The following is an account of my ordeal at better birth of Utah. I will later post an email exchange between myself and the owner (suzanne smith) about the events that transpired.
[warning]This is a repost from Shame On Better Birth, a blog that grew from being about a single mishandling by home birth midwives to a more comprehensive site charting the various women who have been abused by the home birth movement. [/warning]
I was so excited to finally be going into labor- my baby would soon be here. I reviewed the instructions on when to call the birth hotline with my husband and we waited until my contractions were following the 5-1-1 pattern described. We went in for my first check.
A student from the midwives college was charting everything, and Ester Werbach was the midwife on call. She told me to put my feet together for my vaginal exam. She had been checking me for about 30 seconds when a contraction hit me, and man did it hurt. I cried out “I can’t take it anymore! stop! stop!” and she just ignored me. She kept feeling my cervix for the entire contraction, so more than a minute. I was shocked. I remember thinking “what… just happened?”
Esther took her fingers out of me and I saw long, gnarly fingernails. She hadn’t even bothered to trim them. She called out how dilated I was in a clinical manner, like I hadn’t even spoken to her. The student charted everything. Ester said “here, take some tylenol” and handed me two big blue pills. I found out later that it was tylenol pm. My husband and doula were both there and also were shocked to find out that I had been given a sedative without any discussion. If I had an emergency complication and had to go to the hospital I would not have been able to give an accurate account of what medications I had taken. This was extremely dangerous.
Anyway, ESTER WERBACH made me sign the paper that says I am in labor (and waive my right to a refund) and that I should come back later when I am more progressed.
What happened to me was something I read about repeatedly before getting pregnant. They call it birth rape or birth abuse (sometimes birth trauma), and it is very wrong. Legally it is medical battery. I was terrified that it would happen to me, and so when it did I just tried my best not to think about it. I didn’t want my labor to be ruined by anything. I wanted it to be the best day of my life, like everyone said it would be. Inside I just wanted to cry. Why would someone ignore me? Its my body, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be the boss of who touches it and when? I don’t think the clinic believes that women have a right to autonomy. No wonder they crowded my doula out of the room while the exam was happening- they probably routinely engage in these kinds of violatins.
When you sign up for better birth of Utah they ask you if you have a history of sexual abuse. I do, so I told them that I do. I wanted to go there because they advertised themselves as being a safe place for a person like me, a place where I wouldn’t be treated with disrespect or forced or coerced into one type of birth. They said in their entry materials that “there is no ‘everyone has to…’ at better birth.” Well, that turned out to be a very costly lie for me. I have post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the conduct of Esther Werbach at Better Birth of Utah. It is hard for me to talk about everything because I basically have to ruin a whole day dealing with flashbacks and anger, so this will be a many part series in explaining what happened. What is amazing to me is how little time I actually spent at the birth centre during my labor, and yet I have virtually nothing but negative experiences to share.
I went home with my husband to labor. I was trying to ignore that I had been abused by the midwife. I was using hypnobabies and tried to repeat some of the affirmations, like “I accept whatever turn my birthing takes”. I know now how unrealistic is was for me to try and ignore being abused but I only had a few minutes between contractions to really think about much of anything. The pain was getting worse.
Ester Werbach told me I had to take a bath with epsom salts “for the magnesium”. I have medical laboratory experience and know that if the bath actually raised magnesium levels in the bloodstream there would be a warning for dialysis patients and the like on the box, but there wasn’t. Ester was full of folsky remedies every time I had seen her before so I didn’t really take the suggestion that seriously. I figured it was a suggestion just to relax me and help with the pain. I felt much more comfortable showering, so I took a shower. That wasn’t good enough for Ester. When my husband called back to the Better Birth of Utah hotline Ester was angry that I had opted for a shower and basically refused to talk to my husband unless I took a bath. That was the worst bath of my entire life. I was uncomfortable the entire time and it was hard for my husband to do the knee press when contractions went on. So I took the bath and we called back, but Ester Werbach gave no clear indication of when we should call back or return. my husband had to call again and was told to come back to the birth center around 9, several hours later. I tried to relax and ate some ice cream around 7.
