My epidural hell

Wednesday, March 30, 2011
My epidural hell
Grace Wang and baby Alex

Grace Wang is the victim of one of Australia's most shocking medical mistakes. During birth, her epidural was filled with antiseptic instead of anaesthetic. Today she is severely handicapped and unable to lift her baby.

Sometimes it's a touch on her face. Sometimes it's a look exchanged across a meal. Sometimes it's a shared tear. Grace Wang, once an active, vibrant young woman with the full promise of motherhood stretched out before her, takes solace in life's simplest expressions.

"The things that lift me up are small; things other people take for granted," says Grace, 32. "To see my husband's eyes, to know he cares for me, to see my baby son and know that he is safe and well. These things help me keep my hope when hope seems so far away."

Grace needs hope in a way few of us can understand. Nine months ago, she suffered a catastrophic medical accident. An anaesthetist at St George Public Hospital in Sydney injected antiseptic into Grace's spine instead of anaesthetic during an epidural, a procedure intended to relieve the pain of childbirth.

That blunder, almost inconceivable in a modern Australian hospital, sent a toxic chemical coursing through Grace's body, ravaging her nervous system and robbing her of her ability to walk, to use her arms, to care for herself. Moreover, that ghastly mistake cost Grace everything she held dear: the future she planned for herself and her family.

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In an emotional and, at times, gruelling interview, Grace and her husband Jason, 42, tell for the first time of their feelings about the mistake that changed their lives irrevocably. Grace speaks candidly about two brain operations, her depression and thoughts of suicide, of not being able to hold her baby son Alex, of the impact her injuries have had on her marriage and her fears for the future.

"We don't know what will happen to us, tomorrow or in 10 years," says Grace. "We don't know how I may be affected in the future, whether it will change or whether it will get better. It is like being in a kind of limbo, with no going forward and no going back."

Grace and her family endure unhappiness of a vastly different magnitude. "I don't know how this happened to me or why," says Grace quietly, speaking out for the first time since the accident. "But I know this should not have happened and I hope that it does not happen again. No one should have this happen again."

Today, Grace is severely handicapped and unable to move from her bed without a mechanical sling to place her in a wheelchair. She is in constant pain from muscle cramping, as many as 100 a day. She cannot raise her arms above her shoulders and is losing the feeling in her hands. Most distressingly, she cannot hold her son and fears her bond with him will slip away.

"There have been times when I thought that it would be better if I was not here, so that Jason and Alex can go back to normal life," says Grace. Her smile is gone, replaced by tears and grief.

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"One day, I went to the hospital library with Alex and his nanny. Every mother there was holding her baby. They were singing and laughing, and enjoying themselves. But my Alex was being held by a nanny. He was in her arms and then he looked around and I knew that he was looking for his father, not for me. I was hurt. I am scared he will forget me."

Her hopes are simple. "I want to be like other mothers," she says. "I want to hold my baby, my beautiful baby Alex. I so want to feed my baby, but now he is living with the nanny and is so close to the nanny and not to me. Alex even touches the nanny's face with his hands. I am very jealous."

Read more of this story in the April issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

Your say: Do you have any words of encouragement for Grace and her family?

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