Like everyone else, I’ve had some emotionally tough days in my life. I thought my father’s funeral was amongst the toughest of my life, but at least it was “knowable”. He was gone, but the process was generally clear. You bury the dead, you grieve, you adapt, you learn to carry on. But my worst day for emotional pain was March 20, 2009, and in retrospect, mainly because of the uncertainty and the stakes.
Early morning panic
For most parents-to-be, water-breaking is a joyous occasion — it’s time! The baby is coming! Nervousness, the drive to the hospital, the decisions about how soon to go, how long to wait. All that you’ve planned for, anticipated; all that you didn’t expect, but are excited about; and all that you’re just nervous about.
That feeling of excitement is not present when the water breaks at 26 weeks, 5 days. You don’t know the exact odds, but you know your baby is in danger, something’s wrong. This isn’t normal. It’s not excitement you feel, it’s dread.
We remained outwardly calm. We phoned the mid-wife service and told them what was happening. We were still being followed by the High Risk Clinic at the Ottawa General but our primary lead was the mid-wife. Looking back, we probably should have gone to the Clinic, but I digress. Our mid-wife was finishing up her old practice out of town, and with us not being due for another 14 weeks, we were being covered by another mid-wife who probably expected no issues. In fact, she was handling another delivery at the time, so we were told to go to the Montfort and she would check in with us there.
We got dressed, grabbed a few things, and headed out. A pretty quiet and tense drive, both of us lost in our own fears, trying to keep calm, talking about inconsequential things. My wife was partially preoccupied with the simple process — she was still “leaking”. It hadn’t seemed like a full release, but never having been pregnant before, we didn’t know what had happened. She had no contractions, no pain per se. Discomfort, yes, but not anything that felt like contractions.
The hospital took us to the triage area for women in labour. Most of the time, this area is used as a staging area until it’s time to move moms-to-be to the birthing rooms. A doctor examined my wife, who was still leaking. They immediately hooked her up to the stomach monitors which monitors not only the movement of the baby but also if there are any contractions. They would show up as regular squiggles on the paper (yep, it’s a pen on a paper, and yes, it looks a lot like an earthquake seismograph that you see in movies). Little tremors, little squiggles; regular medium tremors, contractions.
The early exam led them to believe (proved correct) that it had not been a full rupture, she still had fluid left around the baby. As such, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the baby was coming today. If there was enough fluid around the baby to continue the pregnancy, and there were no contractions, that was one outcome. If there were contractions, different issue. If there wasn’t enough fluid, again, different issue. The doctor examined her, stuck around a bit, or rather popped back in, and left again. A nurse was there, but I’ll talk more about her later. Let’s leave it as she wasn’t very warm, friendly, or comforting.
Andrea lay on her side, or her back, the monitor ticking away. Every once in a while, we would see a bigger squiggle and our hearts would stop…was that a contraction? Was the baby coming? The midwife came by and then disappeared to go back to the woman who was delivering. Never to be seen again. This was a medical issue now, and the doctor was supposedly covering us.
But there was nothing happening. I don’t remember at what time the nurse started making phone calls, but it was early morning. Phoning around to find a hospital with an open bed.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Really? All the hospitals were full? Not a single bed anywhere in Ottawa for the mother?”. And you’d be right, of course there were beds. But they weren’t looking for a bed for her, they were looking for a bed for our baby if it came today.
Level 3 Neonatal ICUs (i.e. NICUs, pronounced usually as the nick-u) are wonderful magical places, but not that common. They have incubators, tons of options to handle the medical needs of premature babies (preemies), and a low nurse-to-baby ratio. It’s where our baby would go if she or he came now. But, like I said, they are not that common. And they’re frequently full, with not a lot of flex for scalability.
So they started calling around. Montreal. Kingston. Oshawa. Toronto. Windsor. Boston. Anywhere they had a reciprocal arrangement for when their overflow became too high. Montfort didn’t have a NICU. Ottawa has one at Ottawa General, one at Ottawa Civic and another at CHEO, but all appeared full. We weren’t involved in any of this, it was just background noise. We hung out in the triage room. Lying there. Holding hands. Terrified. Worried. Freaked out. Numb. Frozen. Leaking. Stressed. Sometimes all at the same time, sometimes up and down. We cried a bit, mostly holding it together for each other.
Sometime in the late morning, it registered with us that we hadn’t called anyone. And, while it pains me to even write the words now six years later, I selfishly wanted my wife’s family around if we lost the baby. Because I knew I would be useless to help my wife. I was already feeling helpless, completely unable to even mentally track basic steps in a process. Breathing was important, basic logistics were not.
