The Fight for Reproductive Justice: Monique Lacombe

As told to Stephanie Bowen, edited by Nina Wright, as part of the Brave Voices, Bold Actions podcast

My name is Monique Lacombe, I was born and raised in Montreal Quebec, Canada. I have a husband of ten years and two sons who are eight and four years. My first pregnancy was a fantastic experience. I do not know how much of it was because I was blessed, how much of it was luck, or how much of it was my attitude, but I just completely gave into the experience.

Photo of Monique Lacombe.

The downside was the care I received. Each appointment I would be in the waiting room for two hours, and my OBGYN was always flying from one patient to the next so the appointment would only take five minutes. My prenatal appointments were not something I looked forward to and I always tried to put them off.

I was “late” with my first child at just about 42 weeks, and my doctor started saying they would have to induce me. I did not understand what the rush was because I was feeling great and my baby was doing great. At my last appointment with my OBGYN, she was doing the internal exam and said maybe she should sweep my membrane. I asked her what that meant, but she had already done it. I told her that I did not give my consent, but she pushed my feelings aside and told me it was the best course of action. I remember feeling for the first time that something wrong had happened.

When we went home and had dinner I started to feel like I was having contractions. Once we got to the hospital, the contractions were getting closer and closer together and they were intense. It was just my husband and me for the first four hours with different residents coming into the room. I was in the most intense pain and I could barely speak. I remember at one point being on all fours on the bed in the hospital room trying to get comfortable and my OBGYN came by and popped her head in to tell me not to worry and that I would be fine and then she left. She did not stay to help me.

People were streaming in and out of the room. It was always new people who would come in without asking and stick their hands in me to see how the labor was progressing. They never asked first. Then in the evening, a nurse came into the room and told me they were going to be preparing me for a C-section. I was completely taken off guard. I asked if me or my baby were in immediate danger, but when she said no I asked to wait and speak to the doctor.

About an hour later, he walked in, looked at me and he said, “What do you want?”. I asked what was going on. He said, “It’s very simple. Your baby’s heart rate is slowing down. He’s not in the right position. He’s never going to come out of you vaginally. So we need to proceed to a C-section.” I asked him if there was any possibility of delivering vaginally, and he said there’s a small chance. I told him I’d like to try; I didn’t want to have surgery. I wanted to give birth to my child. He said, “Fine, suit yourself,” and he left. About an hour and a half later, the doctor came back and said, “Great. It didn’t do any good. Are you happy? Now it’s an emergency. We got to go.”

I started to panic as the room filled up with 12 to 15 people, coming into the room and they put paperwork on my chest to sign. I was exhausted, the epidural was running out, I was in horrible pain. The next thing I know, I’m in the elevator surrounded by 8 to 10 people. They were all talking to each other about their weekend as I was in tears lying there with nobody talking to me. For the first time in my life, I felt so weak and vulnerable. I felt so powerless.

Once we got in the operation room, I frantically looked around for my husband but I did not see him anywhere. They put a sheet up in front of me so I could not see my stomach and my arms got tied down to the table alongside me. I was lying there terrified and all of a sudden I felt the beginning of an incision on my stomach. I told the doctor, “I can feel that,” and he said, “That’s impossible.” I said, “Well, I can’t see anything, so how would I know otherwise? You have to stop.” He stopped and I asked where my husband was. The doctor told me he would be here and I said, “No. Stop. I don’t want anything else to happen until my husband gets here.” At that point, I was just throwing questions at them and they were not answering anything. I told them to stop cutting and they said my baby’s heart rate was down. They told me to stop talking. Finally, my husband came in and he put his hand on my arm and I looked at him. He just looked white. He looked scared.

The next thing I knew, I could hear crying and so I knew that they had him out, my boy. And so I started to cry and I asked them to bring him over. They put him next to my face for about three seconds, and then somebody said, “What’s wrong with his color? I don’t like his color. Bring him over here.” And so they whipped him away without telling me or my husband what was happening. Finally, a nurse came over and she said, “Listen, your baby swallowed meconium. We had to get it out of him. And now your husband’s going to go and they’re going to take care of him.” I’m lying there and I’m crying. I could not believe that all of a sudden, they had taken my son out of me, and had taken him away. I was all alone. Nobody came to take my hand. Nobody came to tell me it was going to be okay.

