Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Born in the UAE

I swore to myself before Desert Baby was born that I would not become one of those irritating people who thinks they have been there, done it all, just because they have managed to squeeze out a child, and starts dispensing advice to all and sundry. But having a baby in Dubai is one of those experiences about which you find yourself looking back thinking: "If only I had known X, I would have done Y" particularly when it comes to matters concerning health insurance, so I now can't help myself from delivering nuggets of childbirth chat to anyone I think might conceivably conceive.

If I can get the one key bit advice out of the way before I thrill you with my "born in the UAE" experience, it is this: To anyone embarking on the "magical journey" to parenthood in Dubai (apart from never use that phrase "magical journey" again, seriously, have a word with yourself): Shop around, find the right doctor to whom you feel happy and confident talking about your unmentionables, because you're going to have to talk about them - a lot. If this means spending more money than you would like, you are just going to have to loosen your purse strings and go for it, as you don't want to have a flounce and change healthcare providers at 35 weeks when you lose confidence in your ob/gyn, like I did.

So it was that my baby girl was delivered by a Maltese doctor who trained in the UK, and was the second of three doctors I saw during my pregnancy. I had previously ruled him out because the cost of the hospital he works for was above what my health insurance budget would allow (see above). In the end though, the training in the UK was key for me because I find doctors who have experience of the system in dear old Blighty tend to get where I am coming from. Ie, as a patient who has grown up with the NHS - I won't expect and don't want interventions, screenings, tests etc to happen unless necessary, and I don't expect to be handed five different types of antibiotics and hospital grade painkillers at every routine appointment - I just want to turn up, get checked and if everything is fine, be sent on my way.

I switched doctors relatively late on as at 26 weeks, my previous doctor had started making sinister mutterings about wanting to deliver via c section a few weeks early, because of the alleged gargantuan size of my baby according to scan measurements. When I suggested to her that large baby is not a reason in itself to deliver by c section, further sinister mutterings, this time about gestational diabetes emerged, and then inducing before my due date was floated as an idea, and then a random glucose test of my urine revealed a dodgy result, so I was summoned to hospital to have my blood sugar tested on Christmas Day, told no sweets and few carbs throughout the festive season, and sent to an endocrinologist for assessment. I dutifully attended the endocrinologist appointment, and found he could not have been less interested in my very slightly raised blood sugar levels if he tried, and at that point, I sensed a falling out was about to occur with my ob/gyn doctor.

This was all made doubly irksome by the fact that none of this was covered by my health insurance. Despite having the best level of cover available on the scheme provided by him indoors' company, as with most providers, there is a financial limit when it comes to maternity coverage, which in our case did not even cover the whole of the cost of the delivery, so all antenatal and postnatal costs came out of our own pockets.

The even more frustrating factor in this for me was that this desert-born baby of mine is a fairly average size for a baby born in Europe, maybe on the large side, but by no means excessive. She was just under 8lbs 4oz (3.74kg) and 52cm tall when she was born, admittedly a week early, but the fuss that was made about her size during my pregnancy was such that I half expected her to be born 3ft tall, in school uniform with scabby knees and a satchel slung over her shoulder, offering me her first tooth to put under her pillow. Or, possibly wearing a gown and mortarboard ready for her university graduation while engaging me in a debate on Middle Eastern politics.

No amount of my gesturing to my own substantial nearly 5ft 8ins frame, and mentions of the fact that him indoors is just under 6ft, that my brother, dad and two uncles are all well over 6ft, that I have an aunt who is nearly 6ft for God's sake, that I was over 4kg when I was born, and my brother over 4.5kg, would stem the level of concern about Desert Baby's projected size. The tide of whispered tales of the behemoth child that I was carrying seemed to echo through hospital corridors as I waddled to my various appointments.

