The hum of the monitors and the light spilling in from the hallway was strangely calming as I settled into the hospital bed. I dressed in the gown they had given me, a thin white backless number, and pulled the stiff sheets close as Steven helped stack pillows behind me. Hospital pillows are small and airy, and it took almost five for me to get comfortable. I was glad I’d brought one of my own large, fluffy pillows – it still smelled like home and I clutched it like a stuffed animal as we waited for the nurse. Steven stood by idly, playing musical chairs with our things until he decided on the far corner chair to pile my bags, clothes, and toiletries. Our nervousness was palpable but we were both too tired to let it show.
One AM and the nurse began her series of questions, checks, and pricks – I wouldn’t say I had a needle phobia but shots have always made me uncomfortable. By the third or so prick I was definitely starting to feel phobic. Couldn’t all this happen after the epidural? By the time the anesthesiologist made his way into the room it was almost two – the contractions had luckily plateaued and I was now three centimeters dilated. He was a small statured man with white hair and glasses, and though pleasant had an East European accent that made him sound like a villain from an action movie. Not exactly the comforting voice I had hoped for while being stuck with a giant needle.
As I listened to him preparing his things behind me, I started to sweat. God, please let this be fast. This was the last step standing in between me and numbness, yet I wanted so badly to call it off. Generations of women before me had done it without assistance, why couldn’t I? I had already endured several hours of contractions, what were a few more? But then I remembered the tiny issue of pushing a six to eight pound baby out. GIANT NEEDLE IT IS! I sat very still and pretended like there wasn’t a war waging inside my head. Then out came the crinkly paper sheet with the hole in it (for better aim, UGH), the cold iodine being rubbed on, me white-knuckling my pillow as I froze like a statue. Then, the sting. I wished I had a stuffed animal now, or a mouth guard. It hurt. It was continuous and twitchy, like a string that was being pulled throughout different parts of my lower back. “All done,” he gestured for me to sit back. The pain had subsided but I was still extremely anxious – I was just supposed to sit back and lay on the tube that was sticking out of me, feeding pain meds into my spine? What if it falls out? What if I accidentally move it? “Can you feel your legs?” he asked. I could. Oh my God I feel my legs! Am I supposed to feel my legs? He told me I was but as the medicine started working I soon wouldn’t.
In all of my paranoia I had failed to notice that I was no longer feeling contractions, but a quick glance at my monitor showed that they were still strong. Hm, maybe there was something to this. I exhaled slowly and closed my eyes – it was strangely liberating after nine months of bodily warfare to feel nothing. I told Steven to get some sleep; I would do the same, as the nurse predicted that I wouldn’t be fully dilated until around noon. I drifted in and out for the next five hours, as the nurse came periodically to check my status. At five AM she reported I was already at six centimeters. Things were progressing faster than expected, but we were still shooting for a noon delivery. At six AM I was at seven centimeters; at seven AM eight centimeters. “I guess he doesn’t want to wait until twelve!”, she said, “looks like we’re going to start pushing in about thirty minutes”. Finally! All of my fears, anticipation and excitement had lead up to this moment. Pushing – the part that I had seen in the movies, and on Baby Story, and in my nightmares.
My doctor appeared in the room at seven AM on the dot, refreshed and with a smile on her face, dressed in scrubs and gloves and ready to go. “It’s time! Are you ready?” Though I had spent the entire night there, her question made me feel rushed and scared. “Ready!” I lied. She called two other nurses into the room and took her place in front of me. “Ok, what you’re going to do is push when you have a contraction. When I say push, you’re going to exhale and push for five seconds. Ready? PUSH!” I pushed as hard as I could, blowing all the air out of my lungs at the same time. I could feel the pressure of the baby and it wasn’t as terrible as I had imagined. If we could get this done in the next fifteen minutes I’d be golden.
After several tries she stopped me with a concerned look on her face. “Looks like he’s a little bit turned,” she said, “we’re going to need to re-position him or he’s not going to come out.” Ok, I thought, sounds easy enough? As she started to turn him I coiled back in pain – I could feel everything she was doing! “You can feel that?” she said. I nodded. “Have you been pushing your epidural button?” Um, no? The anesthesiologist had told me to push the button when I needed to, but I assumed that meant only if I was in excruciating pain. It was lying beside me on the bed but I had been afraid to use it; it was very important looking, like an alarm trigger or a rocket launcher. Now she was telling me I should have been pressing it every time I felt my contractions get stronger? Oops.
