C-Section Recovery in a “Baby-Friendly” German Hospital: My Experience

It’s taken me quite some time to write this, but the following is my account (as best as I remember it) of my c-section recovery in the Missionsärztliche Klinik in Würzburg. I’ll pick up where I left off from my birth story in this previous post.

After I nursed the little guy for the first time down in the labor ward, the Mr. was told he could go ahead and head up to my room and take our things. We had decided in advance that the Mr. wouldn’t be spending the nights in the hospital with me. When we initially made that decision, we thought it made the most sense given that he had chosen to continue working after our GABOJ was born. (All working parents in Germany are offered something called “Elternzeit,” which means “parent time.” You do receive 2\3 of your salary if you choose to take it, but only up to 1,800 Euros per month. The Mr. could have taken this, but in our case, with the relative flexibility of his work, we decided it made more sense for him to continue working normally.) At any rate, it was a decision that we would sort of come to regret as the Mr. ended up needing to be with me in the room caring for both me and the baby far more than we had originally anticipated, spending most nights with us anyways.

As I was wheeled up to my room with the little guy on my chest, I remember the midwife apologizing to me about the bumps in the floor along the way. I laughed and told her that feeling a few bumps were nothing compared to labor pains! In my room, the next few hours were a haze as I was still drowsy from the surgery and exhausted. But I guess with all the hormones coursing through my body combined with the adrenaline of what had just taken place, sleep was hard to find. It didn’t help that our GABOJ was vomiting up amniotic fluid periodically as he lay in his bed next to me.  The nurses assured me that this is common with c-section babies and that he would be fine and it wasn’t dangerous, but good luck convincing an already keyed-up new mother that her newborn baby vomiting and making choking sounds next to her isn’t any cause for concern. Plus all of his little sounds and cries immediately had me on alert. So thus began a period of several days of practically no sleep, and unfortunately, a lot of pain. I’ll explain.

It all began with me not being able to sleep. The Missio is a “baby-friendly” clinic, which means, in part, that the babies room-in with their mothers. While I’m not sure if this is true of all “baby-friendly” hospitals in Germany, at the Missio this also meant that they had no nursery where a baby could be taken even for a short time. While I think the idea of rooming-in is great, the reality for me was that it ended up making my recovery so much harder as I had such a difficult time sleeping with our GABOJ next to me. I simply couldn’t get any real sleep (especially in the first couple of days). We were told that if a mother was absolutely desperate, a night nurse might be able to take the baby for a couple of hours in the night while she is making the rounds and caring for patients. I think that essentially meant she would be carrying our baby around while doing her normal duties. It was made pretty clear to us that asking for someone to do this would be a burden on the staff, so it should only be requested in a real emergency. And it didn’t really sound like something we’d be comfortable with anyway. So while rooming-in probably does work out well for most women, it seems crazy to me that there is nothing in place to help moms who have had surgery and need more rest, or even women who have had a normal vaginal birth but just need a short break away from the baby for a couple of hours to get better quality sleep.

And then pain became the main problem. The first day after surgery I was exhausted, but I at least had plenty of pain medication. Although I wasn’t getting much sleep because of having the baby next to me and needing to feed him every 2-to-3 hours, I was able to rest somewhat in between feedings. But by the next day, on Wednesday, they began to reduce my pain meds. I remember at one point feeling pretty awful, and looking over at the empty IV drip and wondering what they were giving me if it was empty. Thus began the eternal struggle of the next few days: the nurses offering me little to no medication to control my pain. I had to continuously ask for something, as it was rarely offered. And what they did give me (once they took away my IV meds) was over-the-counter strength ibuprofen and paracetamol. What we began to slowly figure out (as I was constantly in tears as I was in so much discomfort) is that the philosophy of the hospital seems to be that they don’t want to give you anything strong, and they won’t even offer that freely; you have to ask for it. I, of course, had no idea they wouldn’t just bring me pain medication on a regular basis, so I’d be miserable by the time I’d ask for something. And unfortunately it wasn’t just pain medication that you had to have the initiative to ask for; it was anything that might possibly help you.

