Kathleen Ward: What Happened to Me at Our Lady of Lourdes
Kathleen Ward was involved in one of the country’s greatest medical scandals at the hands of her obstetrician Dr Michael Neary who carried out unnecessary hysterectomies on scores of women throughout his career, putting them through an unwanted surgery and denying them any hope of having more children.
Her book, A Violation Against Women: What Happened to Me at Our Lady of Lourdes details the dark period after the operation and a life filled with debilitating panic attacks and a traumatic reliving of the operation, while she battled for years against misinformation and injustice to seek recognition and compensation.
In this extract, she described returning from hospital an ’emotional cripple’.
“After the events of 10 July 1995, I remained emotionally disturbed and distressed, and experienced a number of health concerns. I was extremely tired – the sort of tiredness that any amount of sleep never resolved. I was initially told that it was probably due to anaemia, but as my iron level improved, my mood and extreme tiredness did not. The level of deep fatigue was immeasurable. I had horrendous nightmares, and cried a lot. My mood was like a kite in a hurricane. I experienced bowel and bladder problems, and was never well, moving from one symptom to the next. I felt detached from my husband, from my family and children. I felt detached from life itself, and even from myself. I felt split right down the middle. I had entered the Lourdes Hospital to give birth, but had come out an emotional cripple, without a glimmer of hope in sight for the future.
Distressed and Confused
I went back to Dr Neary’s rooms in Fair Street, Drogheda, for my six-week postnatal check-up. When Mrs Neary answered the door, she said, ‘You are two weeks early.’ That is an indicator of how distressed and confused I was. I was in a state of panic, which I did not recognise at the time.
I burst into tears. She asked me to take a seat in the waiting room, while she checked if Dr Neary could see me. There was one waiting room in this building where prenatal women, postnatal women and women with gynaecological problems all sat together, waiting for their appointment.
I entered and then exited the waiting room within the same minute. I said to Mrs Neary, ‘Please don’t put me in there with pregnant women.’ She did not question why, but offered me a seat in the hallway. I remember shaking like a leaf. What was I so terrified of? I have no idea. I sat there, face turned towards the wall, afraid beyond belief, with tears streaming down my face.
After what seemed like hours but was probably scarcely thirty minutes, I was ushered into Dr Neary’s consulting room. He reiterated the surgical complexities he had encountered on performing the caesarean section on 10 July. He repeated how hard he had worked to save my life, and thanked me for the gift that Peter had given him, saying how much he appreciated it.
He stressed I was lucky to be alive
He repeatedly stressed how lucky the baby and I were to be alive, after what he had encountered.
He told me that he had mistakenly cut through my bladder, but when he realised he had done this, he made an even bigger hole, as it was ‘easier to stitch a big hole than a small one’. He casually told me: ‘You might have some bladder problems such as incontinence and frequency of urination, but that is a small price to pay for having saved your life.’
He instructed me to immediately commence hormone-replacement therapy (HRT), and proceeded to write me a prescription for a drug called Premarin. He maintained that my distress was hormonal.
As I mentioned earlier, his chart insertion on ‘holing my bladder’ does not match with what he relayed to me. It would therefore appear to me that he made a false insertion in my notes post-surgery. It never dawned on me then that he was not ‘supposed’ to have removed my ovaries, and I should not have needed hormone-replacement therapy at all, especially so soon after a hysterectomy.
I stood up to leave, and proceeded to the door. As I placed my hand on the doorknob, he was still sitting at his desk. He turned to me and made an amazing statement, with his classic, jocular laugh: ‘Kathleen, I have done you a big favour, you know. Now you can have sex without any fear of getting pregnant, and no more babies.’
He was still chuckling as I exited the room.
Everything felt worse
The drive home that day was dangerous. I passed sections of road without recollection, not knowing whether I was coming or going, not knowing what was going on, or going wrong, in my head. Why would he make such a statement as I was leaving, I thought. Was he trying to be funny or to defuse the situation?
Within a few days of starting the hormone replacement therapy, I felt much worse. I had sweats and hot flushes, was increasingly irritable, had headaches, and even had bleeding from my bowel movements. Additionally, I was not comfortable about taking the drug I had been prescribed, Premarin, as I was aware that it was made from the urine of pregnant mares. Ingesting this was nauseating at best, but I would have borne it if it had helped. Instead it made me feel worse.
I returned to Neary within the week. He discontinued the hormone-replacement therapy (the horse urine) and put me on Prozac instead, now asserting that I was depressed. This new drug had absolutely no positive effect on how I was feeling. It just put a new label on an already hopeless situation.
Now I was on Prozac
As September rolled on, I remained exhausted and very unwell. But I knew that I had to return to work as I was now my family’s main earner. I had just got the children back to school, and there were all the additional school bills that needed to be met. Money was scarce since I was not working, which increased my worries. Truth be told, I often worried where the next day’s meals would come from. Every day was a struggle, but I returned to work at the end of September because I had to. I was (and am) self-employed, running a holistic health clinic, so I did not qualify for any paid sick leave, disability allowance or social-welfare payments.