She sent for the anesthesiologist to add more medication to my bag, “You should not feel anything I’m doing,” she said, “let’s make sure you press the button when you need to.” What she should have said was, I’ve increased potency so once should be enough – press it the next time you feel something. But she didn’t. I translated this as, press the button as many times as you need to until you don’t feel anything, which ended up being four times in five minutes. How was I to know that doing this was similar to taking four shots of liquor at once – at first you feel fine, but twenty minutes later it all hits you at once and you’re screwed.
The first thing to go was my legs. They were mostly numb to begin with but had started to tingle and suddenly I felt nothing. Like black abyss nothing. This was somewhat terrifying but I ignored it best I could and kept focused on the pushing. Until the tingling moved upward, and all sensation in my arms and legs began to melt away. Soon after I lost feeling of my entire body, and with it came suffocation. “Don’t freak out, don’t freak out, don’t freak out,” I repeated in my head. A few seconds later, I freaked out. “I CAN’T BREATHE!” I was flailing in an attempt to get the breath back into my lungs and started hyperventilating. The doctor, who until then had no idea I had reached meltdown mode, sprang into action. “Take her oxygen levels,” she said to the nurse, “and put this on to help her breathe”. She handed an oxygen mask to my cousin Vivian who placed it over my mouth. I used it for several breaths before knocking it off with my hand. It was making things worse. I could barely feel my limbs so didn’t know my own strength and sent the mask flying back into Vivian’s face. She was shocked but kept calm, “Um, I don’t think she wants it?” The doctor gestured to the monitors and touched my arm gently. “Look at me,” she said, “you’re ok, your oxygen levels are completely normal. It’s just the epidural – you might have overdone it. Once it wears off a bit you’ll feel better”. Without looking at the screen I knew she was right, but I couldn’t shake the panic – my chest was tight and I couldn’t feel myself breathing. I thought I was dying.
The doctor let me rest for five minutes before suggesting again that I try to push – the baby had turned on his own and was ready to go. I still couldn’t feel anything but I had to try – we were on his time table and he wanted to come out now. For the next hour I tried again and again to push – but was completely numb from the chest down. It was like trying to telepathically move an object – I was laser focused and willing my brain to signal my body to push, but couldn’t tell if anything was happening. The doctor stepped back and surveyed the situation. “I’m going to need you to give me one hard push, as hard as you possibly can, so we can see how far you can get him”. We counted, I pushed, and we paused again. “At this rate”, she said, “it will probably take another two hours or so before the baby comes out. You’re just not pushing hard enough. But – if you let me use the forceps, I can get him out in the next five minutes”. And that was when I started to cry. I had already been pushing for over two hours, the epidural had barely worn off, and now waves of nausea were passing over me. Vivian’s next job was bucket holder as I dry heaved, cried, and tried to keep from having a nervous breakdown. I had read up on the use of forceps, and Steven and I had decided beforehand that we would not use them due to the potential risk involved. I was shaking and exhausted, and couldn’t speak because I was so disappointed in myself for even considering it. Was I willing to put my baby at risk simply because I was too weak to keep going?
At that moment Steven, who had not left my side, clutched my hand and looked me in the eyes. “Let’s let her do it babe. She knows what she’s doing – you’re doing an amazing job and it’s time to let the doctor help you. It’s time to meet our baby!” He had a small smile and I could tell that he was completely ok with it. It was exactly what I needed. I didn’t have to ask and he wasn’t disappointed in me. “Trust me,” the doctor said to both of us, “ I’ve done this hundreds of times and it’s extremely safe.” We gave her the ok and I started again. Steven held my hand and stayed close, “you’re doing great babe, we’re almost there!” I was drenched in sweat and still feeling sick, but focused on the sound of his voice as I continued to push. “Push, just one more PUSH!” It was a cacophony of voices as everyone told me to push at the same time. I gathered all the strength left in my body and hoped this would be the last one. And finally there it was, piercing the air like a choir of angels: the cries of a baby.
“We’ve got an eight-pounder!” The doctor was beaming as she held our baby boy up for me to see. He was beautiful – kicking, screaming, and healthy! I was still out of sorts and slightly delirious from the lack of sleep and nausea from the epidural. Steven stayed by my side and wiped my face and brow with a wet washcloth, “You did it babe! You’re amazing!” I still couldn’t find the words but smiled and hoped he knew I couldn’t have done it without him. “Go look at our baby!” I told him. I watched from the bed as my mom, cousin and husband gathered around the cleaning station, oohing and aahing and taking photos of our son. They brought him to me clean and wrapped in a hospital blanket. I gathered him in my arms and felt the warmth emanating from his little body. I was tired, numb and finally peaceful. He was perfect.