Because of the general anaesthesia, I ended up with phlegm in my lungs that made it difficult for me to lie down without feeling like I was choking. Just as I would start to drift off to sleep, I would wake abruptly and need to cough as I was starting to choke. It meant that I essentially had to try to sleep upright. I choked less in this position, but never lying flat (or even close to flat) became increasingly uncomfortable over time, and ended up causing me horrible back pain. I told the nurses time and time again that it was actually my back pain that had become so unbearable, but still, with surgery pains and severe back pain on top of that, nothing except ibuprofen or paracetamol was ever offered to me. (They did give some sort of tablet to help me sleep a couple of times, but it wasn’t very strong as I never felt groggy from it). We asked once if there was any kind of ointment that could be applied to my chest or back to help me breathe better and relax my muscles, and one nurse said, yes, that they had something, but it “might interfere with breastfeeding so we have to be careful.” And that was the end of the conversation. A few hours later, it took another breakdown of me in tears at 3am because I was so miserable, and us practically demanding that they give it to me, before I finally got any relief. It was essentially the equivalent of Icy Hot. The nurse applied it to my back, and I was finally able to sleep for a couple of hours for the first time in days. Why in the world it took a breakdown and me practically begging at 3am for some Icy Hot to be applied to my back is one of the many mysteries of my hospital stay that I am left to ponder. The Mr. the next day also came up with the idea of a hot water bottle to help relax my muscles. Again, you would think one of the many nurses caring for me might have suggested this medication-free natural therapy for tense muscles, but nope – it was up to us to find solutions. On the day before I left the hospital, I was finally offered a hot mud treatment called Fango for my back. It was shaped like a heating pad and it was placed in my bed for me to lay on for a half hour, and it helped, too. I would have liked to have had it on Saturday, as well, the morning of the day we left the hospital as I still had very intense back pain, but apparently they don’t offer those kinds of treatments on the weekends (I love this. It’s like you’re in the hospital on vacation or something, so better not have any serious back pain that falls over the weekend!)

We finally left the hospital after five nights on Saturday afternoon. Thank God our private insurance meant I had my own room during the entire stay. I can’t even imagine how much more miserable it all would have been had I had to share my room with another woman and her baby. It also would have been mortifying as the only thing I was dressed in post-surgery was an elastic band around my breasts and mesh, see-through underwear. No hospital gown at all, and I was far too weak and miserable to even contemplate putting on one of my nightgowns or some of my own clothing I had brought along (and none of the nursing staff ever suggested it, or offered to fetch it for me and help me get dressed). For days I had to shuffle back and forth to the bathroom essentially naked as it wasn’t until towards the end of my stay that I had enough strength to put on some of my clothing. To some extent, I had stopped caring and had lost all modesty after everything I had been through, but it’s yet another mystery to me why the hospital wouldn’t have at least put me in a hospital-issued gown post-surgery.

After this difficult c-section recovery, I seriously don’t know whether I could ever go through that experience again. The two things that would have to absolutely change would be the strength and frequency of painkillers given to me in those first few days, and I would probably also need to be able to hand over the baby periodically so I could rest better. I’ve spoken with an American friend about her c-section recovery experience, and it was so different to mine. Firstly, her hospital had a nursery, so she had the baby taken there a couple of times so she could rest. And secondly, the nursing staff at her hospital told her how important it was for her take pain medication and to take it regularly, and she was definitely given perscription-strength pain medication during her hospital stay (and she’s a breastfeeding mom, too.)  I also learned from watching videos and reading information about c-sections in that US that many women (even those who breastfeed) continue to take prescription-strength painkillers for up to a week or so after they leave the hospital. I wouldn’t have needed something that strong for that long, but certainly I could benefited from something stronger while I was still in the hospital. I think had I been in less pain, I possibly would have slept better and felt more relaxed, helping to speed along my recovery. I don’t have a particularly high pain threshold, but I’m also not the sort of person to pop a pill for every little ache and pain and problem that I might have. I didn’t take pain medication a single time during my entire pregnancy. And I’m actually very open to the idea of homeopathic treatment (which is popular here in Germany), but if homeopathic treatments aren’t sufficiently treating the problem, I’m of the opinion that it’s time to move on to real medication.