To be fair, the fact is, if you will excuse the crude generalisation, the majority of babies born in the UAE tend not to be that big, for reasons to do with ethnic backgrounds and other factors. So, the prospect of delivering a large child probably frightens the heck out of a lot of doctors here, as they may not have that much experience of it. Maltese Doc seemed to realise that I had quite enough of people banging on about the size of my baby, and while he admitted he wasn't overly delighted about the prospect of delivering a baby weighing over 4kg, he didn't harp on about it in the way my previous doctor had. But, by the time I saw him at around 34 weeks, he ended up diagnosing me with gestational hypertension. I suspect this was at least partly brought on by various people prior to him speculating about the vastness of my bump, how big the baby was, and how I should definitely have a c section for my own good to avoid being split in half by the birth of the burgeoning beast growing within me.

The thing those thinking about getting knocked up need to realise is, and I expect this applies everywhere, not just the UAE, is that when you get pregnant, random people who don't really know you from Adam will start to advise you on how/when you should give birth, and this is vital piece of advice number 2: Ignore people who start telling you that you should have a c section, unless you have come to that decision yourself for whatever reason, or unless they're a medical professional and have valid medical reasons for doing so. The reason for this is they're not the ones who have to be sliced open, and more importantly, heal from being sliced open, of which more later. However, if you decide to have a c section for whatever reason, good on you. You're clearly much more decisive than I was during my pregnancy. Personally, I hated the idea of turning up on an allotted day to be sliced open as if I was having my tonsils out.

Gestational hypertension, hospital induced or not, meant that I needed extra monitoring, so I found myself attending a routine CTG (cardiotocography) appointment on 5th February, to monitor Desert Baby's heartbeat to make sure the hypertension, her alleged prodigious size and my slightly raised blood sugar had not had a negative impact on her. For those of you who haven't experienced this, you lie on a hospital bed with large bands strapped around your bump, making you look like Humpty Dumpty's internally injured cousin.

I had dropped him indoors off at work and arrived early at the hospital, obediently sitting in the cafe sipping green tea in an attempt to remain calm to try to avoid yet another high blood pressure reading. As I sat there, I started to notice what could be very early stage contractions. "Good," I thought, "this could be the early stages of labour which could mean she is going to arrive of her own accord so medical types can stop dangling the threat of induction/c section over my head."

I wasn't noticing a whole lot of movement from Desert Baby at this point, but this wasn't unusual, as she often seemed to sleep for significant periods of time, particularly during the day when I was out and about. However, after the CTG, when I took the results to  Maltese Doc, his usually deadpan brow furrowed slightly, because the baby should have been showing more movement than she was, so I was sent back for another session. At this stage, I thought nothing of it, as I had grown used to being sent for repeat blood pressure checks to see if initially alarming results were in fact a problem, and they invariably weren't.

I must confess I was probably naive to be so certain that everything was fine and it was just medical types being over cautious, in the way medical types are meant to be. Now I look back, there was something of a serious mood in the consultation room as I blithely got up and set off for the labour ward once more.

So there I was again, half egg, half woman, marooned like a harpooned whale on the deck of a ship, being CTG-ed to my heart's content, alone in the labour room. Part way through the test, an alarm sounded, and a nurse came into the room. My memory of what happened starts to get sketchy at that point, but I seem to remember telling the nurse: "An alarm just went off, and I am not feeling much movement," at which point she put an oxygen mask on my face and told me to breathe deeply.

A person less stubbornly determined that everything was absofloggin'lutely fine and all a bit of a fuss about nothing, would probably have already been properly frightened by this point, but it was the oxygen mask that finally did it for me. It was at this point, when most people would probably think: "Oh no, please save my baby", or, "Oh no, I must call him indoors", or, "Oh no, something terrible has happened," whereas for me: The cold pressure of the oxygen mask on my flabby, pregnant face really made me think: "Oh, b*ll**ks".

Buttons were pressed, more alarms sounded, and various other medical types came into the room, including a staff nurse, who told me to change positions, which got Desert Baby's heart rate moving again, as it turned out the reason for the alarm sounding was a dramatic dip in heart rate. Then a doctor arrived, who announced, when a second major dip in the heart rate occurred, that we were going for an emergency c section under general anesthetic.

