Even when things go smoothly, every woman who goes through childbirth spends some time in the valley of the shadow of death. I’ve been lucky and recognize my privilege where others have not been so lucky: I’ve had no miscarriages, I’ve had healthy pregnancies, healthy babies, and no lasting problems of my own. There but for the grace of God go I.
My labour this time started in the evening as I had predicted months ago based on my Braxton hicks contractions and my previous labours. Naturally it began on a day I chose not to nap, but to instead work tirelessly on a project in the garage. (A rocking chair I rescued and have been trying to bring back to life.) They came on strong but inconsistent as I finished the final coat of paint and received a text from my Dad asking how I was doing. By the time Paul and Blue returned from soccer practice I was lying down between contractions. “So you should know…” I was trying to get the rest I needed while I could. I couldn’t walk through my contractions but I could still work through them.
Before long I hopped in the bath, grateful that with this labour I actually had a tub big enough for a grown up. I distracted myself with whatever I could find on the PBS app and tried not to think about the frequency of my contractions, downplaying them when Paul anxiously asked. He wanted to get out the stop watch and do his coachly duty. The thought of timing so early stressed me out and annoyed me.
Eventually the water was cold and the show was over and I was bored with the tub, and forgetting that water makes things better I got out, only to remember I was indeed in full blown labour. I texted our friend who was on call for late-night childcare. “I have very long labours,” I explained, but we will probably leave at some point tonight. You’d might as well come over whenever you want and get a decent sleep in our guest bed than be interrupted by me in the middle of the night.”
I was pleased with the way I was handling the contractions. Although it had been eight and a half years I went into my zone and would definitely have made my childbirth instructor proud. The contractions were on the short end, but they were only three minutes apart so we decided to try our luck with the hospital, although my preference is usually to wait more hours before going, given my history of 36 hour labours.
When we arrived I was dilated to 3. I tried to focus on the positive, that normally that takes me more hours of active labour, but it was discouraging for my contractions to be so close and my body so unresponsive. My night nurse, Jamie, was an absolute angel of a cheerleader and helped take care of everything. By the time I arrived at the hospital there was very little break between contractions and I was so tired I could hardly answer the simple questions they asked. As a condition of my VBAC I needed an epidural anyway, and since staying still for 20 minutes of fetal monitoring is pure torture for me, I knew I needed the epidural as soon as the anesthetist could come.
Once everything was settled, Paul and I settled in for some sleep. I awoke every hour or two, and Jamie and I kept me changing positions and doing what we could. She rushed in a few times certain I had a baby between my legs because of the readings on the monitor: as with my other labours, my contractions were basically on top of each other with no break. In the five hours I had been in the hospital I progressed 6 centimeters, an unprecedented speed for me.
We concluded that at 9 cm and with a bulging bag we should call the doctor. She came in to break the waters while the nurses stood by, certain the baby would fall out with the water. Meconium came instead, and the conclusion that without the bag of waters I was closer to an 8 than a 9. And for the next five hours I did not progress at all.
Given the meconium situation, by that point surgery was our only option, having given my body all the time we could. I tried not to be disappointed, but after being so excited with my amazing progress it was a bit of a let down. At this point, however, I was just so tired and I knew I was out of options.
I was a bit of a mess through the surgery. In addition to all the emotions I was barely awake and the anti-nausea meds they injected into my IV made me vomit almost immediately, not something you want to do with your entrails strewn on a table. And of course I got the shakes, because that’s what I do when I’m drugged up and cut open. I remember fading in and out during the surgery and am so glad that Paul was there, that he took pictures of our sweet baby, and that he was there for the little one.
I was a little better in recovery, and at this hospital I wasn’t sequestered away for that, but Paul and baby were with me and I was encouraged to have skin to skin time and breastfeed him right away. He was a pro and latched on with very little help from me and no assistance from the nurses. I was so proud. He was perfect in every way.
The next few days are a blur, and as they went on I got sicker and sicker instead of improving. It took until the fifth day and some x-rays to determine that my incredibly distended stomach and unbearable pain was due to paralytic ileus. That was also the day the hospital discharged the baby, knowing the insurance would not continue to pay for a perfectly healthy infant to stay in the hospital. He and Paul stayed until evening with me, then I held my precious baby and bagged with with my tears and sent him home with my husband while I stayed behind, unable to care for myself, let alone him. I hadn’t been strong enough to nurse him since that morning anyway, and the nurses had had to teach Paul how to bottle feed; they graciously sent him home with several samples of formula and he had gone to Target for more supplies.
