Thursday, July 22, 2010

New Guidelines Aim to Reduce Repeated C-Sections

Great reporting on an important birth issue by someone in the mainstream media! This reporter does an excellent job of thoroughly explaining the complexities of the issues surrounding giving women back the right to make their own choice to try for a vaginal birth after a previous cesarean or to go with a repeat surgical birth.

But before you read it let's put it into historical, local, political, and a doula's context.

When I was in my twenties the cesarean rate was rising. Like my sister-in-law most of these women were being sectioned the first time for something called cephalopelvic disproportion. This means the baby's head (cephalo) is too big (disproportion) to fit through mom's passageway (pelvic). How did they figure this out? Two ways. One was a labor that wasn't progressing at the rate of speed the medical community agreed was normal at that time. I say "at that time" because I have worked with plenty of local doctors who no longer practice with this older time frame model in mind. Or before she ever began labor they might xray the mom , take measurements and make a determination without even a trial of labor. Of course this practice has now been abandoned. Xraying moms; it sounds crazy doesn't it? Guess what! We still routinely ultrasound moms who have gone past their due date and one of the things the doctor does is make a recommendation to your OB or midwife about the possible size of your baby and whether you should be sectioned for...wait for it comes...cephalopelvic disproportion or possible shoulder dystocia (shoulders to big to fit) before you even try!

The second reason women were being operated on to give birth was the fact that they had been operated on to give birth. This was the era of "once a cesarean, always a cesarean". The surgical technique of the time was to cut the mom vertically from below the ribs to the pubic bone. This classical cut was associated with a high rate of rupture during future labors. The ghost of this fear based on the rupture rate of classical incisions is still with us today in the doctor's office when women discuss their "options" for future births. It is still in women's hearts too, passed down to them from their mother's birth era.

When I was in my thirties things were changing. The medical community had realized the cesarean rate was sky rocketing and they needed to do something about it. Surgical technique for incisions and suturing had changed; the "bikini cut" had come into vogue, and the risk of rupture had been significantly reduced. Also consumers had put pressure on the medical establishment by taking matters into their own hands; either birthing out of hospitals all together to achieve their V-BAC, or going into the hospital late in labor and refusing to undergo a repeat surgery. Doulas were being asked to labor sit at home with these moms and try to bring them to the hospital at the last moment. These brave pioneers proved women could safely and successfully labor and birth vaginally after a previous surgical birth. They proved V-BAC was a viable option for many women. I remember Dr. Clutter and Dr. Lickness being our first local doctors to support women in this choice.

When I was in my late thirties it was the norm to at least go through a "trial of labor" before deciding to section a woman again. Some of our doctors were much more liberal in their "trials" than other local doctors. As a doula I often felt I had to match wits with some of our more scalpel ready doctors to keep my clients out of the operating room. Another positive change was our local certified nurse midwives being allowed by their supervising doctors to V-BAC women in all our hospitals. Sandy Rodriguez and JoAnne Tarkington caught many, many a successful V-BAC baby.

By my forties the pendulum was swinging back. The fear of uterine rupture was again haunting doctors' offices and labor rooms. A study came out showing that V-BAC women had a greater chance of rupturing than nonV-BAC women. This study lumped all women together without taking into account if the mom went into labor on her own or if she was induced. It also didn't make any distinction as to the method used for induction. (Remember that wonderful induction drug Cytotec? This is the era it is becoming more popular among the medical community. Don't know about Cytotec? Read my piece, Let's Talk about Off Label Use, Cytotec and You.) In reponse to the study the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) came out with guidelines requiring hospitals to have anesthesiologists waiting in the hospital the entire time a V-BAC mom labored. Most hospitals found this a financial, practical, legal and bureaucratic impossibility. For a brief time all V-BACs were shut down at our hospitals. Luckily for us Sierra Vista took the bold step of contracting with our local anesthesiologists for enough coverage to allow Sierra Vista to offer the V-BAC option to women in our community. But it is the only hospital within hundreds of miles to do so! I recently had a client who moved back from Santa Barbara to Atascadero just so she could successfully V-BAC at Sierra. ACOGs guidelines also required OBs to be standing by throughout potentially long labors. For many doctors' practices this was a practical, geographic, and financial impossibility. So if your OB's office was located physically close enough to Sierra Vista you could V-BAC, if not you could not. And of course our wonderful nurse midwives were no longer "skilled" enough to catch V-BAC babies. I will never forget the last V-BAC I was at with Sandy and JoAnn. My client had been told she could V-BAC with them but when she was in labor in the hospital she was told the supervising doctors could no longer advise she go for a vaginal birth because she was past her due date. My client decided to refuse to say yes to another surgery. Sandy supported her decision and JoAnn did a great job catching a beautiful healthy baby girl. I have never been more proud of three women in my life. Meanwhile women continue to safely V-BAC with our licensed midwives at home and with doctors at Sierra Vista every day.

