think I grew up watching the wrong kind of films. Otherwise, why would it be a daily disappointment to wake up surprised that I do not live in a hotel? The real disappointment though, comes from the wider realisation that life isn’t all hotels and champagne. That there are multiple times in a person’s life when a cream silk dressing gown is neither to hand nor wholly appropriate. That kills me, obviously, but I was dealing with it. Until I watched Five Star Babies: Inside the Portland Hospital.
The UK’s only private maternity hospital is proud to provide a “hotel experience” to its patients, with staff headhunted from the Dorchester, and every plate vajazzled with a shiny silver cloche. We meet Chinese “It girl” Lui Hui, who when asked what it would it be like having a baby if you didn’t have any money, replies: “Are you kidding me? I would die!” Her final bill is £40,000. One of the 50 Portland midwives remarks: “Sometimes you feel like a servant. [A patient’s] glass is next to her, and she’ll ask you to come and pick it up. But that’s the lifestyle in the Portland so you just have to do it.”
Much is made of the lobster, the foie gras, the oysters. There are the bustling aluminium scenes of an industrial kitchen, the reverential hush around a dead scallop we’re familiar with from MasterChef and similar wipe-clean TV. Less time is spent describing their neonatal facilities. What are they offering that the NHS isn’t? From the website, it seemed like a version of the “girlfriend experience”. In the same way men will pay extra for a sex worker to pretend to be their girlfriend – to go for dinner, to kiss them, to fake an intimacy – the Portland will make you feel almost loved. It will provide a kind of candlelit fakery to distract from the blood and pain of a birth which, no matter how much the mother is worth, cannot be controlled.
Lui Hui decided to go to the Portland because it’s where her idol Victoria Beckham gave birth. A whiteboard here distinguishes between VIPS and VVIPs. They pride themselves on their privacy, but paparazzi lurk outside, if not actually in the delivery rooms. During the Leveson Inquiry, photographer Darryn Lyons described how he’d get the lucrative first picture of a royal baby by running at the parents’ car outside the Portland with a “crash, bang, wallop with a wide-angle lens”. When Lily Allen gave birth there in 2011, she told me, almost chuckling at the memory, that a tabloid journalist had somehow learned the sex and weight of her baby before she had even called her mum. He phoned her PR, she said, when “the placenta was still in me”. Does that mean somebody inside the building had leaked the news? She couldn’t say. But for her second daughter, she decided to go NHS.
Something odd is introduced when vast amounts of money are swilled around a body. What happens when it’s in a hospital’s interest to keep a patient in another night, because the cheapest rooms start at £1,200? What happens to patient choice, when every choice adds a cost to the bill – having an epidural, for instance, adds almost £1,000? What happens to the staff, when they know a single phone call about a famous patient could net them the equivalent of a week’s wages?
What becomes clear through the BBC series is that rather than the hotel facilities (one man, perusing the menu beside his labouring wife, chooses a chicken biryani and lemon pudding with the nonchalance of a fern) the real benefit of a private clinic is not the champagne you can buy, but the attention. The lead nursery nurse, Pat, a softly spoken Scot, advises new mothers with a sureness that appears to instantly soothe them. Not only that, but she runs a nursery overnight, so mothers can sleep.
Less noteworthy, but no less important in those endless nights of anaesthetised emotion, is the extra bed. As somebody whose partner hid under the hospital bed after the birth of our daughter, so desperate not to leave us weeping on the ward, I am struck by the casual warmth of a staff that can give you whatever you need. What, at first glance, seems to be the least you could expect – the time, the comfort, security – is actually, when you’re alone and panicking, the most valuable thing a postnatal unit can offer. If only the NHS had the budget for every woman to feel heard. If only that were not a luxury. •
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