I think that was the night they hooked me back up to an IV, and had called L&D over to do the stick. Mo and behold it was my dear nurse Jamie! I lamented to hear in my pain while she tried to find a vein not completely dehydrated, “but Jamie, I already did the labour. I did the labour and had the baby! I already did the labour with you!”
When Paul and the baby returned the following morning after a successful night as single Dad of three boys, I was able to nurse, despite having not done so in 27 hours, and my sweet baby latched on despite the ease of the bottles to which he had become accustomed. I improved slowly during the day, thanks to finally having a diagnosis, and we thought I’d be discharged until with my evening meds I had a painful relapse and by 8 pm was vomiting again. I was discouraged to be back on the IV yet again, but in too much pain to get too upset.
When I met Thursday morning’s nurse I told her, as I had told Wednesday’s nurse, that I was being discharged today. I said the same (as I had the day before) to my doctor when she came to check on me. (I also complimented her on her surgical skills, I had committed how many times and my stocked held strong and the nurses all said my incision looked beautiful.)
Thursday really was the lucky day. I had started to make progress over night, and armed with the information I had gleaned from one of my previous night nurses who had seen ileus in a few patients when she was in California, I felt confident I was finally starting to improve. I was still very distended (bigger than when I entered the hospital nine months pregnant) but my belly was starting to soften, you could no longer play it like a drum. I no longer sounded like the plumbing of a bad apartment building, instead sounding more like a water cooler. And I was able to tolerate soft foods.
I was anxious to get out of that miserable bed and get home to my family, even if I couldn’t do anything for them.
At 2 pm my nurse came in to check on me. My bags were packed. I told her it was time for discharge. She had the papers ready (the discharge papers had been re-written at least three times by this point, as my original discharge date had been Monday.) By 2:30 we were at the airport picking up Paul’s mother who had come down to help us out for a couple of days.
I was still in rough shape for several days. The evenings were the worst and I spend several hours in pain, I can only guess because I was digesting what little I had eaten that day and when your intestines go several days without working, restarting is painful. I faded out a lot during that time, one night even forgetting that I had a baby and then feeling absolutely awful remembering that he was in the swing in a room by himself staring into a corner — I felt like the worst, most neglectful mother ever. (He was fine, and the family was just in the other room if he had needed anything, but even now it breaks me up to think of that precious baby, only one week old, staring into the corner in a swing by himself as the daylight faded away.)
Each day I did get stronger. Paul’s mother left and my mother came. She took over dishes and laundry and taking care of the school stuff morning and afternoon. I slept a lot but eventually spent more and more hours in the land of the living. Mum’s ticket had been one-way to allow for as much time as I needed, none of us knowing anything about recovering from ileus. (The hospital had said only to come back if I started vomiting again. I felt so lost and alone but finally found peace after texting a med school friend who told me to anticipate it being a few weeks before my digestive track returned to normal.)
I was much stronger during Mum’s second (and last) week with us, and even my bowling ball of misery, as I called my distended and painful belly, had receded. We planned a couple of outings and by the time my baby was three weeks old I cheerfully walked into my doctor’s office and received the good news that I was cleared to drive. Mum went home two days later.
By three weeks my baby was also doing impressively well. He had weaned himself completely off bottles and was up to 9 lbs 9 oz and 22 1/4 inches long, up from a birth weight of 7 lbs 15 oz and 21 1/2 inches. Yes, we were well on our way to recovery.
We got lucky. I had to give up a lot of plans and hopes and expectations and I had some very dark days. I had moments when I could literally feel myself fading away, detaching and drifting. I knew I wasn’t going to die, but I did spend some real time in the valley of the shadow of death, mich more than I had with the other two, and I am most certainly a changed person because of it. I just hope I’m a better person. I’ve spent a good deal of time telling this little guy, “but I was a good Mum to your brothers!” and I hope I can actually be a good Mum for him, too. At least I know that if something were to happen to me my kids would be fine in the capable hands of their father.