Specialized clinic provides care for pregnant women with disabilities

Click to play video 'Clinic changing lives for pregnant women with disabilities' Clinic changing lives for pregnant women with disabilities
WATCH: A first of its kind clinic in North America is caring for women who have physical disabilities and hope to become mothers. As Allison Vuchnich reports, the Toronto clinic is also breaking down barriers. – May 14, 2017

At just one day old, baby Abbas is already a symbol of hope. He’s the first baby born with the help of North America’s first clinic designed to provide specialized pregnancy care to women with a variety of physical disabilities. It opened this week.

With this newest addition to her family, Dalia Abd Almajed is now a proud mother of two — but there was a time she worried if she could have a healthy pregnancy at all.

“I was so afraid when I first knew that I was pregnant with the first baby, because [I use a] wheelchair with all these complications and problems,” Abd Almajed said.

Just four years ago in 2013, Abd Almajed was rushed to hospital after suddenly losing mobility in both legs. She stopped breathing and was unconscious for three days.

When she awoke, doctors diagnosed her with transverse myelitis, a rare disease affecting her spinal cord.

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When Abd Almajed learned she was pregnant in 2014, she knew everything — from getting ultrasounds to finding a hospital with accessible beds — would be a challenge. As it happens, she had firsthand insight into the process, as she was trained as a doctor in Iraq, specializing in obstetrics.

Dalia Abd Almajed gets an ultrasound at Sunnybrook’s Accessible Care Pregnancy Clinic in Toronto. Handout / Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

For women with disabilities, pregnancy can be daunting. Many are discouraged from having children. In some cases, doctors have even told women to terminate their pregnancies over concerns it would be too risky or complicated.

Dr. Anne Berndl at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre refused to accept these limits.

“To be told that motherhood is not for you, this is not possible for you…this is not an attitude we should have as a society,” Dr. Berndl told Global News.

As a maternal fetal medicine specialist, Berndl cared for women with high-risk pregnancies, including some women with physical disabilities.

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The struggles and stigma faced by these women struck a chord with Berndl, and together with the team at Sunnybrook, this week Berndl launched the Accessible Care Pregnancy Clinic for women with a variety of both invisible and visible physical disabilities. It’s the first of its kind in North America.

Berndl wants all women to feel well cared for, and is in the process of developing a new standard of care for women with disabilities.

“We’re trying to provide education so that we can provide a shift in attitude to create a positive environment for women with disabilities,” she said.


Dalia Abd Almajed (right) is one of many mothers benefiting from the Accessible Care Pregnancy Clinic at Sunnybrook. Handout / Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

According to Sunnybrook, women seeking care at the clinic may have a variety of disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, muscular dystrophy, scoliosis or have a history of trauma such as a car accident.

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Examination rooms and birthing units are wheelchair-accessible with special scales and chairs designed for patients with limited mobility.

Women with disabilities often require more complicated care because of underlying medical conditions, but Dr. Berndl said the majority can still have a healthy pregnancy.

By coordinating with all specialists involved, from the obstetrician to the dietitian, the clinic streamlines checkups and makes appointments much easier for women with limited mobility.

Dalia Abd Almajed holds her newborn son, Abbas. Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

For Abd Almajed, Dr. Berndl helped her through her first pregnancy, and now the newly launched Accessible Care Pregnancy Clinic made all the difference in the healthy delivery of her new baby boy.

“Before, I didn’t think that I can do it — but I did, so I hope everyone will have [a] baby like me,” she said.