I remember waking up in a different room all alone with blood seeping through the bandage on my stomach. When I looked around, my husband was not there, my son was not there, and I did not know how much time had passed. Sometime later my husband showed up. He was panicked and out of breath, but I just remember saying to him, “ Where have you been and what’s going on with our son?” He said, “He’s okay. We gave him a bath and they got the meconium out of him and his vitals are testing well.” They weren’t letting him bring him to me even though I kept asking.. It was nine in the morning and I still hadn’t seen my baby. I hadn’t held him. I hadn’t been near him. I started getting upset, I wanted to see my son. I started getting out of bed, which they told me not to do. I said, “Well, then you get my son here, to me, in the next 10 or 15 minutes, otherwise I’m getting up. I don’t care what the repercussions are. It’s been almost 10 hours.” Within the next 20 minutes, they brought him into the room and they gave him to me. I remember having him on me for the first time and just bawling with my husband standing there.

The next four or five days was a horrible cycle of people coming in to correct the way I was breastfeeding. Nothing I was doing was right, and each person had new advice. Everybody was always concerned with how the breastfeeding was setting in, but there was very little concern about the rest of me and my body. My stomach was black, the nurses told me it was just normal bruising. It was a very demoralizing experience being in the hospital. I felt weak. I was exhausted. On my fourth night, I had a dream that I jumped out of the window.

I had to have somebody from the hospital come a few days later to my home to check on my stitches. She was shocked they had released me and said my stomach was black because blood was clotting underneath the surface. That night, I had a horrible fever. I was hallucinating. I could not take my kid. I could not hold him. I was beside myself. The next morning, I was taken back to the hospital with my baby and husband. They had to take out all the staples and drain me of the extra blood that had been trapped under the surface and then stitch me back up again. For the next two months, I had to have daily treatments where they drained me and re-stitched me. At some point, they also had to start burning the skin a little bit to keep it open because I was healing too fast on the outside. The first two months of being a mom were exhausting and painful.

It took me a good two-and-a-half years before I felt like myself again. Pieces of me were still there. Fundamentally, I was still there. But, I did not have the confidence I normally had. I did not have the strength I normally had. There was a bit of an angry edge to me that was not normally there. It took me a long time to come to terms with that, and then to figure out what to do about it.

My son was about three when I went to an open forum about international childbirth rights around the world. It was something that I came across when I was at work. At one point, there was an opportunity to share. That was the first time I spoke publicly about what I’d gone through. I was overcome with emotion. I remember at the end of that night, somebody came to see me and said, “What happened to you was wrong. It’s not too late to do something about it. You have rights.”

We decided we wanted to have another kid. I remembered my nurse who took care of me for those first two months after Victor was born, and she suggested I get a midwife. I got on the waitlist for a midwife. Around the same time, I needed to look for a doctor. Everywhere I was calling, I wanted to try for what’s called a VBAC, vaginal birth after C-section. I must have called 15 offices, and I never got any further than the secretary when I told them I wanted to have a VBAC.

Thankfully, a birthing center near our house connected me with a midwife. That was the most wonderful experience. The appointments were thorough and on time. We talked about how I was feeling, how I was dealing with the memories of my C-section, what I wanted my next birth to be like, what I didn’t want, how I was preparing for that. My first cervical exam from my midwife was five hours into labor. We never even did cervical exams during my whole pregnancy. It was always optional. They tested my growth with a measuring tape. Everything was informed consent. There was so much information. It was fantastic. Having that kind of care and compassion was a huge part of my healing. Getting to finally give birth to my son, through VBAC, in the birthing house, was a huge part of my healing. I had my son in my arms within seconds, and he was there for the next hour-and-a-half. My husband and I were left alone in that little cocoon of a room together, just the two of us with our new baby, and to just cry, and laugh, and look at him and watch him. It was amazing. An hour-and-a-half later, my midwife came to see me. She told me I needed stitches, and, given the number I needed to go to the hospital. But she came with me.