When we got to the birth center Ester wasn’t there. Thank god. It was Jen instead. She informed me that I had taken Tylenol PM previously, after reviewing my chart. My doula, my husband, and myself were all shocked about how Ester gave me medication without telling me what was really in it. Jen offered to rupture my membranes. I said I was afraid of a cord prolapse because the baby was still up so high. I went home again and labored by myself for eight hours. EIGHT HOURS. No one checked up on me in that time. Not even a phone call. If I had been experiencing a problem no one would have known. Ester acted so annoyed when my husband called that it discouraged us from asking questions or calling in to the hotline. We were told to go back in around 5 in the morning when we left the night before. I am so thankful that nothing was wrong, it easily could have been missed.
When we went back in ester was there. I was surprised because I thought the schedule said it would be a different midwife on call now and I was looking forward to someone else. Suzanne Smith was there too.
Ester said “we have to check you’. I said “I don’t want to because you didn’t stop when I said ‘no’ last time.” At this point in time ester became visibly angry with me. She literally let out an angry huff. She said “I HAD to do that. I HAD to feel it during the contraction.” I knew she didn’t really, it wasn’t an emergency, and I am supposed to be the one to decide what happens to my body. An actual apology would have meant so much to me in that moment, a tiny bit of human compassion for someone going through something so painful and difficult, but she couldn’t look past her own annoyance to do something small for me.
At this point I realized that I hadn’t eaten in about 11 hours and I asked my husband to get me a yogurt. My care contract said that the food in the kitchen at the birthing center was for laboring mothers and their families. I was a laboring mother and wanted some food. Ester said “NO, you don’t get to eat until I check you.” couldn’t suzanne have done the exam? she was just in the other room. I just didn’t know how to deal with labor and having my midwife be so mad at me and the broken promises from the care contract and everything else.
I started to cry at this point. I was so tired and hungry and I didn’t want her to touch me again and she was angry with me now so who knows what she would do. I had trouble doing much of anything and felt so defeated, I said ok and let her.
Before the exam started I felt something peculiar. I felt her rub my clitoris. the same sinking “what is happening to me?” feeling rose up, it just didn’t make sense. was she trying to make me have a contraction? was she punishing me for being difficult? doesn’t a cervical exam start with your palms up instead of down, like hers were when she touched me that way? My husband was holding my hand so he couldn’t see that she did that. She inserted her fingers into me and then sighed, said I was 4 centimeters.
At this point I was in fight or flight mode. Any hope for a normal labor was totally lost when she did that to me. When something like this happens it seems unreal, like a dream. the shock of it overwhelmed me. I paid thousands of dollars for the midwives package and this is what I got instead. I went to female healthcare providers because of my history of sexual abuse, I felt uncomfortable about male providers so women were all I had left, and that is all shattered now. I no longer feel safe around anyone in a medical setting. I was unable to get any follow up care after childbirth because of the post traumatic stress disorder caused by this woman’s actions. PTSD is not a curable condition, it is chronic and life-long. What am I supposed to tell my son about the day he was born? How am I supposed to feel about his birthday when its the anniversary of the day that I was molested by an angry, abusive woman? There aren’t any easy answers to questions like that.
At this point in time the owner, Suzanne Smith, and Ester Werbach sat on the couch opposite me and Ester said that I wasn’t in labor.
excuse me? After making me sign the form that said I was in labor and couldn’t get a refund. I could barely understand what was happening to me because it was so absurd, so divorced from my expectations for dignity and respect during my labor.
Then, to throw some salt on the wound, she told me to go get an epidural. You know, for my non-labor, because that makes sense. I was shocked. Shouldn’t they try to be nice about it? Even just a little? I guess not. I told them I didn’t know what to decide. They wouldn’t let me sit on their couch or use the birthing suite to think on it between my contractions, even though no one else was there. I waited outside for hours in my husbands car. It was uncomfortable but it wasn’t cold like it was outside. We both sat there talking about what to do next for two hours. I wanted Jen to come back like the schedule said, maybe things would be ok then. We decided to call the hotline after 7 to get Jen’s opinion. My husband called and Ester Werbach picked up again. He hung up without saying anything to her. It was settled. I couldn’t deal with this place anymore, the stress of trying to decide something when fear consumed me. We had to leave. My husband backed out of his parking spot and suzanne smith ran outside. “so you’re going?” she said excitedly. I looked at her, being pleasant for the first time today. I hated her intensely at that moment. Maybe she was happy they made a few grand without having to do their jobs. She asked if I wanted her to come with me, as if I hadn’t been treated in a totally repugnant manner by herself and ester. I realized then that she had no empathy for the people who are under her care.
I have since found out that Suzanne is transfer happy (ignore the top review, it is mine). No wonder she started the repugnant refund policy- you can just transfer anyone you don’t want to deal with at that moment. There is a reason they don’t share their statistics on their website, I’m sure.
