Speaking out: A Student’s Perspective by Ren Forteath

I was recently asked to speak at a conference organised by our consultant midwife on the topic of Person Centred Care. She wanted to hear thoughts on the topic of ‘Speaking Out’ from a variety of perspectives and asked me as a midwifery student on placement. I was delighted to be asked to present, perhaps the first indication that speaking out may not be something I find overly daunting! Having a background in amateur dramatics gives me an advantage when it comes to assessed presentations or even leading parentcraft classes when on community placement. The same could not be said of everyone in my class. Even approaching the end of our final year, many of my peers quake with nerves when asked to give a presentation. This fact caused me to consider ‘speaking out’ not only from my point of view, but from that of other students who might be younger and less outgoing than myself. (As a mature student I have quite a few years on some of my class!) The topic encompasses a variety of scenarios, and I tried to think of personal experiences that illustrated my feelings.

On a shift to shift basis we speak to women we care for, other students, midwives and doctors – and sometimes that is no less nerve racking than giving a presentation! Naturally as we progress through our course we become more confident, we gain more knowledge and our comfort zone broadens. But inside there is always a kernel of fear that we’ll say the wrong thing – or not say the right thing. Personally, I’ve had a couple of experiences that spring to mind.

In first year I was with a woman who had written in her birth plan that if things didn’t go as expected and she needed help, she would rather have a kiwi delivery than forceps. I thought no more about it until we reached that point. The reg was called in to do an assisted delivery – and he immediately went for forceps. The woman was fairly out of it on diamorphine and becoming distressed. She couldn’t speak up for herself.  So, I swallowed my fear, took a deep breath and said…’eep’. Then I took another deep breath and said “Doctor, um , she’d really prefer the kiwi, if you don’t mind, please, thank you very much”.  And he did it! She got her kiwi delivery and she was so happy. And I was absolutely on top of this world! It was so exhilarating. I had been an advocate for my woman. I had spoken up to a doctor – and he hadn’t bitten my head off! And then second year happened.

I was on shift and we heard an emergency buzzer, so we all ran to room 7: and it was a shoulder dystocia skills drill. Well, really, what were we expecting? There was only one woman in labour that day and she was in room 3! So one person took charge and started working through the HELPERR mnemonic and I thought “hey, I remember this, I know this stuff”. Then the consultant walked in, made a quick assessment of the situation and said “O.K. with a little fundal pressure, I think we can get this baby delivered.” Everyone else just looked at each other and I was thinking “that’s not right  – I know that’s not right – it’s suprapubic pressure.” And then someone suggested doing exactly that but the consultant said again “Come on now,  a bit of fundal pressure! Please, will someone put their hand on the fundus?” And I thought “it’s not right, is it?” And as if of its own accord, my hand started to move. Well, his voice was just so hypnotically consultanty. Then my mentor shot me such a daggers glance that, seriously, if looks could kill, that midwife would be in prison today! My hand shot back down, but not before at least two other people had seen it. So that sparked a useful discussion on listening to your inner voice and always speaking up, diplomatically, if your knowledge of evidence based practice tells you something is wrong. It also sparked a debate on whether it’s appropriate to use ‘making the student feel like a prize turnip’ as a teaching technique. And I wished the floor would open up and swallow me whole.

And now I’m in third year. There is light at the end of the tunnel and I’m beginning to believe it is not an oncoming train. I still have a lot to learn but I’m really starting to feel like part of the team. I suggest things and people listen. I coach women through fear and panic to relief and joy. I hold my own.

A large part of how easy or difficult it is to speak out is the people you are surrounded by. In my clinical area we have great teams, both in hospital and on the community. My classmates who have been here on rural placement always say how much they enjoy it; the working environment, the attitude, the team. People are encouraging, patient, willing to listen and keen to teach. They are inclusive and welcoming. I have rarely been berated for starting to do something the way I was shown at Uni rather than the way the midwife I was working with that day would normally do it. Not never, unfortunately, but rarely and never by a mentor.

Having my student placements there has made my own experience a hugely positive one and has equipped me to find my voice and to know how and when to use it. I know that many in my class feel the same way about their mentors in their own areas. Speaking up and speaking out are still not always easy…. but we’re learning, and as we complete our degree programmes and step out into the wards as shiny new midwives, we will find the strength to speak for our women, and for ourselves.

  • Trust your learning – if your evidence base tells you it isn’t right, say something (even to a consultant)
  • You are her advocate – if she can’t speak for herself, it’s your job to speak for her
  • Be diplomatic – just because you need to say it, that doesn’t mean you have to upset anyone
  • Find your voice – you can have a positive impact by saying the right thing at the right time

Ren Forteath is a Student Midwife