I realise now that most people would have called their partners when sent for a second CTG in one day but all kinds of boring factors like not wanting to waste him indoors' leave and not second guessing there actually being something wrong had prevented me from doing so. So, then began part one of a somewhat farcical preparation for an emergency operation. Nurses dragged my tent-like dress over my head and ripped off my underwear and threw a surgical gown over me while I was muttering into my phone: "They want to do an emergency c section now because the baby's heart rate keeps dropping, they want to do it now, you have to come now.... Come now." Luckily his place of work is five minutes from the hospital, so he was there before Desert Baby was born and sat with her while she was being treated and I was still having my innards sewn up and posted back in.

The bit before the operation was all a bit Middle Eastern Holby City as they pushed my bed towards the operating theatre with the doctor shouting into the phone about what I had eaten for breakfast. This would have all been terrifying, but luckily the theatre staff lightened the mood for me by quickly descending the situation into pure comedy farce as we waited for Maltese doc to arrive to commence the slicing.***

"How much do you weigh? 70kg?" asked the anesthetist

I had already had a pre-med at this point so was dozy enough that I failed to give the snort of derision that those who know me well would have expected at this vast underestimation of my bloated eight and three quarter month pregnant carcass. I am fairly sure I uttered something along the lines of "70kg? You're having a laugh ain'tchya? Try 100kg."

I lay there, pondering silently to myself whether there are people vain enough to vastly understate their weight for the sake of not repeating the true horror of the actual figure in front of a team of medical professionals, thus risking getting less anesthetic than they need, and, horror of horrors, waking up mid slice. I am personally pretty vain, I thought, but not that friggin' vain.

The hilarity continued when when what they call the "sign in" was started, where the medical types read aloud various things like allergies etc, when I heard the anesthetist state: "This lady is not allergic to any medication".

For most people this would not be a worry. For me, this was a point where I think I went from a bit worried and mildly confused due to a pre-med drugged state to downright arsey. The reason for that, dear reader, is that I am allergic to a medication. The medication I am allergic to is in fact an anesthetic, moreover an anesthetic commonly used in c sections.

I tried once to tell the anesthetist, but no one seemed to hear me, so I tried again: "I am allergic to medication, it's an anesthetic, it's in my file," I burbled through my oxygen mask and drug induced haze to which the anesthetist responded: "Oh, what's it called?"

I was pretty bloomin' confused by this point, but I huffed something along the lines of: "I don't ruddy know, it's in my file, I can't pronounce it because it's got about 12 syllables. There's a card in my wallet that tells you all about it."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the highly trained medical professionals in the operating theatre felt inclined to run back to the labour room and start rooting through my abandoned personal possessions, so I muttered something random about "Scoline" (the reaction that I would have if given the drug to which I am allergic is called Scoline Apnoea) and had begun to feel somewhat agitated, before thankfully, Maltese doc appeared like a Mediterranean Doctor Kildare (very ancient TV reference for those not in the know) and knew all about my allergy to Suxamethonium (I told you it was tricky to say, particularly when on drugs) and all seemed to be well. At least, I can only assume it was, because the last thing I remember was a nurse saying she was going to poke me in the throat when they administered the anesthetic and being poked in the stomach before slicing commenced. I then heard the words: "She has a beautiful baby girl" as I came round.

"Beautiful. Alright?!" I thought to myself. "Not massive or freakishly huge. So there," before collapsing into another drug-induced haze followed by four somewhat blurry days in hospital.

Now two weeks and five days old, and nestled on my lap as I write this, Desert Baby could not be more fine, she eats like a horse, sleeps reasonably well at night for one of her age, so I'm told, and has gained around 20 per cent in body weight since she was born.

