“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)

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

  1. justanotherstatistic

    Poor woman that is truly shocking. I hope she gets the apology she deserves.

  2. Jockstrap

    Mostly working class poor are the victims. As is always the case with church and state abuse in Ireland.

  3. Mrs Stapleton

    Christ, that poor woman.

    I’m often guilty of scrolling through some of your VinB transcripts, but that was really harrowing.

    1. Blobster

      Serious answer: quite an impressive bricks and mortar infrastructure of schools, hospitals and other social services. Some now flawed, dated and perhaps not fit for purpose in 21st century Ireland but in the first half of the 20th century pretty advantageous to a dirt poor people. Literally millions of person-hours of free or low-cost social services (nurses, teachers, etc).

      1. Blobster

        Oh, and depending on your point of view, the ways and means of ensuring your eternal salvation. To be fair – very important if you believe in that.

      2. Dave, Dublin

        Given the story you’re commenting on, is this really the best time to herald the Church’s contribution to Ireland’s healthcare system?

        1. Blobster

          I tried to answer the question asked. The impact of various churches in Ireland on the social services goes beyond this awful failure.

          1. Dave, Dublin

            You answered it poorly. I’m presuming by impact, you’re referring to the pattern of Catholic-ethos hospitals and social services covering up abuse and malpractice that align with their narrow social views?

          2. Fanta Pants

            Have to agree with Dave here. Fair enough when we were dirt poor they supplied us with teachers, nurses etc. But now a generation later how many scandals have come to light regarding the cruelty our parents generation endured at the hands of their teachers, nurses, doctors, priests etc. etc. Only by spreading catholic guilt and superstition did generations of Irish people put up with their abuse. As a direct result that generation has suffered high rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism and general crippling right wing narrow minded paranoia

    2. woesinger

      It’s be unfair to say that the Church has done nothing good for the country; it’d be dishonest to say the Church has done nothing bad to the country.

      On balance, though, I’d say its domination of Irish governance, culture, and the minds of Irish people is a net negative.

      1. Aram

        The British built those Schools to pacify Irish unrest. The Catholic Church just insured they were the patrons in order to serve themselves and their continued existance, The British went along with this as the Church was a good ally as it supported conservatism and the political status quo. They were scared of european republican ideas.

        The CC has never done any good for Ireland. Ever.

        Magdelene laundries
        Child abuse
        Orphanage child abuse
        Institution child abuse
        Sabotaged the mother and child scheme
        Supported Fascism and Franco
        Blessed blue shirt’s ship
        Didn’t support 1848 rebellion
        After Catholic emancipation they were going to become oppose the home rule movement as they didn’t want to rock the political status quo and endanger their position.
        O’connel convinced them this would ruin them.

        There’s a lot more.

        1. Mr Meh

          Thank you! You forgot to add indoctrination of children with rubbish about God, hell and eternal damnation. Oh and blaming gay people for absolutely EVERYTHING, making them feel worthless and want to kill themselves (which they continue to preach about).

          I just cannot abide the Catholic Church anymore or the measly hippocrites that go along to the chapel and put money in their hands when they don’t agree with most of the teaching- GROW SOME BALLS and leave the church, worship privately if you want to believe in God- the behavior of the CC should be all the proof you need that there isn’t one.

        2. Blobster

          Yes – because the CC did all of these things in a vacumn. No wider societal, political or populist trends informed any of this. If it wasn’t for the CC Irish people would have come down on the now historicaly acceptable side of all of these issues. Irish people are brilliant but the mean roman church corrupted us. Sorry don’t buy that simplistic blame game.

          1. Fanta Pants

            Ha! They most definitely did the majority of that list in a private vacuum! Are you mental? What politcal or populist trend supported them in the following from the list that Aram supplied???;

            Magdelene laundries
            Child abuse
            Orphanage child abuse
            Institution child abuse
            Sabotaged the mother and child scheme

  4. Rugbyfan

    I heard that the International Eucharistic thingy has had a lot of people pull out of attending the event due to recent reports on the CC in Ireland.
    This might add to the attendance drop.

    1. Christopher

      Insomnia has stickers on all their shops welcoming the Eucharistic congress- that’s me done with them and their buns.

    2. yourcommentisawaitingmoderation

      It’s true in my case. I saw this in the paper yesterday and sent my ticket back to my parish priest this morning. It’s not just the attitude of the Church that is alarming here though, the attitude of the medical profession is also disgusting.