The hospital treated me very poorly as well, but I more or less expected that. They hadn’t promised me something different like Better Birth had. The OB at the hospital was cruel, too. I have no good memories about the day that my son was born. It ended in a c-section, with me vomiting into a dish, unable to hold my son for hours because I was shaking too hard to do so. The doctor at the hospital inserted a pressure catheter into my uterus without asking me first, this was after she had read the birth plan that said I didn’t want my movement restricted. The staff made insensitive comments about my body. I had to fight with the post partum nurses to establish breastfeeding and take my son home. I ended up at the hospital for most of his first week of life dealing with testing for himself, me walking around trying to recover from surgery.
At one of my son’s doctors visits I got a phone call in the waiting room. I didn’t know it when the phone rang, but it was Ester. “how did it go?” she said, like nothing had happened. Rage welled up inside me. She knew exactly what she did to me and she had the gall to ask me how it went?
“It was HORRIBLE. First you wouldn’t stop an exam when I begged you to stop and then you wouldn’t let me eat unless I had another one and I ended up with a c-section. It was terrible.” My anger was apparent, everyone in the waiting room heard me raise my voice when I talked into the phone.
she replied “you had a c-section? did you have an epidural?” She was so clinical. She asked about the epidural with a “told-you-so” smug tone. She ignored everything I had just said except for “c-section.”
I was appalled. “SO, you have NOTHING to say for yourself about all the PROBLEMS you caused?! You’re just going to sit there and ask clinical questions? You don’t even care about what you’ve done to me!” I said angrily.
She stammered a bit and began “I’m sorry you feel that way….”
I yelled “I’M SORRY YOU FEEL THAT WAY?”, outraged that someone would give me a non-apology in the face of very real misconduct. My heart was racing.
“everything I did was to give you the best care” she replied. she molested me during my childbirth, she ignored me when I said ‘no’, she denied me food unless I submitted to a vaginal examination, and it was ‘the best care’. My son’s name got called and I had to leave the waiting room and talk to the MA. I said “I think you broke the law, and I’m going to do something about it!” and hung up on her. I had to pull it together to talk with my son’s pediatrician, and it was hard. I was still moving slow and hurting from my surgery, and now this? Why did this have to happen to me? Why on the day my baby was born?
I thought a lot about what to do next. I figured that the clinic might not be at fault, it might just be Ester. Maybe they would do something about her if I reported her actions to the clinic? It was then that I emailed better birth the following email:
There were some very serious issues with the way that my labor was managed at Better Birth recently. Is there someone who is considered the manager of the clinic or any licensing bodies that regulate the birthing centers practices? I need to make sure that what happened to me does not happen to other patients. I would be much more comfortable discussing this in email than in person or over the phone. I urgently want to get this resolved so please email me back as soon as possible.
Alright then, there were several serious problems with the way I was treated at Better Birth by Esther the midwife.It is important to know before hand that when I filled out my intake paperwork at Better Birth I indicated that I have a history of being sexually abused. That was a big reason why I went with a birth center instead of a hospital, I felt that my autonomy would be respected and that the midwifery model of care would be followed. I felt a lot of comfort in knowing that my consent would be important.I came in for my first cervical check and Esther was the midwife on call. During the check I had a contraction and said “I can’t take anymore, stop stop” to Esther indicating that I wanted the exam to end. She did not end the exam. I am fairly certain that what happened constitutes sexual assault because I withdrew consent to have her touch my genitals and she continued to anyway. My husband was in the room and saw what happened. I was shocked and tried very hard not to let what had happened bother me during the rest of my labor but it proved impossible. Many feelings from previously being abused surfaced and made my labor hard to deal with emotionally.After that happened my doula Robin showed up. Esther then told me I needed to take tylenol and gave me two of them. I found out later (from Jen) that these were not simply tylenol, these were Tylenol PM (which contain a sedative). I had no opportunity to discuss the risks or benefits of taking the medicine and was not warned of the side effects at all. Its extremely negligent on Ether’s part because in the event of a transfer it is important that I can give medical staff complete information about what medications I have taken and when. I felt extremely violated and like I had no real decision making power in my care because I was not allowed to give informed consent to treatment. My husband and doula were both there and both thought that I had been given tylenol instead of tylenol PM because Esther never indicated otherwise.I went home and came back later on where Jen performed a check. She was great and informed me of having taken tylenol PM and offered me more if I wanted and discussed options of what to do next with me because my labor had not progressed enough to warrant admittance to the birth center. I had to go home once again.The next time I came back to better birth Esther was there again and insisted on another vaginal exam. I told her I didn’t want to and why (because she continued the first exam after I told her to stop). Esther said she had to do that to me to check my cervix during a contraction. The lack of apology was horrifying