“The Last Thing I Remember Was My Feet Being Pulled Up Into The Stirrups”

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Symphysiotomy is an 18th-century childbirth operation that unhinges the pelvis by severing the pubic bones.

The surgery was revived in Ireland in the mid-1940s for apparently religious reasons and carried out, in certain cases, without consent up until the 1980s.

In 2010, Mary Harney, then Minister for health, refused to hold an independent inquiry into the scandal.

More than 100 casualties survive in Ireland today.

One of those is Teresa Devoy who told her story to Vincent Browne last night on TV3.

Vincent Browne: “Teresa, tell us, you had, you underwent a symphysiotomy, when did this happen?”

Teresa Devoy: “I met my husband on my 17th birthday. We were married, that was 1961. We were married in July 1962 and I had a symphysiotomy on the last day of April in 1963 in Kilkenny hospital. And if I can just refer, you asked Marie [Maire O’Connor, chair of the Symphysiotomy Survivors Association) the difference, why would cesarean not have been preferable, there were no options, I wasn’t asked would I like a cesarean or would I have a symphysiotomy. There wasn’t any consent either sought or given, there wasn’t any question asked, did I want a cesarean or did I want, it was simply done.

“But, if I can just tell you, I had never been inside a hospital in April of 1963, but the GP that I saw when I was about 6 months pregnant suggested that I could go into the hospital a week early because he obviously knew that there were going to be difficulties. I weighed 7 stone 10 pounds when I married and I was having a 10 pound baby. So it was obvious that it was going to be difficult.

“When I got to the hospital, I don’t remember much of it Vincent until I went into labour, which was about 5 days after going in. I started labour on a Sunday afternoon, nothing was done, I didn’t see a doctor. By Monday afternoon I thought I was dying, the pain was unbearable. Eventually, they brought me to the labour ward about 11 o’clock on the Monday night. At that stage I was just begging them to call a doctor, I thought I was dying. They refused point blank all that night to call a doctor. Early on Tuesday morning, the Sister who was in charge came in and lit candles on a  table beside the trolley that I was on, and a priest came in in all the vestments, and at that time there was no such thing as a Sacrament for the Sick, if you were anointed you were dying, it was as simple as that in my view. I thought I was gone.
“Some time after that the doctor put his head around the door and said, ‘calm down pet, I’ll help you, but I have to do my rounds first’. He didn’t come near the trolley, he just said it to me from the door. So he went away and he did his rounds and the last thing I remember was my feet being pulled up into the stirrups and I don’t remember anything after that until I was being wheeled out of the labour ward. I was strapped from my knees to my boobs, and I was lying flat on a board for about 5 weeks.I couldn’t move. They actually split my pelvis pone and it had to be bound and re-knitted. The difficulties after that; walking is a major difficulty, even to this day. I sort of have to think, ‘which leg will I try first?’.

“The worst part for me, now remember I was 18 and a half, I have been incontinent all my life, all my life since then. And I heard some comment that really annoyed me. Dr Neary [disgraced obstetrician Michael Neary] was interviewed about the Drogheda ladies at some stage, and the interviewer asked him, ‘what about these women now, that have had symphysiotomy?’ and his reply was, ‘they smell the money’.
And I want to tell him that I’m not looking for money, Up to seven years ago Vincent I knew I had a symphysiotomy but I didn’t know what that was. I would still not know if a new doctor hadn’t arrived to my practice in Greystones [Co Wicklow]. Up to that time, for 49 years, I was paying for my GP visits, I was buying incontinence pads, I was paying for medicine, and just luckily the new doctor said to me, ‘Mrs Devoy, tell me your history?’. And when I told her I had a symphysiotomy, she was just gobsmacked. And she organised that I would get a medical card from then.