I stepped out to phone my wife’s sister. Separate from their closeness as sisters, she had become a mom the year before, works in a medical field, and lives in the city. Her parents are 3 hours away, but our sister B is here in town. So I called her.
Well, not exactly. I called her house. And got our brother-in-law, D. Said hello, he said hello, and then he asked what was up. Just your normal casual question. And I froze. I think I got past the part where I told him we were at Montfort, but then I couldn’t speak. The emotions, the fear, was rolling around my head and heart like a locomotive racing for home. I tried swallowing, taking deep breaths, anything to calm myself enough to speak. He just waited. It seemed like it took hours for me to regain my voice and tell him what was going on, it was probably less than 30 seconds. I have no idea what he thought at the time, I’ve never asked him. Did he think I was telling him someone had died? Our baby? My wife? It was obvious it wasn’t going to be good news, but he waited for me to answer. I’m tempted to call it a “pregnant pause”, but the humour rings hollow. I’ve never asked because it is not something I can talk about. As I write this, my mind goes back to that moment. I couldn’t speak now if my life depended on it. The tears roll down my face still, six years later. I had to tell someone my new greatest fear — we might lose the baby. I had to say the words out loud. By saying them, would it make it come true? By not saying them, could I make it not be true?
I don’t remember much else. D called his wife at work, she came to Montfort. I’ve heard that when D called her at the hospital where she worked, she was standing at the nursing station crying. D also called the parents. Or B did. I don’t know. Somebody did. I can’t even imagine that phone call. Eternal gratitude doesn’t cover it.
Time at the hospital
Truth be told, we weren’t doing anything at the hospital. Lying there, leaking, watching the monitor make squiggles on the page. B went to our house at some point to get Andrea some clothes, etc. Somewhere around 3:00 in the afternoon, I met Nurse Ratched.
Yep, I know. Nurses are all wonderful human beings, selfless angels. Not this one. I have few actual regrets in my life, dealing with her is one of them.
Andrea needed to go to the washroom, but most of the day she spent trying not to move at all. Trying not to leak out any more fluids. As the doctor ordered. But biology doesn’t listen to doctors.
So, I went out to the desk to tell the nurse that Andrea needed to go to the washroom. The nurse basically treated me like it was a giant inconvenience, why was I telling her, the washroom was right across the hall there. I said, “Okay, but she’s wet and she may need help getting there.” It was all a big pain for her, apparently. Finally she came to “help”. What she really did was come in, unhook the monitor, realize that the bed sheets that had been there since 9:00 were soaked, and get pissed off that we hadn’t told her they were wet. She gathered the sheets and disappeared. I helped Andrea to the washroom, the nurse brought sheets back, I got her back on the bed, and back to monitoring. The nurse grumbled and left.
About 4:00, the doctor came back, or rather, a new one came in. This one hooked Andrea back up to the monitor and started it again for a while to get an updated reading and went off to check on other patients. While she was gone, the nurse came back in, looked at the squiggles, very smugly said, “Oh, look, contractions” and flounced out.
Contractions. What we had been dreading all day. We held each other and cried. Our day was about to find a new level of hell, we thought.
About 20 minutes later, the doctor came back, looked at the chart, and said, “okay, nothing going on here, that’s good, probably won’t start now”. In other words, the squiggles were not contractions. They were just normal rhythms.
Okay, small stop here. I pride myself on trying to look at multiple explanations for things. Stories in the paper that people get incensed by, I can often see another explanation, often a simpler one that gives the person the benefit of the doubt. Which isn’t to say I like the story any better, but I try very hard not to condemn without considering if there are other explanations, less “evil” intent than that which is assumed. That doesn’t mean I don’t get pissed off with bullies, a clear trigger point for me, but other times, I can see other explanations. WAY less easy when I’m directly involved, but I try.
I say that paragraph because I have absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the nurse deliberately said those words to us, not because she was doing anything medical, but because she was pissed she had to clean up dirty sheets. Her entire attitude for the whole shift was that we were a problem, some form of maternal hypochondriacs perhaps. And my regret is that I did nothing about it. It would have done no good to go full attitude on her, not then, I was too focused on Andrea and our baby’s health. Getting upset or angry wouldn’t have helped. But I should have followed up with the hospital the next week. I should have demanded a meeting with her boss, and the administrator, and hospital services. It was unacceptable, and she got off free and clear. Six years later, I’m still incensed.
Room at the inn
Just after 6:00, we got some good news. The doctor from the second shift had found us a bed — right in Ottawa at the General, with the High-Risk Clinic right handy, everything was good to go. For those who don’t know Ottawa, the distance from the Montfort to the General is about 10 minutes by car. Three turns, a long straight stretch, and you’re there.
