First, I am thrilled to see this forum. It has been a long time coming and it such a blessing for this community.
Second, I thought I would help get the ball rolling and invite moms who have had good experiences to share what helped make it positive. Personally, I have had both, and know how bad it can be, but I also had a wonderfully healing, transforming experience. It is my hope that by sharing some of the details of our births we can help those getting ready to birth their babies with practical advice on how to make it the best experience it can be.
Down to business:
1. I think the single thing that was the most helpful for me was that, at my request, they allowed my hands to be free instead of strapped down. It was with the understanding that if I started reaching into the operating field or there was an emergent situation where it was necessary, they would, but to allow me the freedom to move my arms, rest them on my chest and/or hold my dh's hand, made me feel less trapped and greatly reduced my anxiety.
2. If the baby's health allows, having the baby put on your chest, even if for a moment (mine was preterm and tiny and needed to be evaluated right away, but they did lay her on my chest for a bit before checking her out.)
3. Meet with the nursing staff at the hospital, tour the hospital, get a feel for how they treat laboring mothers. The doctors are important, but the nursing staff are the heart and soul of the unit and have a much longer impact on your experience. See if you can find out how many patients the nurses have to see at a time...are the nurses terribly overworked, or is there enough staff that each patient gets good care. You shouldn't have to wait forever for them to respond to a call light, and there should be time for them to gently and thoroughly clean you up afterwords, and help you get in and out of bed to use the bathroom for a while. That first day, especially, you will likely need pretty intense help.