Fifty-five years of back pain and difficulty walking in aftermath of symphysiotomy

Rita McCann says no one told her what they planned to do in operating theatre

A "life sentence" is how Rita McCann describes the after-effects of the symphysiotomy carried out on her in the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin in 1957.

Admitted for the delivery of her first child, she left the hospital weeks later with severe back problems after her pelvis was sawn through as part of the operation.

Ms McCann says her biggest complaint is that no one at the hospital told her what they planned to do to her in the operating theatre. She thinks the nurses might have referred to her being a “symphysiotomy case” but that “meant nothing to me”.

“I certainly wasn’t going anywhere. They didn’t tell me anything, though they had plenty of time to explain.”


Labour ward
After a fortnight of waiting in hospital, she was moved to the labour ward. By now she had minor contractions and was moving in and out of consciousness. "They moved me to a fresh bed and put my legs up in stirrups. No one said anything but I thought they were going to deliver the baby by Caesarean section."

She was given a sedative and a local anaesthetic. “Time got lost on me while they got on with it, but it seemed like ages. It was only when I couldn’t hear the cry of a baby and the doctor said ‘the boy won’t be born now’ that I knew I hadn’t given birth.”

She had barely woken up before a mask was placed over her face and she lost consciousness again. This time, a baby boy was delivered with the use of a forceps. She wasn’t to see him for several days as he needed emergency treatment. She herself was confined to bed for a fortnight with an infection.

The full extent of her condition was apparent only after she finally got out of bed. “I couldn’t move anything, apart from my arms. I was in constant pain and my back was very weak. I had to go up and down stairs on my bottom and I couldn’t move if I had to sit in a seat for an hour.”

Symptoms persisted
Unable to lift her baby son Shane, she went home to Monaghan to live with her parents for a time. The worst symptoms persisted for six months but to this day she suffers from back problems.

“In a way, I was lucky that I suffered an infection, as it forced me to spend two weeks in bed. They had just sawn me in half, and it might have been much worse after if I had been moving about.”

Ms McCann went on to have four more children, but the first she heard of symphysiotomy again was about a decade ago when a survivors’ group was being set up. “It was something you didn’t discuss. You thought you’d done something wrong, so it was a relief to find there were so many others who had suffered. It gave you a lift.”

Meetings and reports have come and gone in recent years, without any resolution to the issue. “You get a ray of hope, then they take it no further.”

Each year takes its toll on the women who had the procedure. Rita says four died last year; aged 87 herself, she wonders aloud, “How much longer have I got.”

Still, she says she is quite prepared to go to court if no settlement is agreed. “Why wouldn’t I? It was a life sentence. After 55 years, I still have pain and difficulty walking.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times