Now here’s the weird part. The hospital gave us a choice. Did we want to have an medical transport service come and transport her, or did we want to just drive over ourselves?
The most obvious answer here is “transport”, right? But we’re not thinking that clearly at this point. We’ve been at the hospital about 12 hours at this point, not a lot of food, a long emotional day that is not yet over. Everything was stable. And the transport might not be able to come for a couple of hours. Which meant another couple of hours where the baby could arrive and we’d have no NICU to take her.
Plus, with some of the experience of that day, we just wanted out of there. Andrea felt okay to take the car and just go…after all, if they’re discharging us, that’s a pretty good indication that we’re good to go, right?
We put some towels or sheets from the hospital on the front seat of the car. B had left to go to the house to get us some stuff, and would meet us at the new hospital. We drove over, transferred her back to a wheelchair, and B wheeled her off to the delivery ward while I parked the car. Andrea leaked more en route in the car, and some too in the wheelchair. By the time I got to the delivery area, she was at the desk and being checked in, after some initial confusion. Apparently whoever the first doctor had talked to at the hospital hadn’t told admitting that we were coming, and to be honest, I’m not sure they were that excited to see us. They were low on space, but we were there in front of them and in need. They admitted us. When they found out the story of the day, they couldn’t believe the previous hospital had let us drive over. They were genuinely shocked. Which started the worry train back up.
The new ring of hell
Dante’s Inferno has ever increasing rings of hell, but ours was about to start. Andrea was admitted, we wheeled her into a bed, and a small team of nurses and assistants started getting her settled. Two nurses were seeing to her vitals and starting the monitoring on the baby.
These are experienced delivery nurses. They see 1000s of mothers in a year. So they know what they’re doing. Confident, knowledgable. Professional. Calm.
Then the mood shifted in the room. It’s like a dog or a cat who suddenly stiffens because they hear something. They were doing an ultrasound on the baby and they weren’t getting anything. No heart beat. No movement. They couldn’t even find the baby in the ultrasound. A doctor came in and took over. Questions started coming, more pointed than the previous ones.
For my wife…When did you last feel the baby move? Did you have anything that felt like contractions?
For the nurses…Did you get a heart beat at all? Did you see any movement?
The main nurse said she saw movement and a heart beat when she first hooked it up, but then it disappeared. The doctor asked her three times if she was sure, and she was, but the other nurse hadn’t seen it.
The room slowly filled. What had started off as 2 nurses, and an assistant, grew to be 2 nurses, 2 doctors, and a small team of other nurses and assistants. About 10 in all. Ready to go.
If the doctor said “no heart beat”, it was going to be an emergency C-section to try and save the baby. People cleared the way to the door, started lining up. Like coming out of a huddle, moving to the line of scrimmage.
Did you see movement? A heart beat? Again the questions for the nurse. Less certain, but still yes.
And just as quickly as the tension mounted, it was over. A small sound on the monitor. A blip. A little rhythmic sound like a microphone that someone has run their hand over. Faint. But there. And on the screen, a live image of the baby’s heart beating. Within seconds, the room emptied. Back to their regular duties, false alarm.
Our baby had been playing hide and seek. Still small enough to hide, at 26 weeks and 5 days, low down on the left side and behind the pelvic bone. But then the baby shifted, emerged from hiding, the doctor found him or her on the ultrasound, and everything was right in the world again.
Or as right as it can be on the worst day of my life. We set up a chair/bed in the room, and we crashed for the night. We would start again the next day, but for now we would sleep.
Yet I am not done with my revelations for the day, and I cannot end without being completely open and honest. That’s my commitment to my self in writing this. I don’t hide from the experience, I don’t hide from the emotions.
During the vast majority of the day, my only concern for physical health was the baby. Not once did I think of any danger to my wife. Until I saw 10 nurses and doctors ready to wheel her out and into emergency surger y. At that point, stories from friends and family came flooding in. Horrible scenarios from movies and TV. The surgery could go wrong. And I would be faced with the classic husband / father conundrum…if the doctors ask me to choose, to make a decision, who do I save? My wife or my child? I’m fortunate in that I didn’t get asked. But, in that instant, with 10 professionals ready to rush out with my wife, I realized that there might need to be such a choice. And in my heart I made it. I chose to save my wife, if such a decision was needed. Even knowing that it might make her resent me. Resent my choice. End our marriage even. It was the only choice I could make.
In my heart, I know there is no perfect answer to that question. No right answer, no wrong answer. A thousand variables, all of them equal, all of them irrelevant. And I didn’t have to choose. But knowing the question, and knowing my answer, a small piece of my heart died. I felt asleep, trying to cry as quietly as I could.