Brittany Davis says a nurse stabbed her in the leg with a needle seven times to prove her epidural was working, after scolding her for crying out in pain.
Jessica Ervin says a doctor, with “big diamonds under her gloves,” ignored her screams to stop a “rough” vaginal exam while she was having a contraction.
Samantha Powell says she was harassed and told she would kill her baby if she didn’t agree to a C-section. “It was bullying, plain and simple, it was flat out bullying. And definitely I would call it abusive.”
These are just three of the dozens of stories CBC News has heard from women across Canada who say they were mistreated during their labour, delivery and aftercare at Canadian hospitals.
As part of an extensive investigation, CBC News contacted hospitals and health authorities across the country and found that hundreds of complaints about treatment in maternity care have been made since 2010.
The complaints range from concerns about the quality of treatment and care generally to allegations of discrimination, unprofessional comments and patients being denied their dignity and their consent for procedures.
But it’s extremely difficult to get a clear picture of the problem across the country, let alone a precise accounting of complaints, because they’re tracked differently, or not at all, depending on the jurisdiction.
Alberta and B.C., for example, are two provinces that keep a central tally. They’ve received a combined total of 763 complaints about treatment in maternity care in the past six years. But Canada’s two largest provinces, Quebec and Ontario, don’t monitor complaints centrally, leaving it to their health authorities or individual hospitals.
‘It was bullying, plain and simple, it was flat out bullying. And definitely I would call it abusive.’
– Samantha Powell
“Over the years and reflecting on the issues that have come up in complaints — in any of the leadership jobs I have held — disrespect and abusive behaviour has not been raised,” she wrote CBC News in an email.
“I cannot say the same for places in the world where women are devalued — and I cannot say it never happens — but it would be seen as an unacceptable aberration if it had.”
John Kingdom, chair of the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, says the profession’s “systems are rigorous at all levels such that Canadian women listening on CBC can be firmly reassured this is not a concern in Canada.”
He also says hospitals have well-developed policies to “address any specific individual concerns.”
Difficult situation made worse
But some front-line workers, like Samantha Powell, a labour and delivery nurse in Calgary, say maternity care is hit or miss.
“I definitely feel that there are fantastic nurses and doctors out there, but you’re playing Russian roulette, you know.”
While she’s proud of the work done in her current hospital, she says she was mistreated during the birth of one of her own children and has seen this problem at other hospitals where she’s worked.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there are practices that can be seen as abusive and disrespectful and disempowering to women happening in Canadian hospitals,” she said.
For the women who have these experiences, it makes the challenge of childbirth that much more difficult.
‘Over the years and reflecting on the issues that have come up in complaints — in any of the leadership jobs I have held — disrespect and abusive behaviour has not been raised.’
– Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
“The pain from labour alone is extremely hard and it’s kind of scary on its own, but to be belittled or dehumanized when you’re in labour, you expect everybody to be supportive, like that was a really hard thing for me,” Brittany Davis said of her experience in a southern Ontario hospital in 2014.
Dana Weatherhead, president of the Association for Safe Alternatives in Childbirth in Edmonton, which supports women’s rights in childbirth, says the organization has heard thousands of stories of mistreatment. But she says concerns about women’s treatment during childbirth are often discounted.
“We hear all the time that, you know, ‘You have a healthy baby, that’s enough.’ It’s not enough because if you’re not a healthy mom walking out of that hospital, how can you care for that healthy baby?”
Many women who spoke with CBC say the effects of mistreatment during childbirth have stayed with them for years. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems they attribute to their experience.
Others say they have lost trust in doctors and the medical system and are now hesitant to seek medical care.
“I think the experience has made it harder for me to kind of want to have another baby,” Davis said. “I think that’s one of the scariest things is that trusting somebody with that again.”
There is no comprehensive research in Canada that tracks mistreatment in childbirth. Most of the women who have these experiences don’t complain, Weatherhead says.
“For years, women have been silent, it has been those silent tears where they get home and they just cope,” she said.
This was Brittany Davis’s experience.
“Being a new mom is very hard, I mean you’re trying to figure out how to live your life and somebody else’s life, so I mean to go forward with a complaint and to add that to your pile of things to do … it’s not really something that a new mom is going to want to do.”
Jessica Ervin did submit a complaint about her experience in a New Brunswick hospital in February.
She says the problems began when the doctor charged with her care came in to perform an exam.
“I was having a contraction, so I just asked her to wait. And she was forceful and ripped my underwear off without my consent. As she was doing it, I was asking her to stop.”
During another contraction, Ervin says the doctor continued to try to perform the vaginal exam without her consent.
‘For years, women have been silent, it has been those silent tears where they get home and they just cope’
– Dana Weatherhead, president of the Association for Safe Alternatives in Childbirth
“I was in a tonne of pain and I was screaming and I kept saying, ‘Stop! Stop!’ And she didn’t stop,” Ervin said. “She had hands full of rings on. Big diamonds under her gloves. She didn’t remove any of them. She just put the glove on over top, and was rough and forceful.”
Horizon Health Network, which operates the hospital where Ervin had her baby, told CBC News in an email: “Like all physician-related complaints, the patient representative informed the Chief of Staff, who then conducted a thorough investigation. Following the investigation, the patient was informed of the findings, indicating satisfaction with the results.”
But Ervin says she isn’t satisfied and would have liked an apology for what happened and would like to know what changes were made as a result of her complaint.
Dr. Andrew Kotaska, clinical director of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, believes people in his profession have the best intentions for their patients but that decisions made during childbirth can be fraught.
“Sometimes when time is short, and a mother’s or a baby’s life is in danger, there’s not a lot of time to discuss the pros and cons of any given intervention, and we need to make a call on the fly, and do what you think is the most important thing for their safety in that moment.”
He says things have changed a lot for women in childbirth, but there is still further to go when it comes to accepting women’s choices.
“I think it’s relatively new to concentrate on a mother’s experience in labour,” he said. “This final adjustment in sort of our ethical evolution from the way childbirth was in the ’50s and ’60s, to a mature acceptance of women’s autonomy, even when that entails some extra risk.”
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