In addition to a difference in philosophy to pain medication, this particular hospital doesn’t care for c-section patients very often. The c-section rate at the Missio is a low 20% or so, I think. And I’m sure only a very small percentage of the 20% has had general anaesthesia. Perhaps treating fewer women who have had surgery makes a difference in the understanding and attitude of the nursing staff. A few were consistently kind and patient, others were more abrupt and almost impatient with me towards the end. I was, admittedly, no doubt a more needy patient than most with all of the problems I was having (and I understand that this can stress already overworked staff), but I was always polite, of course, even when I was miserable. The Mr. told me that apparently one of the nurses told his sister that they thought I was more focused on myself than bonding with our baby and she feared that I might “reject” him. That really hurt, and what it says to me is that this woman had no idea the amount of pain and discomfort I was in, and how impossible it is to concentrate on anything other than pain when you’re in the midst of it. I was sad and frustrated because what I wanted more than anything was to stop focusing on me, and to be able to hold my baby and care for him and bond with him like any other new mother.

Despite the above criticism, I do have to praise the staff that they were always helpful with breastfeeding. They were good about instructing me how to get him to latch properly, and were always willingly ready to help position him and answer any questions I might have. That’s one area where the Missio hospital really does shine.

I’ve had several people ask me about my experience in the Missio, and whether I would recommend it as a hospital to give birth in. I’d say that if all goes according to plan and you have a normal vaginal birth with few or no complications, I think you would possibly have a very positive experience there. I have friends here in Würzburg who had just that, and were, on the whole, pleased with their experience. But for us, before we have baby no. 2 (and particularly if I were to have another c-section), we will most definitely be looking into the other hospital in town, the Universitätsklinikum Würzburg.

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About bittenbythebug

I love travel and have always been fascinated by other cultures. Back in 2004, I began my life as an expat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Fast forward 5 1/2 amazing years later to 2010 and the new chapter in my expat adventure: Würzburg, Germany.
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4 Responses to C-Section Recovery in a “Baby-Friendly” German Hospital: My Experience

  1. Rebecca says:

    Thank you so much for your detailed report about your experiences in the Missio. We are about to move to Würzburg and IF we are going to have another child (our little one is just 10 months old), I know now that this hospital wouldn’t be the right one for me. I’ve had a c-section too, but in a hospital in Munich. It was an elective c-section, thus far easier. In Munich, I didn’t have any problems getting pain killers at all – to the contrary (although I was breast feeding, too). As far as I heard, in Missio they try to force everything in the “natural” way, so I can imagine, that the nurses were quite unexperienced and maybe partially not willing to help the c-section-moms as much as they should. If you find out which hospital in WÜ is more c-section-friendly, please write about it!
    P.S.: Yes, in a multi-bed room one could really die of sleeplessness, even without overwhelming pain (I’m a panel patient). In this case it didn’t help, that my hospital offered a baby room: one mom decided to keep her crying baby all night long in a three-bed room, so that even we two remaining moms who gave the babies to the nurses, while they were asleep, could get no sleep at all …

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for your comment. I find that so interesting, what you’ve written about your experience in Munich. I guess a lot of what I experienced was really down to this specific hospital. And I’m not alone in feeling this way. The wife of a colleague of my husband’s had two c-sections at the Missio, and their complaints were very similar to ours. They felt like they were also “on their own” to some extent and that the nursing staff wasn’t really able to (or willing?) to give that extra support that a c-section mom needs. There is only one other hospital in town so I’m not sure how the experience there would differ from the Missio, but we will definitely check it out if we start to consider having a second child. Hope all goes well for your move to Würzburg, and please get in touch again if you’d be interested in meeting up after you arrive!

  2. Bonnie says:

    Oh, Holly. I’m so sorry this happened. It sounds just horrible. You deserved better treatment, and you and Tom shouldn’t have had to ask for things like pain medicine. New baby! New parents! I’m in favor of as much homeopathy as possible, but it doesn’t sound as if you were even offered very many of those options. I’m sorry you had such a rough experience.

  3. Lindsey says:

    You are so brave, Holly. I guess we’re all lucky we have minimal hospital experience, cause they are just never good places to be – even for happy events like births. I’m glad you are hope in your lovely flat with the comfort of your own things and the strength to take care of yourself. Your story kind of reminds me of a novella called The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marganita Laski.

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