Thursday, April 10, 2008

Becoming a mother

In 1993, my birthday fell on Good Friday. My mother and sister were visiting that weekend because they were hosting a baby shower for me on the following day (my husband and I were expecting our first child, due in six weeks). That evening, after a subdued celebration, we went to the liturgy at my parish. The church was filled, and the veneration of the cross seemed to go on forever. I was hot and achy, and twice I went outside to sit on the church steps to get some air.

The next morning, at 4am, I woke to a strange sensation. My water had broken early.

"What does that mean?" my husband asked.

"The baby will be born in the next 24 hours -- one way or another."

During that pregnancy, I had gone through a process of transformation. I had read A Midwife's Story and A Wise Birth, both by Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman. These books led me to an interest in homebirth and propelled me to deeper study. Relatively late in the pregnancy, I had switched from the hospital midwives to a practice of doctors who provide homebirth. When pregnant women are screened for various risk factors, the mortality and morbidity rates for both mother and baby are greatly reduced by giving birth at home. I wanted the best odds for my child.

But now, suddenly all my plans were upset! At 33 weeks gestational age, the baby would need to be born in a hospital. The great thing about having chosen a doctor from Homefirst was that he had admitting privileges at a local hospital. I called Dr. Zum, told him what had happened, and he told me that he'd meet me at the hospital. By the time my husband and I got on the road, it was around 5:30am. We drove north along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive for most of the trip.
From the passenger side, I looked out my window, over Lake Michigan. The sky was clear, and just the upper edge of the sun showed above the water.
But as we drove, the sun seemed to pull its head, slowly and heavily, above the surface of the water.
And as I watched it, I thought -- what a wonderful day to be born!

Chicago was hushed. Stephen and I hardly spoke during the entire drive. When we arrived at the hospital, I was given a bed and was strapped with a fetal monitor. My nurse asked me how my contractions felt, and I explained that I hadn't had any yet. She looked over at the print out from the monitor and told me that I was indeed having contractions, and they were about seven minutes apart. I craned my neck to get a better look at the machine.

"Am I having one now?" She nodded yes. "Is it a big one?"

After a long, incredulous look at me, she said, "Don't look at the machine. Here, I'll show you. Put your hand on your stomach. Now, with your other hand, touch your mouth. If you stomach feels like your lips, the contraction is mild. Now feel your nose. If your stomach feels like your nose, it's a medium one. Okay, now your forehead. If your stomach is hard, like our forehead, it's a big one."

It was absurd! I'd had Braxton-Hicks contractions through the whole pregnancy -- some so strong they made me gasp and wince! Something had to be wrong with the machine...and yet, as I touched my stomach, it began to grow firm, just as the jagged line on the print out began to climb to a peak.

And I still hadn't adjusted to the fact that this baby would not be born at home. As soon as I'd been strapped down on the bed, I began to worry about the cascade of medical interventions -- slowed labor due to lying on one's back could lead to pitocin, pitocin could cause more intense pain, which could lead to pain medication, etc., etc. Medical personnel came and went, speaking about C-sections and epidurals and infections. I closed my eyes and reminded myself that I carry my home with me, that I could go there in my heart -- which is exactly what I did, beginning a silent rosary on my fingertips. By 10am I began to feel the first glimmers of contractions, when they were four and five minutes apart. Though the nurses kept telling me to stop looking at the various machines in my room, I had to fight with myself to remember that I was not there to watch those machines produce my baby.

I had felt uncomfortably hot throughout the entire pregnancy (most of which occurred during winter in Chicago!), and Stephen had opened on of the windows in my hospital room. At a certain point, a nurse crossed the room and reached to shut the window.

"Don't close that window!" I said. In my regular life, it is hard for me even to formulate a mild, diplomatic and polite request, but now I was speaking as her imperial majesty! I think the poor nurse was as startled by my order as I was myself.

"Well," she said, apologetically, "You see, the baby is coming soon, and we don't want it to be cold."

"All right," I said. "But the baby is the only person I close that window for!" Things were happening very quickly, and I was having no trouble feeling as if I was in labor. "Oh! I almost forgot! I need a mirror!"

"What?" said the nurse.

"I want to see what happens -- I want to see. I don't want to miss it."