to me. I had been in labor for many hours by this point and was exhausted and vulnerable. I kept remembering that Better Birth’s paperwork said specifically that there are no “everybody has to…” policies, that it was up to me. I was very hungry and asked for my husband to get a yogurt from the kitchen. Esther said I could not have food unless I consented to another vaginal exam. I agreed because I felt I had no other options and had not eaten in many hours. The exam seemed to me to last much longer than the previous one and much longer than any other check I received during the rest of my labor, which made me feel very uncomfortable when i thought about it later on. Esther suggested I go to the hospital and get an epidural.My husband and I waited a long time in our car in the parking lot at better birth deciding what to do. I did not feel safe going back to better birth because esther was there. I ended up going to the hospital as a result where I ultimately had a c section, the outcome I was most hoping to avoid by choosing a birth center over the hospital.Yesterday esther called me to check up on me and I told her my concerns. She didn’t even aknowledge my complaints, she just continued asking clinical questions. I got really upset and asked her why she didn’t care that she had caused me so much pain. She told me that everything she did was needed to provide “the best care” for me and she never apologized. I am extremely concerned for other patients who are receiving care from her if she believes she did nothing wrong in completely bypassing patient consent when performing procedures and dispensing medications. I would appreciate it if you could give me information to report her to whatever bodies license or govern midwifery in the state of utah so that she can be disciplined for her actions.I also feel its unfair that I should have to pay for the treatment I received at Better Birth. I know that there is a policy of no refunds after labor starts but I very much doubt that Better Birth’s policy was intended to cover cases such as these (where behavior on the part of staff is egregious/illegal). I am having nightmares about the way I was treated by Esther and increased difficulty sleeping while having to care for my new son as a result.Let me know what you feel is appropriate to remedy the situation.-(my name)
Dear (name),I am so sorry to hear how you experienced your labor with us. Of course, we never want someone to feel violated or disempowered, as that is the opposite of everything we stand for and try to provide while caring for our clients.I read with sad interest your complaints against Ester. Your description differs markedly from our documented version of events, such that I can only assume the discrepancies resulted from (unknown at the time) failures in communication. It is possible that some of the communication/perception problems resulted from events being viewed through the emotional filter of triggered sexual abuse memories (I NEVER COMPLAINED ABOUT MEMORIES OF ABUSE BEING TRIGGERED, I NEVER EVEN IMPLIED IT). It is possible that Ester’s accent or imperfect English are partly to blame. There may be other reasons also. Regardless, it is frustrating on both sides, I’m sure, to have your birth experienced marred by it.It is not possible for us as care providers to know exactly how a client perceives an action or explanation on our part. We do not know what will trigger sexual abuse memories, or even that something has triggered them unless that is communicated to us. We are often in the position of having to perform uncomfortable or painful exams or procedures in order to provide good care. It is often less traumatic to clients, when a contraction occurs mid-cervical exam, to hold still until it ends and resume when it is over, than to withdraw the examining hand only to have to insert it again after the contraction. Sometimes it is necessary or helpful to see whether the cervix changes during a contraction. When an exam has been consented to and is in progress, it can be a fine line, (particularly when the exam is painful and when it is with a first-time mom who is unfamiliar with the sensations of both contractions and exams), between when it should be completed and when it should be abandoned without obtaining the information in pursuit of which it was undertaken in the first place.It is clearly documented in the record that TylenolPM was offered, and that it was explained that this was for the purpose of helping you relax and sleep. (I KNOW WHAT WAS DOCUMENTED, THAT WAS HOW I FOUND OUT I HAD BEEN GIVEN TYLENOL PM) If that was not understood by you, we would have no way of knowing that unless you asked questions that revealed it. But I can equally see how if you hear “Tylenol” and not “PM”, that Tylenol is a medication you might be very familiar with and you would see no need to ask questions about it. In this scenario I can see how neither side would know that the other was not understanding.In any case, I’m sorry your experience during your labor with us was so negative. I assure you, no one at BetterBirth ever wants to do anything to make you feel as you did.As to refund, our refund policy is very clear. Once labor begins, there is no refund for any reason, and we will stand by the payment agreement you signed.Suzanne Smith, LDEMBetterBirth, LLC
It was clear that Suzanne Smith was unwilling to do anything to help me after I had been abused at Better Birth of Salt Lake. I went to my care contract copy to see what to do next and found the department of professional licensing information. I attempted to report Ester Werbach for sexually assaulting me during my labor at Better Birth of Salt Lake. I got a phone call from a supervisor at utah’s DOPL telling me that Ester Werbach wasn’t licensed, nor did she need to be to practise midwifery in Utah. My stomach turned. I had been lied to. It was clear now why suzanne smith wouldn’t tell me how to report suspicious behavior. The supervisor at DOPL told me I needed to call the police, and I did.
