As we pause and give thanks today, I am so grateful for my baby girl, Kate. I am so grateful for my husband, Mike. And I’m so thankful for the abundance of my family. To you and yours, Happy Thanksgiving!
Kate’s birth story:
Kate was born by unplanned c-section on May 23. By then I had been in labor for 37 hours, 16 of which were “active labor.” For the uninitiated, active labor is when the contractions are regular (3-5 min), very painful and you are usually in some phase of cervical dilation (opening) and effacement (softening). Active labor is the stuff you see on TV, but it takes hours and is before the pushing.
Kate was really making an entrance.
Now you’ve probably heard about epidurals, those wonder pain meds inserted by a long needle into the fluid sac of your spine. I asked for one of those. It didn’t take. The anesthesiologist gave me additional IV drugs, which helped but did not last. There was a second and then third epidural (which all hurt, by the way). None of them completely got to the pain. The doctor said in his 17 years giving epidurals, this had happened maybe 6 times. Lucky me.
By the time we got to epi #3 it was well into the morning of the 23rd. My labor had started with light bleeding and mild cramping around 11 pm on Friday, May 21st, Kate’s due date (we went to the hospital, where they confirmed I was in early labor). By Sunday morning we were well into contractions on top of each other, 8 cm dilated, completely effaced, water broken. By all standards we were close to pushing and I could feel every searing second. The problem was Kate wanted to come out through my left hipbone. Her head was down but her body was transverse (sideways) and with each contraction her skull was trying to penetrate my hip. The closest I can compare it to was metal grinding into white-hot lava delivered by medieval spikes. The nurses told me I had something called a window, which is when pain meds can’t reach the source of the pain. I did not care what it was called. I wanted it to end.
Earlier in labor I had done reasonably well at breathing, listening to calming music, focusing on my husband’s very good coaching. But now, exhausted, nauseous, half-delirious with pain I could only scream when the contractions peaked and try and hear Mike’s voice. I know he was talking to me, but it often felt like he was trying to coach me from under water. He was very loving, firm when needed and consoling when I was begging God for mercy. (Although there was the one misstep when he said, “I know this isn’t fun but you have to hang on…” Lines like that are why the wife-punching-husband stories exist.)
Finally, the nurses told me the doctor was on his way. My OBGYN was off for the weekend and another doc from his office was on call. I knew this could happen but still felt a bit upset that after hours with strangers (albeit wonderful hospital staff), it was another stranger who would help me across the finish line. I had hoped at this news that they would immediately prep me and I would get the spinal meds that would finally numb my pain. But I had to wait for him to be in the building, which was about another 30 minutes. It felt like forever and baby girl was starting to push.
When my doctor arrived the nursing team and anesthesiologist burst into the room and moved quickly. God bless them! I could tell they cared and were ready to help me reach the end of labor. We rolled into the OR, I was given a spinal which numbs you from the neck down and I was secured to the operating table with straps all over my body. They put up a blue curtain to block my view of the surgery. The doctor came around and introduced himself (I knew he had delivered my friend’s baby and that made me feel a little better). That was the only time I remember him speaking to me.
Finally I saw Mike, dressed in blue scrubs, cap and mask. I told him not to look (he’s squeamish) and that I was afraid as they tipped the table twenty degrees — baby girl was that far over in my abdomen. Mike leaned over and said, “Just look at me. I know you can’t see it but I’m smiling. Look at my eyes, they’re smiling. We’re about to meet our baby. You’re almost there.” And just like he’s done so many times during our 13 years of marriage and 19-year relationship, Mike had brought me back out of my fear and into the moment, the moment we’d meet our child for the first time. So we waited a few more minutes while they tugged and pressed on my body (no pain but you definitely feel pressure with a c-section) all while the anesthesiologist narrated as a disembodied voice behind my head.
“They’re going to pull the baby out now!” he said.
I heard the sounds of the staff talking and then I heard the sweetest sound of my life … my baby’s cry. And then they said it was a girl (because we had waited to find out). I looked at Mike and I could see the joy in his eyes. “It’s a girl! That’s our daughter!” I felt overwhelmed with emotion. There’s my daughter. My daughter. I wanted to see and touch her immediately but I was beached like a whale on the operating table. My lips trembled as I started to cry. The staff came and grabbed Mike to go see Kate. I could hear them talking and my husband laughing. I was jealous and lonely, left behind curtain number one.
But Mike soon came back holding our jewel of a girl. I could hardly see her because I couldn’t move my head much. I wanted my hands to work so I could hold her immediately, but they were strapped down to the table and numb. Mike brought her close and I kissed her little perfect face. And then just as abruptly they had to take her and Mike away to the nursery. I didn’t blame Mike for going but now I really did feel alone. I was lying in a bright room, surrounded by medical staff, the sounds of a radio, the small-talk of coworkers talking gossip … and I felt so alone. It was the biggest moment of my life and I was surrounded by strangers.
