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‘Nine years and nothing has changed – you’re still putting your life, and your child’s, at risk’

By Federica Stefani

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A mum-of-three from Thurso says women in Caithness face a nightmare to have their baby, as she told of her “uncontrollable anxiety attacks” before the birth of her third child.

Emma Curran said she suffered from nightmares, especially when the bad weather over the winter led to several closures of the A9 at Berriedale Braes and elsewhere between the far north and Inverness.

Caithness mother-of-three Emma Curran (36) with her youngest who was born in February this year. She said that nothing has improved since she gave birth to her two older sons who are now 9 and 7.
Caithness mother-of-three Emma Curran (36) with her youngest who was born in February this year. She said that nothing has improved since she gave birth to her two older sons who are now 9 and 7.

More than 90 per cent of women in Caithness each year have to travel to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness to give birth, according to figures obtained via Freedom of Information by Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT).

Emma (36) had her eldest son (9) in Caithness, but due to complications during his birth, she was then classed as a high-risk pregnancy when she had second (7) and youngest (7 weeks), who were both born at Raigmore.

She is one of hundreds of mums and mums-to-be from the far north who are forced to undertake the 210-mile round trip, most of whom must make their own way to Inverness.

“I was forced to go to Inverness, because there wasn’t the facility to have an epidural in Wick, so I couldn't have him there,” Emma said about her second child’s birth.

“We went down to Inverness on the Friday before he was due, and I ended up being seen and told it was not safe for me to come home, but they couldn't give me anywhere to stay. I hadn't had the baby yet, so I couldn't have accommodation on the ward.

“So, we ended up sleeping in a caravan in a friend’s garden for two nights, until I actually had him on the Sunday. I had nowhere to stay, everywhere was too expensive.

“It was horrible. I had full-blown hyperemesis in all my three pregnancies. I was at high risk and and if I came back to Wick I was worried there wouldn’t be the facilities to look after me and I would have had to drive down again.”

That experience stayed with her, and the fears came back when she booked in for a C-section in Inverness to have her youngest, who was born in February.

“Having my third and not having somewhere to stay was a worry, as well as having the same complications I had with my first two babies. I was worried that I wasn't going to keep him… it was an absolute nightmare,” Emma recalled.

The major worry came with the spell of “horrible” weather in January and February this year.

“I ended up having all the nightmares and scares,” Emma said. “I was often crying and had uncontrollable anxiety attacks, because of all the bad weather and they kept shutting the roads.

“What if I went into premature labour and risked losing him because of this isolation, and the fact that Wick had to send me down to Inverness? What if it wasn't going to work out?”

Having to travel such a long way from home also means that women giving birth are further away from their support networks.

“You are so far away from your loved ones and people to help you, by going down to Inverness. Having two young children, we also had to arrange having someone looking after them,” Emma said. “Luckily we do have some lovely friends in Thurso.

“But in the last nine years nothing has really changed. It's still a nightmare trying to have your baby, and you're putting your life – and your child's – at risk.

“I'm still having the same bad dreams – nightmares – as I was years ago.”

After giving birth, Emma had to travel back and forth to Inverness for different health conditions her sons have suffered from – none of which could be treated in Wick.

“Inverness might have all the facilities, but it’s over 100 miles away and getting there is intense.”

The number of births locally dropped significantly after the consultant-led maternity unit at Caithness General Hospital in Wick was downgraded to a midwife-led facility in 2016 on the grounds of safety.

Ongoing calls have been made to reinstate the consultant-led unit, or adapt the so-called Orkney model of a midwifery-led unit backed by consultants. More than 80 per cent of mothers give birth locally in the archipelago.

Fiona with baby Lochlan.
Fiona with baby Lochlan.

‘My waters broke but I couldn’t get a space at Raigmore until 24 hours later’

Dental nurse Fiona Hodgson (32), who lives in Watten, was told she would have to go to Inverness to give birth to her first child, Lochlan.

However, when her waters broke a week before she was due to give birth, on a Friday at 4.30am, she was first rushed to Wick to be checked by the maternity team there, only to be told that Raigmore Hospital would not have a space for her until the Saturday morning – more than 24 hours since her waters broke, and with a 105-mile journey ahead of her.