      1. Kuoto

        + 1
        Alot of Doctors have this arrogant, brazen attitude still when dealing with patients, no people skills whatsoever, disgraceful.

    3. Paul Moloney

      I can’t see how it would affect attendance. Those going already know all this; they’re the die-hard adherents.

      P.

  5. Justin

    I misread “disgraced obstetrician Michael Neary” as “deranged obstetrician Michael Neary”, and no bloody question, it’s just as appropriate. this is horror-movie material :(

  6. Christopher

    Horrible, just horrible. Another brave woman pissed on by our rotten state and still waiting for some justice to be done not only for her but for the hundreds of other women who have suffered over the years and passed on.

  7. Not the King of Spain

    And a whole lot of hospitals are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

    which is an utter disgrace.

    1. Zynks

      I couldn’t agree more. Anyone that defends such cruel practices has no place inside a hospital, unless they are the patients and willing to try their own medicine.

  8. Not the King of Spain

    “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, 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.”

    Is this not just vile?

    1. yourcommentisawaitingmoderation

      It is vile, but the doctor is also to blame, he barely checked on her.

  9. Upset

    Unfortunately, this is not just the CC, it’s maternity hospital, and similar things still happen.

    My friend was neglected in a maternity hospital in Dublin 10 years ago, and her beautiful child and has suffered as a result since

    1. Pedanto, The Hilarity Man

      The doctor is greatly to blame. I’m as anti-church as maybe anyone here, but the sickness in Ireland is a lot wider than religion. I think it’s about the deference to authority, and the insane unquestionable power that accorded to anyone two steps up the ladder.

      1. Fanta Pants

        Yeah but you have then consider how responsible the CC is for spreading such an unhealthly level of deference to authority throughout irish society. We joke about it, but we are a people crippled my guilt and negative thinking because of the CC. Spend some time living in other western countries and you’ll realise just how awkward and backward we are in comparison to other nationalities about things such as sex or expressing ourselves.

    1. ffintii

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

      And she on a big fat pension……..,.

      1. Fanta Pants

        Harney is actually biological exo skeleton, developed in a lab in the far future, that is run internally by a small crew of miniaturised hyper misogynistic male neo nazi’s. She was sent back in time by the enemies of the womens movement to suppress all logical requests for the medical rights of women in Ireland. And she has acheived this via the unparralled power of her turkey like neck wattle. A power she school Brian Cowen in the use of….

  10. yourcommentisawaitingmoderation

    Another horrible crime against women, but what’s new. Breastfeeding is viewed as disgusting but a soccer fan is applauded for it!

    1. Conor

      Its not disgusting. Its a perfectly natural bodily function and those are best kept behind closed door.

  11. Micheál

    Absolutely awful story – the suffering this woman has had to go through is unimaginable.

    Can someone explain the twisted logic that led to the CC thinking this was a great idea? Was it just a punishment for getting pregnant before marriage? (I know she was married, but she says that they maybe thought she wasn’t). Was it so that these women couldn’t get pregnant again?

    1. Dee

      Quite the opposite in fact, caesarians were believed to be safe for only up to 4 pregnancies. After that a woman and her husband might seek to use birth control to, well you know preserve her health. So basically spatchcocking these poor women meant they wouldn’t come looking for the pill.

      Truly disgusting and utterly lacking in humanity.

  12. tommy

    I know the Catholic Church ran the hospital, but surely this is all down to the doctors that worked there?

    1. woesinger

      Yes, and their judgement was coloured by their Catholic beliefs and the dogmas of the church. Most of the damage done by religions isn’t done directly by priests, but by the beliefs they preach.

    2. Paul Moloney

      Some extracts from Ferriter’s book make the link clear:

      http://www.politics.ie/forum/oireachtas/184092-statements-symphysiotomy-post5071805.html?highlight=ferriter#post5071805

      “Alex Spain revived symphysiotomy at the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) in 1944. By then, symphysiotomy had long fallen into disrepute. Spain himself admitted that symphysiotomy was ‘an entirely new procedure … that has to be faced against the weight of the entire English-speaking obstetrical world’. By 1944, Caesarean was well established in that world as the treatment of choice for obstructed labour.

