'It's the most horrific experience ever to lose a child," says Rachel Canter. "It happened two years ago, but it's affected our lives so much." In 2005, Andrew and Rachel's son, Jake, was stillborn. For them, the pain has been unendurable; but what made it worse is the feeling that their son need not have died.
Rachel, a fitness instructor, had had a healthy pregnancy and chose a birthing centre in Edgware, north London, rather than a hospital maternity unit. The Canters were assured that should anything go wrong, they were only seven minutes' drive from Barnet hospital in an ambulance.
Rachel was 10 days overdue by the time her waters broke and it was while she was in the birthing pool that the midwives noticed Jake's heart rate had slowed down. Rachel needed to be transferred to a maternity unit, but the one at Barnet had been closed to new admissions. "My heart sank," says Andrew. "The alternative unit, Chase Farm, was 25 minutes away and that just seemed a million miles away to us."
"I was in a lot of pain," says Rachel. "In the ambulance, there was no one holding my hand or telling me what was going on. They were just filling out forms. I know it sounds dramatic now, but I did think I was going to die. All it would have taken was for someone to tell me what was happening."
"It was pandemonium when we got to Chase Farm," says Andrew. "We thought we'd go straight to theatre and have an emergency caesarean, but we went to the delivery room instead." Staff had found a heartbeat but it transpired that the staff were monitoring Rachel's heartbeat, not the baby's. "It was the first time that Chase Farm had taken a transfer and it showed. We really didn't feel like anyone knew what was going on."
"In the delivery room, they put a drip in my hand, which slipped out after about half an hour," says Rachel. "I was put in stirrups and told to push and then was told that I wasn't doing it properly. I had to say, 'Look, I'm trying to do all I can, perhaps I need some help?' After I said that, they used forceps. He crowned after 45 minutes and it was another 45 until he was born. I knew there was something wrong then. A birth it supposed to be one push and then a twist and then another push and out. He came out and was rushed to the back of the room. They tried to resuscitate him for 45 minutes and we were shouting for him and willing him to live."
Staff told the Canters that Jake had been dead for "some time". A coroner's report concluded that the umbilical cord had been wrapped around Jake's neck twice and that he had suffocated.
"It has been a terrible experience," says Rachel. "It has put back my pregnancy with Ruby, during which I was then full of doubt because, in our experience, a healthy pregnancy didn't mean a healthy baby. We've lost our firstborn, Ruby's lost her brother and what it all comes down to is government cuts. We were never told that the maternity unit at Barnet might close. If we had known, then we might have made a different decision about where to give birth."
Andrew and Rachel lobbied the Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals Trust for answers after Jake's death. A precise time and cause of Jake's death couldn't be established, leading to disagreements over responsibility with the Trust.
"It was part of the grieving process for me for us," says Andrew. "I was campaigning a lot, writing letters to Tony Blair, to Patricia Hewitt, dealing with the chief of the Trust, the head of nursing, of midwifery. We were having endless meetings but not really getting the answers we wanted."
"They tried to fob us off all the time," adds Rachel. "There were times when it was so rude. We'd be prepared for a meeting and they'd ring up and say it was cancelled. That was our hope, and they were trying to get rid of us."
The Canters decided that there was not much left to do but sue the Trust. "We were in touch with Grant Shapps, our MP," says Andrew. "He told us that the Healthcare Commission Ombudsman had a backlog of 3,000 cases and it would take the best part of three years to get to us. The chief executive of the Trust was quite surprised that we decided to sue."
The case lasted 18 months; the Canters were awarded a five-figure sum in damages. "It wasn't about the money it was never about the money," says Rachel. "It was about getting some answers."
On 29 October last year, when Jake would have been two, the Canters unveiled their new charity, the National Maternity Support Foundation. "Our aim is to keep maternity services accessible and safe, and to keep maternity units open," says Andrew. "We also want to make sure that prospective parents are empowered with the right information to make the right choices."
Shapps, a supporter of the charity, says: "There have been shortages of key personnel in the past and the Government's solution has been to close down maternity units. The ones that are left have to deal with a lot more births. In France, the maximum size of a good maternity unit is 2,500 births per year, but in the UK that is the minimum size. I think it's essential to get to a position where the issue is further up the political agenda and that's what the foundation will do. If no one is there flag-waving, the issue just sinks to the bottom of the pile."
"We want the charity become a resource," says Andrew. "We want to take a proactive approach to maternity care. With a new Prime Minister and Health Secretary, we feel it's a good time to stop talking about the problems with the services and take action. What was really important to us was getting the backing of the Royal College of Midwives, because we feel it lends real weight to what we are doing. We presented to the professional policy committee of the RCM and now Dame Karlene Davies, the general secretary, is our patron. It was so important for us to do this. If we can prevent one other baby from dying unnecessarily, it leaves a positive legacy for Jake. It means he didn't die in vain."
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