Fiona explained: “They said I could go home and wait until I was going into active labour, but as first-time parents we didn’t want to risk having to rush down, or not having the appropriate facilities nearby.

“Luckily my mother-in-law was very organised and she booked us a hotel room for the Friday night. At Raigmore, because I wasn't a patient yet, even though my waters had broken, I wasn’t entitled to accommodation. I spent a day going around Inverness, feeling very uncomfortable as my waters kept on breaking.

“We didn’t get to go to Raigmore until six in the morning on Saturday. Obviously it's not their fault, but when I arrived they said they were not expecting me, that my booking wasn’t there.”

The strain is also felt by the midwives, doctors and nurses that look after the women in the maternity ward.

Fiona said: “Everyone was so busy. Midwives, nurses… they never stopped for a minute. Everyone was lovely and helpful, they were amazing. But you could tell that everyone was knackered by the end of their shift.”

The journey back can also be an issue, as new-born babies are not supposed to sit upright (as it would be on a normal car seat) for long periods as they may be at risk of breathing difficulties, something which would require further stops on an already lengthy journey.

"Thankfully we came organised for the way back – Caithness Home Start provided us with a lie-down car seat for babies which meant we did not have to stop every 30 minutes,” Fiona said.

And she added: “I was very lucky, but I did have visions of me giving birth at the side of the road.”

Ron Gunn has been campaigning to improve health services in Caithness. Picture: Alan Hendry
Ron Gunn has been campaigning to improve health services in Caithness. Picture: Alan Hendry

‘It’s supposed to be one of the happiest times in your life – but that’s not the case’

Reinstating maternity services in Caithness is something that Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT) have been campaigning for over many years.

Ron Gunn, chairman of CHAT and a Lib Dem councillor for Thurso and Northwest Caithness, said the group is hoping to see the unit in Wick reinstated, with the idea of mirroring maternity services in Orkney as a model.

“They always say that it's very difficult to try and reinstate a unit, but we're pushing for what they call an Orkney model, which is a midwife-led unit, but backed by consultants,” Mr Gunn said.

“Most births are able to be dealt with by midwives. But if there's a complication at least the consultants are there to help them out.”

He said despite the recent refurbishment of the maternity unit at Wick, facilities are still underused, with the vast majority of births dealt with in Inverness.

“The majority of women have to go down to Raigmore in private vehicles, driven by their partner or whoever, in all conditions – with poor road or weather conditions, or in the middle of the night. That's a very traumatic experience for them.

“We feel that far too many of our mothers don't really need to go to Inverness because a similar sort of unit would expect around 25 to 30 per cent of local mothers to give birth in the unit, so we are way below that.

“We've been asking for years why the numbers are so low and we've never had a satisfactory answer.

“The majority of mothers would far prefer to give birth locally, it would be so much easier.

“It doesn’t end after the birth – if there are any complications after the birth mothers have to travel back to Raigmore to get treated. It used to be treated locally before.

“It’s supposed to be one of the happiest times of your life – but I am afraid that’s not the current situation for mothers in Caithness and in the north.”

’Local birth still an option for low-risk pregnancies’

A spokeswoman for NHS Highland said patient safety was the health board’s priority, with plans in place for adverse weather affecting the road between Caithness and Inverness.

She said: “The establishment of the midwife-led Community Midwifery Unit (CMU) model in Caithness was originally set up in 2017 on the grounds of safety. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the NHS Highland Maternity Services Team, the CMU is now fully established with care being provided locally for women throughout the whole pregnancy journey.

“Local birth is an option for women who have low-risk pregnancies, while women with medical or pregnancy complications are referred to Raigmore Hospital, where consultant obstetric and neonatal services are available.

“All transfers are individually and carefully planned with our partner organisations and the family concerned, with quality and patient safety being at the forefront of our consideration.

“We work closely with the Scottish Ambulance Service who have established protocols in situations of adverse weather to ensure emergency transfers can take place. If road transportation is not available, as has been the case due to the recent adverse weather, patients can be transferred by Air Ambulance or Coastguard.

“We continue to work with Scottish Government in respect of ensuring we move forward, optimising the possibility of midwifery-led births across Highland and Argyll and Bute, and consultant-led births in Inverness.”

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