I was assigned Detective Bruce Huntington from the Special Victims Unit. He talked to me briefly on the phone about what had happened. It was extremely difficult for me to talk about. I told Detective Bruce Huntington I had been touched inappropriately and that Ester Werbach would not stop touching me when I begged her to stop. He then went and interviewed Suzanne Smith (the owner, who is legally liable for Ester’s behavior) about what is normal or not. Yep, you read that right. She was the ONLY person he interviewed about the appropriateness of Ester’s behavior, despite the fact that she owns the business that this happened at and that I had already complained to her about the behavior so she knew what to say. Detective Bruce Huntington interviewed them first and took her word as gospel. When he interviewed me he didn’t even ask how I was touched, but insisted that it was “incidental” and that ester was “just being thorough”. I told him that it was not incidental, what she did with her hands could not have been incidental. He just sighed and made excuses for what had happened instead of asking me what had happened. I complained to his sergeant but he never followed up with me after that. Detective Huntington was bored with me and didn’t care enough to actually investigate any of it. I felt so hurt and betrayed. They didn’t talk to my husband either, even though he saw everything.
I tried getting a hold of the Utah Midwives Association, but they don’t seem to exist anymore. They have an old webpage and a broken email address.
Next I thought about how a student was there when she wouldn’t stop the vaginal examination. I thought the midwives college of utah (MCU) would be interested in knowing the kind of misconduct their students are learning from ‘expert’ midwives at Better Birth. I was wrong again. I talked to the dean of clinical education and they said “I am sure that Suzanne is reviewing the culture there”. I had forwarded the emails I posted in part 3 of my ordeal to the dean, she has no reason to think that suzanne is doing ANYTHING about the problem, because according to Suzanne Smith there was no problem. The dean ignores my emails now. The president of the midwives college of utah responded to me and said she wants to talk in person. I don’t think I can bear being hurt again by having someone minimize or ignore the problem anymore, I can’t risk it. Should I have to risk it when she could just take some action and DO something about the problem I reported? I later found out suzanne smith used to teach at Midwives College of Utah and has many connections within the natural birthing community so no one cares enough to do anything at Midwives College of Utah. The culture and misconduct at Better Birth is going to spread throughout the community like a virus because Midwives College of Utah has done nothing to stop it. I informed the dean of clinicals in my last email that I was not the only person to complain about Better Birth of Utah, that websites like Yelp have plenty of people who have complained. I got no response.
I have no doubt that Ester will molest or hurt someone in the future (if she hasn’t already). The lack of accountability is astonishing to me, there is no where to turn when a midwife abuses you. I have thought about the consequences if they had hurt my child or myself with negligence, how it would be similarly impossible to find any recourse in such an event. The natural birth community is quick to criticize hospitals and doctors for their culture of self protection and dishonesty, but I’ve found the exact same thing in the natural birth community in Utah. It breaks my heart to think that I believed people when they said they think that birth should be about autonomy and choice and respect for women. When you have been disrespected the community isn’t there to help you, they are there to excuse what happened and refuse to take action against abuse. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to believe all the lies. I was really into it- I even took a doula course and considered maybe being a doula someday. Now I can’t consider it anymore. I have to deal with birth related things triggering PTSD flashbacks. I can’t help anyone with their birth because of what Ester decided to do to me. They took away a happy mother from my baby too, the pain and betrayal I feel in addition to PTSD symptoms made it difficult to find joy in anything, including my newborn baby.
For now the great search for an attorney is on, but it exhausts me. My PTSD gets a lot worse when I have to talk about this all the time so it goes pretty slowly. If anyone has any suggestions or resources to help me prevent this from happening to someone else please post comments or email me at shameonbb at hotmail dot com.