Friday, 15 April 2016

Five Star Babies: Inside The Portland Hospital

There's nothing more guaranteed to fill you with love for the NHS than seeing a private hospital on television.

Is that not what you'd expect? Do you think it would be better to spend thousands of pounds on your healthcare?

Well, in the case of childbirth, after seeing this programme on the UK's only private maternity hospital, the Portland in London, I think not. Childbirth is childbirth. There are only two routes out, and neither can be put on a long waiting list or severely delayed. There are only so many ways to kit out a delivery room or operating theatre. And the programme stressed that at the actual birth, there was no difference between the NHS and the Portland in terms of care received or procedures followed. In other words, you get told to "push into your bottom" either way. And nobody knows what that means.

But it rapidly became clear that all of the Portland's patients have more money than sense.

So what do you get for shelling out £10,000-40,000 on birthing your baby at the Portland? Champagne, for one thing. Foie gras. Lobster. Pretty much all the things you've been banned from eating and drinking for nine months. Oh, and an exquisite afternoon tea. Except that the rich new mummies are so obsessed with regaining their figure immediately after delivery that they all stick to fruit platters and grapefruit juice.

You can also purchase some exclusive baby mementos. Silver or bronze statuettes of your baby's feet. Everyone gets a gift bag containing a cuddly panda and who knows what else. (More champagne, presumably.) Puts that annoying Bounty Lady to shame - she's only trying to flog you a blurry photo before she hands over your child benefit forms and free sample of Johnson's.

What you do get at the Portland is Pat. Portland Pat will stay up all night in the nursery, looking after nine bawling babies while their mummies have a pedicure and get some sleep. Pat is a wonder. She has all the down-to-earthedness of a good NHS nurse, and she is a slightly incongruous figure amongst all these hormonal celebrities and moneyed chavs. "I never get a man in here who doesn't love Breaking Bad," she coos over fluffy pink baby Skyler.

Every woman gets her own personally selected consultant who follows her throughout her pregnancy, and through the birth. Which possibly explains why the Portland has such a high rate of Caesarians (50%) - these consultants, one of whom is a Countess married to the Earl of Bradford, don't like having their Easter lunches in Shropshire interrupted to go and have to deliver a baby naturally. They prefer it all scheduled to fit neatly into their day. We also see a consultant quick to intervene in a natural birth that had been progressing well. After one and a half hours of pushing the baby hadn't moved much, so after a swift attempt at Ventouse, she cuts the yoga teacher mummy open and whips said baby out. Consultants must naturally feel the urge to do something to earn their money - they are only called in when there is a crisis in an NHS birth, so they are not used to letting normal deliveries happen.

I would say that for that money there should be less strapping people to monitors and more birthing pools, more massages and more midwives offering soothing encouragement. For what do the midwives get to do at the Portland if everything is consultant led? A lot of cleaning, by the looks of it. And a lot of waiting on spoilt pampered women unwilling to do anything for themselves.

The worst of which is of course Hui, a Chinese "It Girl" fashion designer that I have never heard of. Her husband runs some sort of empire in Hong Kong, and generally seems so absent that she isn't even sure if he should be at the birth. (Her mum is at the hospital too and Hui is only allowed to take one person with her to theatre.) Hui is of course, too posh - or too scared - to push. Because having a baby has got to hurt, apparently. Whereas recovering from major abdominal surgery is of course entirely pain-free, right? Just ask my friend with the morphine allergy who had to recover from a C-section on paracetamol. Hui seems genuinely shocked when her consultant informs her that a Caesarian carries risk of organ damage and infection. Yes, even in this exclusive hospital. No amount of money will win that war on bacteria.

Hui's surgery goes well. However, Hui doesn't want to hold her baby until he has been thoroughly cleaned and had a nappy put on him. No skin to skin here. When he starts crying, she sends him off to the hospital nursery for Pat to look after. And from then on out she pretty much gets anyone else in the room to hold him other than her. It is of course difficult to move after a Caesarian, but any one of those fifty midwives would gladly hand her the baby if she was struggling. Once back home she has a nanny, who is apparently there to cook, clean, look after the baby and look after Hui. What Hui is left to do, I have no idea. Get her tummy tucked for her husband and then return to work, it seems. Unsurprisingly, she is on Nanny number two by the end of the programme.

The mummies are also all too posh to breastfeed, apparently. There are a lot of bottles of Aptamil being bandied about. During a tour of the hospital it is announced that the hospital has 50 midwives, but only one lactation consultant. Really? The NHS doesn't have enough breast-feeding support either, but at least it encourages it. There is nothing wrong with formula feeding, and I would never claim otherwise, but are any of these women even prepared to give breastfeeding a go? It can be lovely, it can be a battle, it can be the worst experience of your life, but the only way to know is to try. These women are all taking pills to stop their milk coming in, seemingly without having been offered any alternative by the hospital.

So yes, I ended the programme filled with love for the NHS. York District Hospital safely delivered my daughter five and a half years ago, and I have only praise for them and the care we received during our stay. Things weren't perfect (no water birth option, no en suite bathrooms, no private rooms), but if I'd had £40,000 to spare, I wouldn't have dreamed of giving a penny to the Portland Hospital instead. For the gas and air was on tap. My midwife was an angel. My wishes were listened to and respected. And foie gras may not have been on the menu, but the toast I was offered for breakfast once my daughter finally emerged after 36 long hours of labour was one of the best (and most welcome) meals of my life.

I was also very lucky as York Hospital was not busy that day. I think it might have been a very different story if it had been a day when they were getting slammed with patients. I was the only one in my post-labour ward for 16 hours, and then only had to share it with one other person (rather than the usual three). I was very weak, so they also took my baby away for a couple of hours in the night to an impromptu nursery in the corridor so that I could have a break and some sleep. (Not that I got any sleep, but it was a kind thought.) I could well have wanted a few nights of being looked after in a luxury hotel after the birth (or really just a bit longer in hospital), but I don't think it would have made breastfeeding less stressful or my stitches heal any faster.

I used to work just around the corner from the Portland Hospital. I never really paid it much attention, since I was usually scuttling past to get to the office, the Tube station, Regent's Park or the great deli at Villandry. So I never saw any celebrity babies or future Arab sheiks being wheeled out of the building in their expensive prams or car seats. Besides, I didn't really "do" babies in those days. Now I would shout out that they were all fools, and had been taken well and truly for a ride. But would they listen? Would they care? No. For money is for them no object.

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