When I was fifty I was hired as a doula by a woman who was trying to find some way to not end up with a second operative birth. She was caught in a terrible bind. Her due date fell at a time when one of our homebirth midwives was not practicing and the other was already over committed trying to service all the local women who wanted to birth at home. Her MediCal doctor had deemed her too great a risk for V-BAC and wanted her to have a repeat operation. He put her under extreme pressure to agree to a surgical birth, even sending her a certified letter saying he had explained the risks to her of not agreeing to a surgical birth and requiring her to get a notarized signature. Although the nurse midwives wer supportive of her desire they could not help her. It was suggested to her that she labor at home with me for as long as possible, then come to the hospital and refuse the surgery. You tell me how it can possibly be a good choice to labor at home without a skilled medical attendant, with a woman who has more risk of things going wrong, without anyone who can take the baby's heart tones or has any emergency equipment or training? This is an impossible position to put doulas in. My client called me late into her labor and when I arrived at her home it was quickly obvious to me she would be pushing soon. I told her we needed to go to the hospital and she begged me to stay with her at home and catch her baby. She told me she trusted me. I told her I couldn't do it, I had no equipment and no experience. I convinced her to go to the hospital and she ended up with another c-section. An outcome that will weigh on both our hearts forever.

In the last few months I have seen another change on the horizon. I believe we are witnessing a new V-BAC era being born. There have been a flurry of studies, articles and announcements about the concern over the rise in our national cesarean rate, balancing risks of repeat c-sections versus v-bac and a woman's right to choose. The National Institute of Health came out with their finding which has pushed ACOG to review it's guidelines and make their own announcement. Read Neergaard's great article to see where we are headed.

AP Medical Writer

Most women who've had a C-section, and many who've had two, should be allowed to try labor with their next baby, say new guidelines - a step toward reversing the "once a cesarean, always a cesarean" policies taking root in many hospitals.

Wednesday's announcement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists eases restrictions on who might avoid a repeat C-section, rewriting an old policy that critics have said is partly to blame for many pregnant women being denied the chance.
Fifteen years ago, nearly 3 in 10 women who'd had a prior C-section gave birth vaginally the next time. Today, fewer than 1 in 10 do.

Last spring, a National Institutes of Health panel strongly urged steps to reverse that trend, saying a third of hospitals and half of doctors ban women from attempting what's called VBAC, for "vaginal birth after cesarean."

The new guidelines declare VBAC a safe and appropriate option for most women - now including those carrying twins or who've had two C-sections - and urge that they be given an unbiased look at the pros and cons so they can decide whether to try.

Women's choice is "what we want to come through loud and clear," said Dr. William Grobman of Northwestern University, co-author of the guidelines. "There are few times where there is an absolute wrong or an absolute right, but there is the importance of shared decision-making."

Overall, nearly a third of U.S. births are by cesarean, an all-time high. Cesareans can be lifesaving but they come with certain risks - and the more C-sections a woman has, the greater the risk in a next pregnancy of problems, some of them life-threatening, like placenta abnormalities or hemorrhage.

The main debate with VBAC: That the rigors of labor could cause the scar from the earlier surgery to rupture. There's less than a 1 percent chance of that happening, the ACOG guidelines say. Also, with most recently performed C-sections, that scar is located on a lower part of the uterus that's less stressed by contractions.

Of those who attempt VBAC, between 60 percent and 80 percent will deliver vaginally, the guidelines note. The rest will need a C-section after all, because of stalled labor or other factors. Success if more likely in women who go into labor naturally - although induction doesn't rule out an attempt - and less likely in women who are obese or are carrying large babies, they say.
Thus the balancing act that women and their doctors weigh: A successful VBAC is safer than a planned repeat C-section, especially for women who want additional children - but an emergency C-section can be riskier than a planned one.

Because of those rare uterine ruptures, the obstetricians' group has long recommended that only hospitals equipped for immediate emergency C-sections attempt VBACs. Many smaller or rural hospitals can't do that, and that recommendation plus high-dollar lawsuits have been blamed for some hospital VBAC bans.

"Restricting access was not the intention," the new guidelines say. They say hospitals ill-equipped for immediate surgery should help women find care elsewhere, have a plan to manage uterine ruptures anyway, and not coerce a woman into a repeat C-section.

Educating women about their options early enough in pregnancy for them to make an informed choice is key, said Dr. F. Gary Cunningham of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who chaired the NIH panel on repeat C-sections.

It requires a fair portrayal of risks and benefits that can differ by patient, added Dr. Howard Minkoff of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has women sign a special VBAC consent after counseling yet has a higher-than-average VBAC rate of 30 percent.

"There's no doubt that how things get framed influences how people act," he said.

While the guidelines cannot force hospital policy changes, some women's groups welcomed them.
"I feel like ACOG has really listened to how their previous policies have impacted women," said Barbara Stratton of the International Cesarean Awareness Network's Baltimore chapter, adding that she'll advise women seeking a VBAC to hand a copy of the guidelines to caregivers who balk.
But she called for reducing overuse of first-time C-sections, too, so that repeats become less of an issue.

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