I would often have to be in bed by 7 pm to be relatively functional by the next day, such were my levels of exhaustion. In hindsight, I now recognise that this was also a primary means of isolation. Cutting myself off from family and friends was part of a deeper condition. But I limped on and on through the ensuing months, feeling more and more depleted. There were times when I felt like I must be dying.
My health went downhill
Christmas came, and I developed pleurisy, a debilitating lung condition. I was very ill. This left me spending most of the Christmas holidays in bed, and feeling extremely unwell.
January and February were dreadful months for me, health-wise. I was mentally exhausted, experiencing severe and repeated panic attacks, and feeling weepy, anxious and alone. I was also physically exhausted, and seemed to perpetually be either coming out of some illness or going into one. Nobody could give me any proper answers as to what was going on in my life.
On 16 March 1996 we had planned to visit my parents in Kerry for the weekend of St Patrick’s Day. All our things were packed and everybody was in the car, including our six children.
Apparently, I left the car and returned to the house. I have no recollection of this. After ten minutes, Peter said that he came to investigate where I had gone, and found me banging my head off the bedroom wall, repeatedly saying: ‘I can’t cope, I can’t go on.’ He later told me that I was screaming so loudly that he feared I had been attacked. He repeatedly attempted to get me into the car, mistakenly thinking that I would ‘snap out of it’ when I got to Kerry. When his efforts failed, he put me to bed, annoyingly disbelieving how ill I was. He felt that I was disappointing the children, my parents and everyone around me. But I felt incapable of doing anything. I had imploded.
My husband struggled to deal with my sickness
Peter could not bear to see me sick. His ability to cope with illness is fragile; it makes him very fearful. He is the youngest of seven children, one child having died aged three. His mother suffered from ill health for most of her life, and so for most of his childhood. She spent long periods in hospital. Being the youngest in his family, he opted to take over her role, both in the house and on the farm. It led to his early departure from school, either as an opportune excuse, or out of a perceived necessity.
In an unconscious way, he connected my being unwell with his childhood experience, and could not revisit that painful era of his life. He was terrified. It was as if he was again faced with having to rear six children single-handedly, just like during his childhood. In essence, he could not cope either.
My abiding memory of that March day was how I wished that I could die. I locked the bedroom door in an attempt to shut out the world. I lay awake all night, crying and confused, with all sorts of frightening thoughts entering my head. Tears are amazing, one of God’s wonderful gifts. As I lay there in distress, it was as if the dam had burst. The waterfalls of tears gave me a release, albeit a temporary one, which nothing else could accomplish. As they flowed out, they released some of the past months of hurt and inexplicable distress, cleansing me for a short while in the process. Although there was a large residue of hurt remaining to be dealt with, crying temporarily made it seeming easier to tackle.
I couldn’t go on
The next day was an attempt to keep life ‘normal’. Peter took the kids to the local St Patrick’s Day parade, as they were obviously disappointed at not having gone to Kerry. I am sure they were also frightened, not understanding what was going on with their mother. I drank two large whiskeys to try to get some sleep, but this did not help. Again I was filled with anguish, tears tumbling down my cheeks until my skin felt like it was on fire. I could not eat; it was as if food was poisoning and suffocating me. Another night of ghastly anxiety followed, with much more crying and further sleeplessness. I remained on my own by choice. I thought that morning would never come. I was truly going through the dark night of the soul. The following day I called my GP, but I could not face telling Peter, lest he misunderstand. I was scared of everything and everybody. My thinking had become warped.
I felt suicidal. I did not want to die, but I could not cope with living. Life felt completely over for me. I felt dead inside. I knew that I could not go on like this.
My GP came on a house visit and, as usual, behaved kindly, gently and compassionately. Having spent a long time listening to me, he calmly explained that I needed to be hospitalised for my own safety. He arranged an emergency appointment with the local psychiatric hospital, which I attended the following day. Peter was very startled and frightened by this, and cried profusely, questioning whether it was really necessary.
I attended the appointment as arranged. The psychiatrist agreed that I needed immediate hospitalisation, until my mental state had stabilised. I had worked at that particular psychiatric hospital in the past, and was not anxious to be admitted there as an inpatient. This seems ridiculous, in hindsight, but I worried that, because Ireland feels like such a small place, people love to gossip about others’ woes.
I wanted a quick fix
Having spoken to the psychiatrist in the local hospital, and accepting that I needed immediate hospitalisation, my GP set about organising my admission to St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital in Dublin, as soon as a bed could be arranged. In a strange way I felt relieved, as I needed to get well quickly and return to work. I desperately wanted a ‘quick fix’ – a magic wand.
Peter was initially not pleased with the doctor’s recommendations, and did not accept them. He genuinely did not appreciate how ill I was – or he was too frightened to believe my state, as he felt that I was mirroring his childhood experiences. In a practical sense, he now had six young children to care for, and he felt incapable of doing this, and daunted by doing it alone.
His parents were both deceased, and mine lived in Kerry, so there was no readily available family help. It was a very tough period for all concerned.”
This is an extract from A Violation Against Women: What Happened to Me at Our Lady of Lourdes by Kathleen Ward is published by Liberties Press and is available from them and all good bookshops, priced €16.99.