The reason she suffered acute fetal distress was a thinner than average umbilical cord, which was under pressure as she reached her full term size and basically gave up the ghost and led to her her heart rate fluctuating dramatically and her to fill her amniotic fluid with meconium which can cause babies to "have a problem" according to the pediatrician. Her prodigious appetite and weight gain suggest to me that Desert Baby seems to have recovered with no long-lasting effects. OK, I will admit she is large. But she is now only as large as my brother was when he was born, damnit, leave her alone. Are you trying to make her have an eating disorder?

So, I ended up with the c section that I had resisted all along, but I am reconciled to it, mainly because there does not seem to be a way of diagnosing the particular issue that Desert Baby suffered during gestation, and if she hadn't been delivered as soon as her problematic heart rate was discovered,the outcome could have been very serious indeed.

A key reason I had resisted a c section was cost. I know it's daft to factor in the cost when it comes to healthcare, but this is, alas, one of the more unpleasant side effects of private medicine. Much of the cost can end up being borne by the patient, particularly when it comes to maternity coverage, so you have to think seriously about what you do and don't need in terms of procedures - c sections can easily double the cost of giving birth in UAE.

Another factor was extra time in hospital. I don't like being fussed over, no matter how well meaning and competent medical professionals are, and I hate not sleeping in my own bed unless on holiday. I don't know about you, but I also try to avoid being sliced open under general anesthetic unless strictly necessary. Something that sealed it for me was this article, published in the run up to Desert Baby's birth, and sure enough, I had identified the signs of being pressured into an unnecessary procedure by my previous doctor, and that made me more resistant to the idea than ever. I should add that at no point did I feel under pressure to undergo procedures from Maltese Doc. He was great all the way through and I would recommend him to anyone.

But seriously, habibtis ,we need to talk about c section being considered, the "easy option" that some people seem to think it is, usually those who have not had one, I suspect. Admittedly, you don't have all the pushing, shoving and pain of "natural" childbirth and yes, a c section is over within minutes if you're lucky, as opposed to what can be days of pain for the alternative. Perhaps if you have an elective operation and your surgeon has all the time in the world, the pain is less than that which I experienced, but two days after, I could just about stand in the shower on my own, but doing so made me feel like I was having my abdomen ripped open with rusty blunt daggers.

Five days after, I could just about manage a walk of about 600m, but I stopped on the way back, 100m short of our front door to tell him indoors that I could not make it because the pain was so horrible. After standing around looking pathetic for a bit, I did make it back, but for at least another week, the discomfort would cause me to regularly break out in a sweat if I walked too far or lifted anything heavier than Desert Baby. Yes, alright, she's a big girl, no need to bang on about it. *Sigh*

A c section of this type, for me at least, meant not being able to lift my baby up for at least two and a half days after she was born, and the only way I could feed her was lying on my side in bed. I think I only properly looked at her face on day three, as apart from feeding her, everything else, nappy changes, burping and walking up and down the hospital room to stop her crying all had to be done by him indoors because I was in no fit state. A friend tells me that her c section was fine and she felt OK the next day, so it's obviously not as bad for everybody, but please do me a favour and give anyone who tells you that it's "the easy option" a good kicking.

When all is said and done, I feel extremely fortunate to have made the decision I did to switch to the new doctor. He managed the right amount of monitoring to pick up on Desert Baby's distress without making me feel like he was ordering tests just for the sake of it to squeeze income out of my insurance company or my pocket, which is how I felt with my previous doctor.

Speaking honestly, if my previous doctor had told me I needed an emergency cesarean, I don't know whether I would have believed her, and there, my best beloveds, is the rub. If you don't feel confident in what they are telling you when it comes to matters of life and death, which childbirth is, let's not forget, then you are well and truly screwed. The moral of this particular story is: Think very hard before going for the cheaper option when choosing who is going to deliver your baby. You may think, like I did, that back up from friends' experience and info from Doctor Google is enough, but it isn't.

***NB, dramatic licence may have been used at this point due to memory impaired by drugs and fear.

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