In those first minutes after Charlie arrived we debated about whether or not to keep driving to our chosen hospital, or to wait for the ambulance. It was at that point that I did start thinking about what could have gone wrong - did Charlie swallow meconium? Was he breathing ok? Could I keep him warm enough? Was I bleeding? What if, what if, what if...? We both seemed fine, all fingers and toes accounted for, but not being experts we decided to wait and make sure. We knew the ambulance would take us to the nearest public hospital but we thought it would be a matter of getting us both checked out and then being transferred to the private hospital soon after. In hindsight we should have kept driving...
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics wrapped us up, clamped the cord and loaded us into the truck. Charlie and I were still attached by the cord and there wasn't a lot that the paramedics could do for us. They sat there beside me, grinning madly, impressed that I had not only managed to deliver a baby in a car, but that he was also a boy, and my second at that, how very clever of me. D drove behind the ambulance and when Charlie and I arrived at the Princess Margaret Hospital, we were whisked off to a trauma room at the A and E department. The room was full of nurses and noise, with everyone moving very quickly and chatting away in Cantonese. They cut the cord and took Charlie from me. I let them because I assumed they were going to make sure he was ok and then give him back to me. Not a single person introduced themselves or explained to me what they were doing and I had to ask several times if my baby was ok before anyone acknowledged me. One of the nurses quietly congratulated me but the rest of the time I was ignored. Another nurse came at me with a syringe and told me to roll over. When I asked what she was giving me, she said it was pitocin to help deliver the placenta. I refused it and she threw her hands in the air, shaking her head and muttering away in Cantonese. It was the first of many such outbursts we would cause that day.
I could see they had put Charlie in an incubator and, despite not knowing why, I trusted that it was necessary, and still imagined that he would be given back to me momentarily. I was then the focus of their attention as yet another nurse took to my nether regions with cold water and antiseptic. She scolded me for leaving home so late, "you made such a mess!" she exclaimed. I should point out that from the moment I realised I was in labour to the moment Charlie arrived, no more than 3 hours had passed. I was told I would be taken to the labour ward to wait for the placenta to be expelled, and Charlie would be going to the NICU. I was assured that my husband was in the waiting room and would go with Charlie wherever he went. I was wheeled downstairs, and banged into a few doors along the way. I was in quite a bit of pain as I was still having contractions but no one offered me any pain relief, and the rough ride on the stretcher did nothing to help the situation. Again I was fussed over by a different group of nurses and was asked all sorts of personal questions, as they attempted to take my medical and personal history (all while trying to deliver my placenta...). From the date of my first ever period to my husband's ID card number, I was grilled on just about everything there is to know about us. I started to get impatient, more concerned with where my baby and husband were than whether or not the paperwork was complete. When I asked a nurse if Charlie was ok she said she didn't know, he was in a different department and I had to push them to let me use the phone so I could speak to my husband and hopefully get an update from him. The phone they gave me didn't work and it was another 2 hours before D and I got a chance to speak to each other. I was left on my own for quite a while, and was told I would have to wait for the doctor, although no one could tell me how long she would be - "she will come when she comes."
Beside the bed there was a poster advertising the hospital's "Breast is Best" policy and when I tried to speed things up by mentioning that I would like to feed my baby, it was clear that the posters were just for show. The nurses were checking my blood pressure fairly regularly and I was warned that it was gradually rising. I calmly informed them that it would rapidly return to normal as soon as I could see my son. To which I was told, I wouldn't be going anywhere while it was that high. It was infuriating beyond belief. After what seemed like an eternity I finally got in touch with D and he was allowed in to see me. He hadn't been allowed in to see Charlie, as it wasn't "visiting hours" and had created quite a stir himself trying to reunite the 3 of us. I was heartbroken at the thought that my little man had been alone all that time, and so angry that there was nothing we could do about it. The doctor finally arrived and D was asked to leave, as if to respect my privacy. Ironic given that he had just delivered our baby... I needed stitches and more dousing in cold antiseptic apparently, and the whole time she was working the doctor was chatting and giggling with the nurse. She gave me a local anaesthetic but didn't allow it time to work so I felt every stitch and when I cried out in pain there was more chattering and the nurse handed me the gas. I sucked on that thing like my life depended on it, hoping to wipe out all the horrible things I was feeling at that moment, and with any luck also lower my blood pressure.
Eventually I was allowed off the maternity ward and sent to the post-natal ward, where I was told I could finally see Charlie. At that stage we hadn't spent enough time with him to have agreed that he was, in fact, going to be coined Charlie, but in my heart he always was. As I arrived on the ward I was asked if I was breast or bottle feeding, and they took me past a room full of about 20 women to the breast-feeding ward where I was one of only three new mothers. Apparently feeding time was at 1pm and that's when visiting hours ended but there was no way I was letting my husband out of my sight when we were all finally about to be reunited. Being told when I could feed my son and when I could see my husband, and neither or those things being allowed to happen at the same time was the final straw (yes, I understand many women sharing a ward might be uncomfortable with a man in the room), and it was about that point that I declared to the staff we were leaving. We never had any intention of staying but we had decided to wait until Charlie was with us before we mentioned that to anyone, in case they wouldn't let him go. We set the wheels in motion when we knew he was on his way but then a funny thing happened. I heard Charlie crying as they wheeled him into the room but as soon as he was handed to me he stopped. And as I held him and fed him for the first time, it didn't matter where I was or what had gone down at that horrible place, I felt invincible and completely wrapped up in the tiny little creature in my arms. I still didn't want to stay, mind you.
As it was against hospital policy to discharge us so soon, we had to sign a waiver saying we were leaving against medical advice - paperwork I was more than happy to comply with. We got back in the car (which had been cleaned, but was a little worse for wear) and fled, feeling a little like criminals, to the Matilda Hospital, where we had planned to be all along.
I know I haven't painted a very rosy picture of the public hospital system here and for that I apologise. My experience was unique, and I know a lot of women who have had their babies in the public hospitals and they have been fine. The health care provided here is world class but it's the lack of bedside manner, and patient care that most expats find difficult to take. For me, having a baby is an amazing, but emotionally overwhelming experience and I felt like it was turned into a clinical procedure, one that I had apparently interfered with in having my baby on my own. It was a time when I had no patience for the cultural differences and language barriers that come with living here, and I wanted out. If you go in knowing what to expect, and being prepared to either fight for what you want, or step back and accept what happens to you then the system will work for you. But it did not work for me. I have tried not to dwell on those painful hours after Charlie's birth. I feel like I was robbed of a really precious time, and I'm mad at myself for letting it happen, even though I didn't really have a choice.
At the end of the day, my little boy and I have not been adversely affected by anything that occurred that day, and we had 48 hours together at the Matilda to bond and get to know each other. He is still soothed by the sound of my voice, and is instantly comforted when I pick him up and hold him on my chest. I feel an overwhelming sense of relief every time that happens and I'm amazed by that connection we have. We may have spent too much time apart on his birthday, but we shared something pretty incredible that day, and that's what I will chose to remember.