Sarah Estelle Jean Klassen Wotherspoon was born five weeks early, but she weighed 5 lbs, 10 oz – a healthy weight for a preemie. It was a Thursday. The pediatrician expected a good outcome, despite her difficulties with breathing.
The night before Sarah was born – I was sleepless. I couldn’t get comfortable. That’s not unusual for someone as big as a house and nearly eight months along. Eventually I woke Blair (my then-husband), and asked him to help me set myself up on the living room couch, more upright, watching movies to distract me. It was Return of the Jedi. He went back to bed, and I noticed contractions, but I also noticed a pain that wasn’t there with my other two pregnancies. However, nothing was really important enough to call the doctor right away, so I thought.
Blair got the kids to school because I was extremely tired, still having contractions and in more pain. When we phoned the doc she said she’d meet us at the hospital. While there, she called in an OB-GYN and they palpitated my belly. I nearly hit the roof in pain, and my blood pressure started plummeting. Suddenly there were a lot of people in the room and Blair’s worried face was in front of mine, fading in and out of focus.
My doc’s face was worried too. “We think you have an abrupted placenta. The placenta that feeds your blood to the baby has partially come away from the uterine wall. You are bleeding internally, and your baby is being deprived of oxygen. You must deliver this baby now. We will try to deliver vaginally, but we are prepping for an emergency C-section and are moving you to an OB-surgery room.”
“Ok,” I said through clenched teeth. “I think I will take painkillers this time. Please.” Meantime they were opening up an IV line and starting me on the drugs to induce labour.
“Of course, we’ll give you a saddle block [where you can’t feel anything below the waist] but we need to do bloodwork first. As soon as it comes back we’ll start you on the anaesthetic.” And at this point my memories come alive, as if it happened yesterday.
Drip starts. Contractions grow much stronger. Pain worsens and spikes with each contraction. I felt incredibly lucky to hold onto consciousness, and in retrospect I thank the stars I did not need a blood transfusion. It could have been much, much worse. I could have died.
Each time a nurse, aide, doctor, anyone comes in the room I hiss, “Can I please have drugs now?”
“Not yet. Soon. Hold on. Breathe.”
Blair sits with me through the whole thing, holding my hand. I look at his face to try and breathe through the pain. An hour passes. Two. Breathe. Breathe. I am picturing myself running a race – a marathon – visualizing a finish line – I can do this, I can keep breathing evenly until the finish line. I’ve done this before; I’m going to hold on until those damn drugs come.
The nurse comes into the room: “We’ve got your lab results – we can give you the saddle block now.”
Just then another contraction washes over me. “I have to push!” I say, and suddenly the room is a flurry of activity again.
“Don’t push – hold on, don’t push yet – we have to get you to the OR,” and they’re unhooking, rehooking, opening doors, trying not to trip over Blair, wheeling me down the room, sweat beading on my temples, Blair following nearly faint with worry and hunger and thirst because he’s been by my side for hours.
In the delivery room, I’m monitored so closely I feel like the woman in the Monty Python sketch in The Meaning of Life – “and this is the machine that goes ‘PING!” I’m sure I would have laughed at myself had it not been a matter of life or death. There are no painkilling drugs for me at this late stage, only some laughing gas. Someone warns me not to take too much, so I abandon the mask altogether. Damn her, I should have just sucked it down.
Then I could push, and then the real pain started. But then, suddenly, there she was, dark hair, scrunched up face, and eventually, a weak cry. No C-section needed. Blair’s expression was rapturous. I was so relieved it was over and she was alive.
They did a quick Apgar assessment [a visual measure of a newborn’s health] and it was an 8 or 9 out of 10. They wrapped her in a blanket and put her in my arms. I tried to nurse her right away, but my mother-senses knew something was amiss. Sure enough, in 5-minutes her Apgar was down to 3 or so. She was having trouble breathing. They took her away and put her in an incubator, and wheeled her off to Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to intubate her.