They very kindly wheeled in a large, oval, full-length mirror. Doctor Zum, who had stayed by my side through the whole labor, now began to put on all the extra paper clothing that was required. I watched as my child emerged, looking more like a sea creature than a land mammal at first. Dr. Zum placed my baby onto my stomach, and I cradled the small, slippery body in my hands. Looking down, I recognized that she was a girl. How I cried with joy!

I only held her for a moment before she had to go to the baby warming table to receive extra oxygen. Even though she was big -- huge for 33 weeks at 6lb, 7oz -- her lungs weren't fully developed, and she was panting rapidly. So, they took her to the nursery for extra care.

As soon as they let me, I went to the nursery to be with her. I placed my fingertip against her palm, and she grabbed hold of it. We stayed like that for a long time. I just watched her breathe. Then the young neonatologist showed up and told me I would have to leave. "I'll be doing some things to your baby that you won't want to watch. Too upsetting for you."

"No, I want to stay. I'll be more upset trying to imagine --"

"No, you have to go."

So, that was that. Dr. Zum met me back at my room, where Stephen and my mom joined us. He told me, "Don't worry. She's just going to put in an IV. The baby will need antibiotics, in case she has an infection. The doctor is probably nervous about being able to find the vein with you watching."

"I noticed that her heel was badly bruised -- all the way up to her knee!"

"There won't be lasting harm from these things that are happening to her. By choosing to breast feed, you are doing her so much good -- the benefits of nursing will far outweigh the painful experiences she's having now."

"No one ever told me that when I was having babies," said my mother.

"Don't blame your doctors," said Dr. Zum. "They didn't know back then. We've learned so much in the last couple of decades."

The neonatologist finally came to give me her report. "Your baby's having trouble breathing, and this hospital isn't equipped to give her the care she needs. We're going to transfer her by helicopter to the University of Chicago. They have a NICU there." Her voice was bright and perky, and I burst into tears.

When she left, Dr. Zum said, "I know it sounds scary when they start talking about the helicopter, but it doesn't mean that the baby's in dire danger. It's just the way that they transport patients from one hospital to another. I'm not worried about your baby. She's doing very well."

The nurse came in to explain that it would take some time to prepare our child, our little Sophie, for her helicopter ride. She told me that when they were ready to go, she would bring Sophie to me so that I could say good-bye. By then it was late in the evening, and Stephen and my mom decided to go home. Ironically, we lived within walking distance of the University of Chicago, and so from our apartment, they could be closer to the baby, who was our priority.

An hour later, two nurses in orange jumpsuits wheeled a cart with a glass incubator on it. My little girl was inside the box, with wires and tubes all over her. Again, I burst into tears. Dr. Zum was still there to pat me on the shoulder and reassure me. Then everyone left, and I was alone in the room.

My father had died in a helicopter crash before I was born, before I ever had the chance to meet him. And now my child...? I was deathly afraid of helicopters. The worst sound I have ever heard was the beating of the rotary wings as that helicopter took off from the roof of the hospital. It seemed to be just above the ceiling of my room, and my whole bed shook with it. But then the silence that followed was worse.

Within minutes, the phone at my bedside began to ring. It was hospital admitting at the University of Chicago, to verify my insurance information. I gave the woman what she needed.

"M'am?" A thought had occurred to me. "You're probably the first person to know when that helicopter lands at the hospital, aren't you?"

She chuckled. "You've got that right!"

"Would you do me a favor? I'm scared to death. She's my first child. Could you please, please give me a call at this number, when you hear that she's arrived safely?"

"No problem! I'd be happy to do it."

That wonderful woman was as good as her word. I only had to wait twenty minutes before the phone rang again. "The helicopter made it here safely! Your baby is in good hands."

"Thank you so much! You have no idea what this means to me."

Three hours later, I got the call from my husband, who had gone to camp out in the NICU waiting area, that a nurse had just come out to tell him that Sophie had arrived safely in the hospital.

We brought her home two days later, and now that little girl is turning f-f-f-f-fifteen years old! Happy Birthday, Sophie!
Sophie Angeline


Freder1ck said...

Congratulations! and thank you for sharing these dramatic events.

Suzanne said...

Thanks, Fred. It's never dull around here...

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."