All I wanted to do was touch my baby’s little fingers and toes and feel her cool breath on my bosom. But it was a long time before I could see her.
The c-section took about 45 min from beginning to end and Kate’s birth was only about twenty minutes in. After that I was wheeled into recovery, where I had to wait for about an hour, numb all over my body and dazed by all that happened. Finally, I could be moved to my hospital room and I was told my daughter could be brought down to my room in about an hour. So much time! I had waited nine months to meet her and now more waiting!
We waited and waited. Almost two hours. Many medical folks came by but still no little bassinet. Finally, a gruff nurse walked in wheeling Kate. There was a lot of commotion as other nurses also came in to take my vitals and drop off treatment devices. The nursery nurse said Kate could only stay for a few minutes and we were confused. It was the hospital policy that babies stayed with mommies. Why was Kate being taken away? The nurse handed Kate to me and asked me to try breastfeeding as she said, “because of the bilirubin.”
She sighed and handed the baby to me. “The doctor hasn’t come by yet? Well, he’ll be by soon. Do you have any milk yet? I have to take her.”
It was all happening so fast! I looked at Mike, who was also confused. What is bilirubin? Is she alright? It was my first moment with baby and I had this unfeeling nurse hovering over me to snatch my daughter away again. And what was wrong?! As quickly as she’d arrived the nurse was wheeling Kate away. I was powerless to stop her or follow.
“What is going on?! Why isn’t anyone talking to us?!” Mike was angry. “You barely got to see her! What did they say she had?”
I was upset. But I focused on calming Mike down. He left to find a doctor or nurse with answers but came back empty-handed with only the promise that someone would be by soon.
Eventually, someone did come by. Mike and I tried to understand what was happening. Kate had high levels of something called bilirubin, something secreted by everyone’s liver. (In our case it was triggered by an incompatibility between mother and daughter’s blood types.) But hers was too high. It was a 7.5 and most newborns are around a 3. If you get to level 20 it can cause hearing loss, then brain damage, then death. By 3 am Kate’s level was a 12. At 15 it triggers a blood transfusion. The course of treatment for Kate was to lay naked, 24/7, under blue phototherapy lights in the NICU. She also had to have an IV to receive fluids and drugs to lower the bilirubin and other factors in her blood.
So my daughter spent her first five days of life in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and we could only see her in that room, hooked up to machines, fighting for her life. We focused on the silver-linings where we could. Kate was a big baby: 8 lbs, 13 oz and 22″ long. She had a voracious appetite and was very active ( the girl was kicking me during labor, of course she was active!). These were all in her favor for getting well.
It was very hard on us to have our baby in the NICU, though. It was a long walk down to the nursery and we tried to go every two hours to feed and hold her. She could only be off the lights for 30 min at a time so the time together felt all too brief. Mike tried to prepare me to see her like that the first time, but it was hard. She was under these huge blue lamps the size of toaster-ovens. I felt removed from her, like there was a sea of contraptions keeping me away from her. I felt like I never got a chance to just hold her, touch her, study her sleeping face, sing to her. It was always rushed, filled with (caring) nurses and the horrible alarm sounds of the machines. (I know it’s wrong but I was always relieved when the alarms where not for Kate.) And her progress was slow and I could tell by the staff’s expressions that they worried. For all the good work they did, I hated the NICU.
I was discharged three days after Kate was born but the hospital let us board for free in an unused room to be near the baby. It was a generous gesture on their part because we could still see Kate for the regular feedings and get more updates. Of course, it was not that comfortable, especially for Mike who was sleeping on fold-out chairs. We did not get service from the hospital. The room was clearly a run-down spot and next to two sets of loud, heavy automatic doors. But I don’t think I could have handled going home and not having Kate.
On the fourth day we were expecting good news but the doctor told us they needed to give little Kate a third treatment of the IV drugs. I struggled to not break down in tears in the NICU but couldn’t hold them back in the room. Mike and I were eating take-out burgers on a hospital tray in a grey room with peeling wallpaper. We were exhausted, worried and afraid for our daughter. We had been telling each other for days that any time now Kate would be well and we’d be going home. I was still in a lot of pain from my c-section and just walking the hospital halls was work. This was not how it was supposed to be. I had not planned to have surgery. I had not planned for my daughter to need formula to stay alive and we certainly had not planned on the NICU. We went to sleep that night sad and worried, wishing and praying for good news in the morning after Kate’s 3 am tests.
On Friday, our fifth day in the hospital with Kate, the doctor told us we could take our daughter home that day! What a difference a day made! Her levels were still elevated but stable. She had not rebounded to higher levels after they had diminished the light therapy. Our family was finally going home! It had taken a week from the onset of labor, but our duo was finally a happy, healthy trio and going home.
When we picked her name, I told Mike I wanted our daughter to have a strong name. You don’t mess with a woman named Kate. Katherine is a strong and classic name. I like to think that even in her first hours of life, my daughter Kate grabbed life by the balls and said, “Is that all you got?”