Within minutes of being in the hospital, I was reminded of why I never wanted to have to be in a hospital again. As soon as I was on the gurney, there were five people in the room. Within seconds, the doctor was poking me with needles to freeze me. I had third-degree tears. It was very painful. He said, “You just gave birth, you can handle a few needles.” I said, “Yeah, exactly. You can see the state of my vagina. Right? I’m in a lot of pain. I didn’t have any kind of painkiller during my childbirth. I’m exhausted, which makes me even more prone to feeling the pain. Can you just tell me what you’re doing and take your time, please?” He told me to stay calm and let him do his work. The whole time my midwife was holding my hand and looking at me.

When he was done, I remember one of the nurses coming over and trying to give me a shot in my arm. I said, “Well, what’s that?” And she’s like, “Oh, it’s an antibiotic. You have to take this. It’s to reduce the chance of infection,” and whatever. I said, “Well, okay hold on. What kind of antibiotic is it? Are there options?” And she looked at me and said, “Oh, I really don’t have time for all these questions.”

It reminded me that the experience I had with my C-section was not an isolated experience, people just treating me like I’m a body that they need to access so that they can do their protocols. I have rights. When they had finished everything, my midwife said, “Okay, you’re done. Everybody out.” She shut the door, and she came over and hugged me, and we both cried for five minutes. She’s like, “I’m just so sorry you had to go through that after all the work you did to get to your second birth.”

Even after my second son was born, there was still work to be done on myself. I started getting more involved in the Alternative Birthing Organization. It’s a doula service and an information center where women and families and partners can come to get information about pre-care, post-care and childbirth rights. So much time is spent talking about how you’re pregnant, how you should be progressing, how much weight you should be putting on. All of these archaic notions of what it means to have a healthy pregnancy. We need to be spending more time promoting whole-body health during pregnancy.

I hope that by talking about it, people will realize, no matter how much something may have been minimized, if you have ever felt in the least bit uncomfortable with any aspect of your childbirth care, then you should speak up about it. There have been so many decades of talking down to pregnant women and telling them everything’s going to be okay. That might work for some people, and if it does, that’s okay. Everybody is entitled to whatever’s going to make them feel safe, secure, and respected. It’s extremely important not only to that person’s mental well-being but also to the fetus, to the baby, and to the relationship that begins after childbirth.

I have a much better understanding now of the fact that most of what I need to be pregnant and to give birth is already in me. I would hope for two things in the future. One, that we have more information about what our rights are as women and as people, as pregnant people and as couples and families, to understand what our rights are within the healthcare institution. And two to understand what you actually need to have a healthy pregnancy.

Monique Lacombe volunteers with Alternative Naissance, a community based not-for-profit organization which has been working with women and families throughout Montreal, Canada since 1982. Its mission is to offer women and future parents a chance to experience a human approach to childbirth. Alternative Naissance offers services and activities which promote awareness about your rights and choices as a pregnant person. Find out more here.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS!

Respectful Maternity Care Charter: The Universal Rights of Women and Newborns

Article 2 of the Respectful Maternity Care Charter:

2. Everyone has the right to information, informed consent, and respect for their choices and preferences, including companion of choice during maternity care and refusal of medical procedures.

No one is allowed to force you or do things to you or your newborn without your knowledge or consent. Every woman has the right to autonomy, to receive information, and provide informed consent or refusal for care. Every parent or guardian has the right to receive information and provide informed consent or refusal for their newborn’s care, in the newborn’s best interests, unless otherwise provided by law.

Legal authority
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, Article 7, 19
Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990, Article 5, 13

Regional legal authority
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 1998, Article 9
American Convention on Human Rights, 1969, Article 13
European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, 1997, Article 5, 6

Learn more about the universal rights of women and newborns at https://www.whiteribbonalliance.org/rmcresources

Inspiring and convening advocates to uphold the right of all women to be safe and healthy before, during and after pregnancy.

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