Stories of delivery room mistreatment come as no surprise to Winnipeg doula

The stories of dozens of Canadian women who claimed to have been mistreated or disrespected by medical staff during delivery came as no surprise to Winnipeg doula Julie Western.

Indigenous women, immigrants, single moms most vulnerable to delivery room mistreatment, doula says

A Winnipeg doula says the most important thing for women to do before giving birth is to educate themselves and ensure they have someone in their corner for support during delivery. (The Canadian Press)

The stories of dozens of Canadian women who claimed to have been mistreated or disrespected by medical staff during delivery came as no surprise to Winnipeg doula Julie Western.

CBC News shared the stories Monday as part of a nationwide investigation.

There have been 13 mistreatment complaints thus far this year in Winnipeg alone, eight of which were about staff being rude, discourteous or unhelpful, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Western, co-chair of the Manitoba Association of Child Birth and Family Education, said single, young or immigrant moms are probably more at risk of being mistreated or unable to effectively advocate for themselves.

"But I've heard tons of stories from white middle-class moms too, so it's kind of across the board," she said.

An average of roughly 11,000 babies are born in Winnipeg hospitals per year. Western has helped deliver 49 babies since 2011, one of which was outside a hospital.

'Pushing medication'

One of Western's main concerns is of nurses "pushing medication without telling [patients in labour] the side effects for the babies."

I worry about ... women who have not found [their] voice yet, women ... from marginalized backgrounds, Indigenous women, women with language barriers.- Michelle Klimczak

"We have clients who are asking for morphine-fentanyl, and the clients ask, 'Will this be any harm to my baby?' And what the nurses say is, 'Would we give you anything that would be harmful to for your baby?'" she asked.

"I've seen clients get frozen for an episiotomy without doctors even warning them that they're going to freeze them or give them an episiotomy."

Western added that some of the issues could be prevented by doctors and nurses communicating better with patients during delivery.

Marginalized women at risk

Former labour and delivery nurse Michelle Klimczak agrees and said she was glad to see women felt comfortable sharing their delivery stories with the public.

"I think it's great and speaks volumes to a safer climate and context now, but what I worry about most are women who have not found that voice yet — women who come from marginalized backgrounds, Indigenous women, women with language barriers," she said.

"If they haven't felt empowered enough to share their experiences, then we haven't been able to factor in what they've experienced into health-care delivery, and how we establish models of care, and what would be most appropriate and sensitive to their circumstances."

It's your body, it's your baby, you have a right to say 'No' to the doctor.- Julie Western

Klimczak said while many deliveries go well, things sometimes go "horribly wrong."

From her experience as a delivery nurse, Klimczak said the priority among nurses and doctors was always to ensure the environment was safe for the mother and baby.

"For anyone who has worked in health care, if you've experienced a bad outcome, that's not just the kind of experience that leaves you with trauma but it haunts you, often times for the rest of your career," she said.

"I think for professionals working in that area, they will do anything in their  power to prevent that kind of outcome."

Your 'right to say No'

She also believes education plays a big role in empowering women.

Shelley Cook, one of the Winnipeg women who spoke with CBC News as part of the investigation, said she was shocked when a nurse told her she "didn't want to see me back here in 12 months and lectured me about birth control."

Shelley Cook with her daughter, Riel, at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. (Shelley Cook)

Klimczak believes part of the reason women might be caught off guard by a nurse bringing up birth control after delivery is because women's health issues aren't talked about or as normalized as they should be.

"If [nurses] could feel confident and assured that those are normal conversations that we have at all points of the life span, that would go a long ways to preventing those kinds of conversations at a time that is very vulnerable and sensitive for women and their families."

The main things mothers can do to prepare is educate themselves about their rights and birth procedures by signing up for prenatal classes, Western added.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also says it's worth hiring a doula to have in your corner.

"Get a great support person who is going to watch out for you while you are in labour and be an advocate for you," she said. "It's your body, it's your baby, you have a right to say 'No' to the doctor."