With maternity ward off-limits to partners, a mother-to-be struggles with fear and uncertainty

The health agency that oversees Montreal's Jewish General Hospital has banned all guests from attending a baby's birth for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. One woman, days away from a birth her partner won't be able to attend, says she's in 'a state of panic.'

Thousands sign petition protesting Jewish General Hospital's move

Maria Papaioannou and Anthony Marcone are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their first child. (Submitted by Maria Papaioannou)

Maria Papaioannou is only days away from giving birth to her first child. Her pregnancy is considered to be high risk, and an underlying current of anxiety has accompanied the joy and excitement she has felt over the past nine months.

On Friday, however, that anxiety was amplified tenfold.

"It has been a state of panic," Papaioannou told CBC News Saturday morning.

Because of complications, her doctor advised her to get a caesarean section. Papaioannou suffers from occasional panic attacks and had never undergone surgery before, so the idea of a C-section was daunting — but she knew she could get through it as long as her husband could be there with her.

Now, that won't be allowed.

On Friday evening, the regional health agency that oversees Montreal's Jewish General Hospital banned all guests, including spouses and doulas, from attending a baby's birth or visiting the maternity ward for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

A spouse or designated support person can accompany the woman to the triage area, but they must then leave the hospital immediately and may not come back until it's time to pick up the mother and newborn outside the hospital.

"Should something go wrong, I don't have a support system next to me. My baby does not have a second parent there to take care of her," Papaioannou said.

"How can I take care of my healing wound, myself, my mental state of mind at that moment, because I'm completely by myself, and tend to a newborn at the same time?"

Aside from fear for her safety and that of her future daughter, Papaioannou is also frustrated that her husband will be left out of one of the biggest moments of their lives.

Montreal doula Laurel Tidman is worried the new policy will have a negative impact on the health of birthing women. (Submitted by Laurel Tidman)

"My husband is being robbed of witnessing his own daughter's birth and the first few days of her life. These are things that he could never get back," she said.

"I won't be able to experience my daughter's birth, which is kind of disheartening," her husband, Anthony Marcone said.

Because the decision came so close to her due date, and because she's high-risk, Papaioannou doesn't have the option of giving birth at another hospital.

She is calling on the provincial government to step in and reverse the hospital's decision.

"If I'm going to be in my room with my baby the entire duration of this delivery, recovery, and postpartum phase then my husband should be there too," Papaioannou said.

Papaioannou isn't the only one calling for an end to the new policy. A petition circulating online had garnered more than 58,000 signatures by Saturday evening.

'All these frontline workers are overwhelmed'

Hospital staff has assured Papaioannou that the nurses will be able to tend to her needs, but she doesn't believe the already-overworked hospital staff will be able to give new mothers as much attention as required.

"We're living through a global pandemic — I get that," Papaioannou said. "And I get that everybody's health and safety is what matters most. But these nurses, these doctors, all these frontline workers are overwhelmed, they're overworked."

She pointed out that the policy goes against the advice the World Health Organization has posted on its COVID-19 website: "All pregnant women, including those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections, have the right to high quality care before, during and after childbirth.

"A safe and positive childbirth experience includes: being treated with respect and dignity, having a companion of choice present during delivery, clear communication by maternity staff."

Policy change prompted by 'unfortunate' incident

In the government's daily press briefing Saturday afternoon, Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said the Jewish General Hospital made the decision after an "unfortunate" scenario unfolded recently. A woman had come to the hospital to give birth, and her partner came to the maternity ward despite being infected with COVID-19 and showing symptoms.

"That is really really something that should not happen in a hospital, anywhere. And I think there was a lot of preoccupation because that person could have infected a lot of people, you can imagine," McCann told reporters.

"So the hospital decided to stop the accompaniment of a person for the birth. In other hospitals it's still possible."

McCann reminded the public that, whether it be to attend to your child's birth, or any other circumstance, no one who has flu-like symptoms should leave their home.

Last month, some New York hospitals had adopted similar policies banning spouses and doulas from the delivery room. Only days later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took to Twitter to denounce the policies, and announced an executive order reversing the decisions.

For Marcone, the whole situation feels like a "one bad apple spoils the bushel" situation.

"My wife and I have been isolating for the better part of two weeks now," he said. "We're following all the guidelines the Quebec government has put out, social distancing, we're not visiting our parents, we put all these steps in place so we wouldn't have any problems when it came to delivering our kid."

Marcone is now trying to find out if it will be possible to video chat with his wife during and after the birth.

'A human rights issue'

Laurel Tidman, who has been a doula in Montreal for more than 10 years, understands why doulas like herself would not be allowed in the room, but feels every birthing mother should have the right to a spouse or one support person to stay with them.

Tidman is concerned this could have a negative impact on the health of some of these women.

Some of her clients are set to give birth at the Jewish General Hospital in the next few weeks and she is especially worried about them.

"By asking women to go into a hospital alone, at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives, when they are about to become a mother, I think we're just increasing the stress by so much, I'm really worried that labours are going to go poorly," said Tidman.

"I think this is a human rights issue, it's a feminist issue and I am hopeful that [the hospital is] going to change the protocol."


Franca G. Mignacca is a journalist at CBC Quebec.

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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