very recently, my daughter gave birth at a public hospital run by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Two weeks before the scheduled birth, she emailed me here indicating that since I was going to be at the hospital for the birth, I had to take a (DTP) diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination before flying. So I went to my doctor on the Eastern Main Road. He referred me to a specialist paediatrician down the hall who expressed some surprise that a hospital was requiring this of me, especially the whooping cough aspect of it. But he had the vaccine and indeed gave me, in addition, an anti-polio dosage. Before doing this, he checked the US medical regulations on the immunities required for a newborn baby. Do we have local requirements like this for people who would be around the bedside of at-risk babies?
When a baby is premature, everybody around it in the early days, including parents, have to be immunised or that baby risks infection. This is normative now. You can’t say after the fact that the baby was infected with this or that. You have to take in front by immunising everybody who is going to be bedside. The Johns Hopkins public hospital also required that the car seat to be used to transport the baby home be inspected by hospital staff. They also requested that the particulars of the paediatrician who would be responsible for the baby’s care be given. They contacted that paediatrician. My daughter had to take my granddaughter in to see her on the day after they took her home.
I think that ordinary people in this country are given the runaround by the system. They get the wrong end of the stick. You go to the hospital and your babies end up dead and all the doors are closed in your face. The politicians here are busy with other things, but children are the wealth of poor people, and there should be normative expectations in this country that transparent processes will kick in when babies die just like that. Because there have been three known cases of newborn baby deaths at Mt Hope, plus a mix-up of the babies of two couples there, it seems reasonable that there would be enquiries into these cases and some justice and ample compensation for the parents.