Seven months ago, my son Jacob was born. As my husband Dave drove me to the hospital, the sun was shining oppressively through the windows of our car. I remember feeling beads of sweat forming on my forehead as my contractions got stronger and faster.
“Do you want to squeeze my hand?” he asks, ever the good coach.
“No! Just drive, please,” I answer, not really hearing what he asks and incidentally squeezing his hand anyway.
As I flex and relax with every contraction, I think back to two years earlier when our daughter was born. She came at 35 weeks, with the cord wrapped around her neck twice and tied in a knot. She thrived after delivery and we always figured that would be our traumatic birth story. Still, in the car on that warm January day, I can’t help but notice that something about this labor with Jacob feels different.
An hour later, I’m in obstetrical triage, hooked up to a thousand monitors or so it seems. There are five other beds in the room, all empty. The room is abuzz with nurses making phone calls, a secretary shuffling papers and a janitor emptying trash cans into a cart. Dave and my mom are rearranging my belongings and adjusting my pillows.
My pain is an 8 out of 10 on the pain scale and because my contractions are so strong and fast, I feel little relief between them. Nevertheless, I cling to this relief and find solace knowing that eventually, an epidural is coming.
“Can I get an epidural, please?” I ask, almost crying. I sound so weak, I hardly recognize my own voice. Dave squeezes my hand.
“Yes, we paged the anesthesiologist,” a nurse assures me. “He is on his way.”
Another contraction comes and goes. I wrap the short-lived relief around me like a warm blanket on a cold, rainy night. Three minutes of comfort and bliss. I slump back down on the bed, breathe a heavy sigh and lay my hands on the giant round belly in front of me.
Suddenly, I feel an explosion in my stomach. Unlike the pain I felt during the last few hours, it electrifies me to my core. It feels like a firecracker going off inside me and my whole body convulses. The pain is so bad that I can feel it in my fingers and toes. Dave later tells me that my stomach looked like a rubber band stretching to its limits, giving way and breaking. Although the jolt lasts only a second, the pain is everlasting and from then on, I have no relief between contractions.
Suddenly, I feel an explosion in my stomach. … It feels like a firecracker going off inside me and my whole body convulses.
As if on cue, everyone in the room from the nurses to the janitor stops what they’re doing to look at me. Two more nurses rush over to help.
The next 10 minutes are kind of a blur. I am in so much pain that I can’t breathe. The room is loud now, filled with bits and pieces of short, choppy sentences.
“I can’t find the baby’s heartbeat.”
“Get the anesthesiologist here ― she needs an epidural.”
“Look at her vital signs. Get an oxygen mask on her NOW!”
Seven nurses thrust my stretcher into the operating room. Looking around at their faces, I don’t just think something is wrong. I know it is. And something tells me that this will end up being our traumatic birth story.
The anesthesiologist gives me a spinal anesthetic to numb my lower body, and within two minutes, they pull a limp blue baby out of my broken uterus. Low heart rate (a bad sign), no breathing effort (a very bad sign). The whole room is quiet, except for the doctors and nurses working to save Jacob’s life. He is immediately intubated and shipped off to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he spends the next five days. I was later told that he fought the endotracheal tube (a good sign) and that his color returned soon after delivery (a very good sign).
“What happened?” I ask my obstetrician, as she sews the last few stitches into my pelvis. All the excitement of a few minutes ago has reduced to the low mumblings and whispers of a few personnel. No one is making eye contact with me.
“Your uterus ruptured,” she replies, sounding scared and sad.
I’m stunned and speechless. I wonder how it is that I’m still alive, as everything I’ve read about this condition describes the mother losing a significant amount of blood, which ultimately leads to organ failure. Looking around the room, I realize that I’m not losing blood and for this, I am grateful.
A uterine rupture occurs when the pressure of labor causes the mother’s uterus to tear and the baby slips out into her abdomen. The tear often comes at the site of a previous C-section (which was very much my case). The baby’s heart rate drops, blood can’t circulate through that tiny body, and if the placenta detaches, the baby most likely won’t survive. Less than 1% of pregnant women experience it.
When I ask my OB how it is that I’m not bleeding, she tells me that as Jacob came out of my uterus, he didn’t tear any of my uterine blood vessels. This is a miracle. Because of this, I lose no more blood than I would’ve lost during a normal cesarean section and they didn’t have to remove my uterus altogether. Thankfully, my recovery is pretty standard since Jacob tore through the incision from my previous C-section. No driving for two weeks, and no heavy lifting for six.
The emotional heaviness of the delivery is like a black cloud above me, refusing to leave until I know for sure that everything is going to be OK.
Meanwhile, in the NICU, Jacob is extubated ― a great sign. He still needs some extra oxygen to breathe and they can’t feed him for 24 hours due to blood in his stomach. But we recognize then and there that he is a fighter.
Although he continues to thrive that first day, we are watching for seizures, a common side effect after a traumatic delivery. Because we don’t know how low or how long his heart rate dropped, the doctors can only speculate as to how he will recover. Thankfully though, when asked, his nurses respond with assurances like “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and it looks like he will do fine” and “He’s the healthiest baby in the NICU” ― words I cling to like a life raft in an angry ocean.
The immediate aftermath of any trauma is difficult. You can’t believe it happened, you haven’t totally processed it yet, and you cry. During those first few days in the hospital, I visit Jacob every chance I get. The emotional heaviness of the delivery is like a black cloud above me, refusing to leave until I know for sure that everything is going to be OK. They are a strange few days, in that I try to process what happened while simultaneously feel all the love and joy of welcoming a new baby.
Late at night in the NICU, I look at his little face and feel both fear and tremendous affection, and realize these are some of the most precious times of my life. And I vow to never take any moment with him for granted.
Five days after Jacob is born, we are both discharged from the hospital, which for Dave and me is the first step in solidifying that he will be OK. However, Dave and I still grieve. At home, we cry a lot, and in many ways, this experience brings us closer together. Mentally, we are battered and bruised, beaten up by the notion of “what if.” We realize how lucky we are to have dodged our worst nightmare, but we can’t help replaying each scenario over and over in our minds.
Slowly, we begin telling people our story. Family, friends, whoever will listen. This alleviates our anxiety and helps make the situation more “real.” We stop focusing on “what if” and start remembering the things that saved Jacob’s life. The swiftness of our surgeons, the professionalism of our OR team and the amazing care he received in the NICU.
It takes a while, but we finally make our way back to normal. Having narrowly sideswiped the borderline of not having two kids, we adjust to the chaos that is having two kids. In bringing Jacob home, I go from being shocked and overwhelmed to busy and exhausted. Then one day I realize I’m finally happy again, and I have accepted the fact that I can’t change what happened. I can only look toward the future.
I’ve realized that every great adventure in life, including (maybe especially) having kids, comes with risks, and I don’t want to miss out on any of it because I am scared. Nowadays, Jacob is a vibrant, healthy 7-month-old, whose smile and blue eyes light up a room. He is meeting all his milestones and his pediatrician tells us there is no reason to think he won’t continue to do so. With every visit, we get a little more relaxed and breathe a heavy sigh of relief on our way out the door.
We couldn’t have predicted what happened and some of our emotional scars might never heal. But we would do it all over again because the rewards are immeasurable. Life is scary. Childbirth is scary. But even after my traumatic experience, I still believe it’s worth every second.
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