      Contrary to what the Institute of Obstetricians and Gymaecologist would have us believe, symphysiotomy was never a norm. It was shunned––also on the continent of Europe–– because of its dangers, which had been amply described in the medical literature. In addition to the prospect of a dead or damaged baby, there was the certainty of a severely injured mother. As far back as 1803, the procedure had been damned by Prof James Hamilton of Edinburgh: ‘in no case whatsoever’, he said, should it be resorted to.

      Spain’s successor, Arthur Barry, championed the practice in the 1950s. But it was attacked by British doctors, who counted the number of babies left dead and brain damaged as a result of the surgery. Donal Browne of the Rotunda also pointed out that Caesarean would result in fewer infant deaths and less maternal injury.

      Symphysiotomy was preferred to Caesarean section for ethical reasons. Barry described Caesarean as ‘the chief cause of the unethical procedure of sterilisation’.
      Caesarean also encouraged the laity ‘in the improper prevention of pregnancy or in seeking termination’, he told a Catholic medical
      congress in 1954. ‘If you must cut something, cut the symphysis’, he urged”

      P.

      1. justanotherstatistic

        That is horrific. They’d rather have a brain-dead baby and a mother who can hardly walk than, God forbid, a small healthy family.

        1. Pedanto, The Hilarity Man

          Well put. I believe that would still be the Cathoic preference today.

        1. Zynks

          In the second link the Knights of Malta seem to describe themselves, if I understood the text correctly, as a semi-paramilitary organization with official relations with 81 countries, recognised by the United Nations and answerable only to the pope.
          With doctors signing up to such organizations, there may not have been much need for priests imposing catholic church rules…

  13. NefariousFaery

    Felt sick to the stomach reading this. That woman, and the others speaking out about their horror, are so courageous.

    The Catholic Church has been and is a machine of systematic abuse for thousands upon thousands of people – sexual, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. I agree with readers who call this ‘horror movie’ material.

    1. Figlen

      Unfortunately I find myself – as today when I was on the Dart and a load of Eucharistic types got on – despising people involved in the church. I don’t like despising people. It’s not fair on the innocent and good people to paint a whole group of people with the one brush. However, when you hear of the kind of things that people under the aegis of the church have been up to over the years, it’s almost unthinkable NOT to despise these people.

  14. Man

    What amazes me is that professional and well educated people could be so influenced by the Catholic Church. What an absolute stain they are on this country.

    Pity the Reformation never happened here. If we all ended up Prods, we’d be all better off and probably have an independent United Ireland since about 1800.

  15. Father Filth

    Good grief, beggars belief. Some things you’re better off not knowing about..

    I’m not saying that to slight the women concerned, but that transcript freezes your mind, it just blocks it from thinking past it, for a while.

    Ugh.

    Off to YouTube videos of adorable cats being clever..

  16. Dez

    Another reason to outright ban the cc in this country. Take all their power and wealth and give to the people they abused and harmed throughout the years, remove them from the school system, the medical system and any other system they come into contact with the general public and leave the ones who truly want to seek them out at it. Seriously, ban the catholic church.

        1. Tom Red

          Do catholic faith schools set the syllabus? Any chance that what happened to these women, the laundries, and numerous abuse cases will be taught in history class?
          I don’t think it’s something to be glossed over.

  17. SC

    Does anyone know if there is any way to show our official support? A petition or something?

  18. Clare

    that woman is incredible for her perseverance and courage to share her story. I’m 18 now and I feel sick at the thought of a woman of any age having to go through that, let alone of someone as young as me suffering life-long incontinence and pain after that barbaric procedure……

  19. Aram

    Ireland was truly a black whole during the peak of the CC’s power. It’s not much better now.

    Oh and to the person who mentioned that many hospitals are still under the CC’s patronage.

    The CC recently used state funds to from St. Vincents to help fund their private Vincent’s hospital.

    Despite owing thousands to Irish citizens in ‘compensation’ for destroyed lives. They are using our money to enrich and sustain their corrupt, evil institution.

    I feel nothing but disgust and revulsion for the Catholic Church.

  20. yourcommentisawaitingmoderation

    I can’t understand how the majority of people on this thread a calling for the heads of the Catholic Church but have ignored the doctors’ role in this.

  21. grainne

    oh my God I feel sick that that happened to those poor women …… Im from Dublin( and a catholic) but live in Sydney ,Australia (last 15 yrs) Im due my second baby in Nov . I didnt realise that religon was brought in to the labor ward as well in Ireland , i knew it f***ed up other parts of people lives .Its sickening truly sickening !

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