The pediatrician was optimistic that Thursday afternoon of her birth. Many preemies lack the surfactant that lubricates the sacs that fill our lungs, enabling the transfer of oxygen from the air we breathe to our bloodstreams. There are drugs that hasten production of this surfactant in premature babies. They are quite successful, especially with babies of a healthy birth weight and no other complications, like my Sarah.
On Friday afternoon, he was confident she would be much better over the weekend, and told us we could expect her to be in NICU for four or five weeks until she was well enough to come home. In the meantime, I was encouraged to use an electric breast pump to express the first milk – colostrum – that is incredibly rich in nutrients. Sarah would need it once she started nursing.
Like the milk cows on the neighbour’s farm just outside Waldeck where I grew up, I plugged myself into a milking machine several times a day while I was in the maternity ward. With my other babies I wanted to leave the hospital within hours of giving birth. Now I wanted to stay with Sarah. I was swollen and bloated, and I had a slight fever. So did Sarah. They let me stay.
I hobbled on my elephant ankles back and forth from NICU to my room. One night I thought I dreamed the PA system blaring “Re SPIRE a tory. NICU. Stat. Re SPIRE a tory. NICU. Stat.” Later on that morning I sleepily joined Blair, who had spoken with the nurses already. It was not a dream. Our baby had a respiratory emergency and had to be revived in the middle of the night.
We still pretended everything was all right. I tried not to think of how I would cope with two kids who needed to be fed and entertained and fetched to and from school, and a baby who needed me by her side, and swollen breasts that needed to be milked several times a day and the milk stored for future use, and a baby who may or may not have further health problems.
On Monday, I trudged down to the NICU. “Do you want your baby baptized?” said the staff with strained poker faces. Not for my sake or Blair’s, but I thought of his mother, Sarah’s grandmother, a devout Lutheran. “Yes, I guess Lutheran,” I said. They called in a chaplain and she was baptized. I only learned later how much that relieved my mother-in-law.
Later that morning, we were sitting in the “milking room” when the pediatrician came in. It was the first time we’d seen him since Friday. His face was ashen. “Um. Uh.” he stammered. “We want to do an echocardiogram. We don’t know why your baby is not doing better.”
“Is she going to be all right?” I asked, truly alarmed at this point.
He couldn’t say anything other than “I don’t know,” and left the room. Puzzled, I cleaned up and took my milk dutifully to the fridge next to NICU. We approached our daughter’s isolette and there was a big machine over it. Everyone’s face was grim. They turned to us, with downcast eyes. A nurse said gently,“Would you like to hold your baby now?”
That’s when I knew for sure.
They gave her to me. Blair and I took turns holding her. She died in my arms. I have never experienced that much sorrow. I have never cried so long and so hard. I have never forgotten one moment I spent with my little baby. I cannot explain in words the depth of experience contained in the terms:
Have you ever watched nature programs – where the mother gorilla or chimp carries around the dead baby ape for days? I can understand that instinct.
When we buried her on Oct 10, 1992 in the plot next to her grandfather (Blair’s dad) I was panicking. I thought “I can’t leave my baby here! Who’s going to take care of her? I’m her mother – she belongs with me.” I could hardly tear myself away from her gravesite.
I’ve been crying the entire time I’ve been writing this. It’s ok. I cry whenever I tell this story. I try not to do it in pubs or at parties. Real downer.
Soon after she died, I had a dream. I was running through the park, back in shape, feeling good. Suddenly a young woman was running strong beside me. She must have been about 17 or 18 years old. Her presence was comforting. I woke up feeling calm. I told Blair our daughter was OK.
Only recently did I realize I signed up for an October 11 marathon this year. The same month she would have turned 17 years old.
“Desolation Sound at dusk.” Courtesy of toriklassen.com
“Feet” marksteelenz @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Bronzed Baby Shoes” Rk0407, Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Previously published in all or part by toriklassen.com July 24, 2009. Published with permission.