“But I’ve been offered no help, no counselling. Depression was mentioned, There have been times in my life, yes, when I was depressed. Right now, we’re talking almost 50 years, the good side of it is my husband and I are celebrating 50 years of marriage in a couple of weeks time. But for a lot of that time the symphysiotomy directly impinged on my life. And, I don’t know what else I could say. I was let out of the hospital about 4 or 5 weeks after the birth, on condition that I would go home to my mother’s, that I would sleep downstairs, because I couldn’t walk up steps. My husband had to carry me from the car into my mother’s house as there were a couple of steps. And I physically had to learn to walk, as in, try to walk. and the pain was just unbearable. I remember saying to myself, ‘My God, you must be able to walk’, and talking myself into trying. And I’d walk maybe 50 yards and I’d stop and have to wait for somebody to come and bring me back. So the pain that these women have gone through over that number of years, is just, I couldn’t even describe it.

I certainly believe it has impinged on my life, to the extend that, I’m one of ten children in my family, there were six of us girls, and I’m the only one who has had surgeries; I’ve had an ovary removed, I’ve had my womb removed, constantly in trouble, things wrong with me and I do believe it’s because of that, that all my life I’ve been susceptible to illness. I joke with the nurses out in Vincent’s that I own the hospital, that I have shares in it. They say, ‘Not you again Teresa!’. It’s just been a constant nightmare.
I know you’re going to cut me off but I just want to say, alot of the survivors of symphysiotomy are a good deal older that I am. I am 67, I’ll be 68 this year, some of those women are in their eighties now and they’ve never had a voice. They’ve never been able to discuss it with their children even. I met some friends of my children last week, I was down in Waterford, and people who I know well, they would see me almost as their mother and something came up about symphysiotomy and I said, ‘I was in the Dail, I spoke about that’ and they were just gobsmacked. They said, ‘and why did you never tell us?’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s not something that you go for coffee and say ‘Well, I had a symphysiotomy”, it’s not something that women find easy to talk about so for that reason I think.

“I just don’t understand why the government wouldn’t drag their heels on this because the outcome is that a lot of us are going to be dead and there are only 1500- 1600 women. To me it seems like an awful, brutal procedure that was done on women who had no choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted a cesarean or if they wanted to have a symphysiotomy.

“There was absolutely no question of asking for consent, either asked for or given, and I didn’t know at that time in the hospital, with hindsight now Vincent it would be very different. I was very naive. I was 18 and knew nothing. But I didn’t know that this shouldn’t happen and it was only when  Dr. Ciara Cahill said to me 7 years ago, then I got the medical card, and I met Joyce who is my carer from ‘Greystones Home Help’. And that has changed my life, in that she’s just like a daughter to me. She’s good for my head, she helps me in every way that she can, and that I appreciate.

“I would not like to give the impression that it is all about women looking for money. It isn’t in my view. I would like recompense for what it has cost over the years, but that’s it.”

Browne: “You said you were in hospital for how long before you gave birth?”

Devoy: “A week at least.”

Browne: “And did anyone in the hospital tell you what was likely to happen?”

Devoy: “No, no. I have no memory of even seeing a doctor. Now, I was a public patient, and I’ve always felt that may have had something to do with it. Plus there were nuns who, I think they just assumed because I was so young that I must have been pregnant before I got married. I felt that I was sort of isolated, for whatever reason, because I was so young.

“And nobody, I have no memory of being examined by a doctor, in that 5 days, before I went into labour on the Sunday. And I begged for two solid days for them to call the doctor and they wouldn’t.

Browne: “My God.”

Devoy: “And the most frightening thing, in the last 49 years, the most scary thing I have ever had to deal with in my life was a priest and lighting candles. Because in 1963 Vincent, I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember?”

Browne: “I am.”

Devoy: “It was nothing to do with being sick and you’ll be grand. I thought I was dying. I was sure I was dead, you know. And that, you ask Marie about the catholic ethos, they obviously thought it was more important to get me a priest than a doctor.”

Browne: “God, it’s a shocking story.”

Devoy: “Somebody asked me today if I’m nervous and I said that I’m not nervous because all I have to do is tell the truth. That’s it.”

Browne: “My God.”

Watch here

Meanwhile, outside Leinster House, Kildare Street, Dublin, this afternoon:

Symphysiotomy survivors following a meeting with the Justice, Defence and Equality Committee to press for a full investigation into why this procedure was allowed in Irish hospitals.

(Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland)