Week 4. On a warm Saturday evening, Michael and I attended a wedding in Kitchener, for the son of my dad’s wife. I wouldn’t have dreamed of attending a social event at this stage, but this was family and we thought it was perhaps time to have a bit of fun and connection with others.
Throughout the evening, I could feel the swelling again. The tightness, the cramping, the internal pressure. I told Michael I wanted to go home.
About 20 minutes into the drive I changed my mind. No, not home. To the hospital.
Oddly, when we arrived at the hospital, they didn’t know what to do with me. My own doctors were not on call that night and the High Risk Clinic only took appointments during regular business hours. We hadn’t planned for this to happen in the middle of the night.
Triage nurses spoke with doctors, who spoke with other nurses and front desk clerks. Eventually it was decided that I should stay until Monday, when my doctors would be on shift again. And if needed, someone could be paged to come in the following day. I should at least check myself in and stay in a hospital bed, just in case.
Good thing. Sometime on Sunday afternoon I heaved myself out of bed to use the washroom when my water broke, all over the floor. The attending nurse happened to be in the room. Surely she had seen such things before? It seems not; she completely freaked out. She threw some towels on the floor and told me to go back to bed.
“Oh. My. God! Omigod. Good Lord. ” She was dancing and praying and jumping around – I wondered what the big deal was – I wasn’t in labour and I was actually quite happy to have some pressure relieved.
I learned shortly that water breakage without labour is not what one wants. The broken sac means that bacteria can enter the birth canal. If the baby was not to be coming soon on its own, we would need to encourage it.
As the physical reality of labour set in, I was taken by surprise. With all of our focus on the pregnancy and keeping the baby in, not only had we not thought about the baby being out, we hadn’t thought about the baby actually coming out. I didn’t know the first thing about labour or delivery.
A nurse told me to do my breathing. I looked at her blankly. My breathing? What do you mean, ‘my’ breathing?
I tried to recall movie births – rapid shallow breathing through clenched teeth. Or was it supposed to be deep breathing through an open mouth? Make sounds or hold it in? Push or pull? Turns out, none of it mattered. The will of the baby to push its way out was much stronger than my will to keep the peace.
20 hours. I dozed, sweated, grunted, moaned, writhed, cursed, huffed, with each hour bringing more intensity and pain. In later conversations I would describe the sensation as the ‘ring of fire’ – a searing and brutal heat wrapped around my body, pressing inwards like a vice. The contractions would surge and roar then throw me down again, allowing me to catch my breath, only to start rumbling up again minutes, eventually seconds, later. It was like a rollercoaster without the thrill – only dread-filled ascension and terrifying pain.
I had no idea it would be like this.
Michael arrived sometime early in the night, with Justin. Justin was Michael’s then 3-year-old son from his first marriage. He was with us that weekend and given the late hour, had to come with Michael to the hospital. The best Michael could arrange was for Justin to attend daycare early in the morning. (Justin lived in Ottawa with his mother, so she wasn’t an option for help.)
Justin was given a separate cot in our room and Michael moved back and forth between lying down with him to help him sleep, and supporting me through my labour. It was less than ideal; had I given any thought to what labour support should look like, I’m sure this wasn’t it.
Sometime around 6 in the morning, Michael took Justin to daycare. It was around the same time, probably not coincidentally, that I couldn’t take the pain any more. I asked for an epidural. Temporary barely-there relief. By the time Michael returned I was in full labour.
I was taken to the Case Room for delivery. I had no idea there was a team of neonatologists in the next room. I didn’t know I was the only one who wasn’t preoccupied with the possibility my baby wouldn’t survive. I didn’t imagine that Owen would spend the first hours of his life not cuddling with me in a soft warm bed but lying flat on his back on a stainless steel platform in the Resuscitation Room connected to several IVs and a ventilator.
Early in my labour, I asked someone if Owen would be okay.
“Your baby has been through a lot. He might be quite sick.”
The delivery was complicated. Owen became stuck at one point and required suctioning, for which a kind of plunger was stuck to the head so he could be guided (pulled) out. Then, an unthinkable order.
Am I hearing this right? They needed to clamp the shunts to reduce the risk of infection. Jesus. Hurry up. If this doesn’t end soon I will get up and leave.
Then, hallelujah, a whoosh and he was out.
I was dying to see him. Where was he? I imagined a small, pink undersized piglet that I could hold to my skin and provide comfort. Been through a lot indeed. Where WAS he?
I looked around and saw a haze of bodies in white coats. I had removed my glasses during labour and couldn’t make out a thing. I heard Dr. Ryan say ‘No, wait. Let her see him. Quickly.’
Let her see him? Of course let her see him! Where are my glasses? Michael was holding them and fumbled to give them to me. A bundle in a blanket was brought over to me – more haze of baby blue (the blanket) and dark purple (the baby). No crying, no fists flailing. What’s wrong with him? The bundle was whisked away through a set of adjoining doors and into the next room.
“Where are they taking him?”
“He needs medical attention. He needs resuscitating.”
I imagined chest compressions. Mouth to mouth. Turning his tiny body upside down and spanking his bare bottom.
I changed focus as Dr. Ryan surveyed the damage. I would need extensive stitching to repair the tearing. The final stage of the ultimate physical endurance test.
It was a small mercy that I didn’t know this was really just the beginning of a much bigger one.