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My horrific encounter with ‘fitness to practise’

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It’s been 2 years, 2 months and 24 days since my beautiful baby Thomas died. And I am still re-living his stillbirth every day.

I am a witness in the fitness-to-practise (FtP) hearing of my midwife. I am still trying to get on with life, work as a clinical pharmacist and care for my other children. However, I am still questioning everything, still getting phantom kicks as though I were still pregnant and still being asked to look backwards when I want to start looking forwards. This is what it is like to live through the FtP process. 

It’s an enormous shock to suddenly become ‘the patient’ instead of being seen as the healthcare professional. It’s eye-opening, disconcerting and torturous to find myself in the middle of a contested FtP hearing as a witness. Nothing in my medical training has prepared me for this and I am angry about that.

This process is not straightforward as I had falsely assumed. It takes years and is far too complex. This is just too hard, too confusing, too ‘cold’ and so, so inflexible. I am passed from one team to another to another. Some members of staff at the regulator show compassion, but most do not. Yet it would be so easy for them to simply say that they are sorry for what I have been through, and that would help me to feel less alone.

Communication does not seem to be a priority for the regulators. Information is difficult to obtain and I am often made to feel like an ‘irritation’ when I ask questions along the way. At times, it feels like a full-time job dealing with the FtP referral, but I have to do it as I don’t want to let my son down. 

I am ‘Woman A’ for the duration of the hearing. I no longer exist as myself. I’m a piece of evidence and am allowed to speak only when I’m asked a question directly. My husband is not allowed to support me while I am cross-examined, but my midwife is there, fully armed with her barrister and her family. I’m shaking with anger, with fear and distress.

Her barrister cross-examines me for over two hours. It feels like an attempt to annihilate me. He blames, belittles, bullies and tries to confuse me. He fabricates scenarios and suggests that I was too busy for my unborn baby and that I should have known that something was wrong with my midwife’s advice.

I had no idea the process would be this brutal. It feels like I can’t breathe. I still don’t know why my body couldn’t keep my baby alive, yet I’m being asked to defend myself for trusting my healthcare professional. It’s so wrong on so many levels.

I’m not prepared for how difficult it is watching other people give evidence and not being permitted to shout out to set the record straight or to defend myself. I am not allowed my own barrister, yet it feels as though I’m on trial and am ‘guilty until proven innocent’. But I have done nothing wrong.

I feel so helpless, heartbroken and absolutely defeated. This feels like a tactical game. But I can never have an equal footing as no-one has explained the complete set of rules to me. I’m constantly questioning whether this could somehow be my fault. What did I do wrong to end up in this horrific situation?

Finally, the hearing ends with a caution order imposed. Is that the end for me? Unfortunately not. It doesn’t go away as you leave the hearing room. It haunts you and causes symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s my life and my baby, so I don’t get the privilege of forgetting. My trust is not suddenly rebuilt.

What have I learnt from this appalling experience? My prior assumptions about FtP have been shattered. I have learnt that there is a lot wrong with our healthcare regulatory systems and that drastic changes must be implemented to put people at the heart of the processes.

Many of the regulators are finally starting to recognise this and are taking action. I’ve learnt that there are some amazing people out there who will support patients no matter what and will believe them. The Public Support Service at the Nursing and Midwifery Council made everything so much more bearable for me and allowed me to finally have a voice. 

Perhaps most importantly, I have realised that my baby did not live and die for no reason. He, and the rest of my family, continue to inspire me to call for change to humanise FtP for both registrants and the public.

Sarah Seddon, specialist clinical pharmacist, Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Nottinghamshire. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahjseddon

 

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