The Hardest Day Of My Life (Part 1)
It was supposed to be the happiest
They say to time the duration of each contraction from when it starts until it ends. At first, the contractions are sporadic and brief then get more regular and long with a shorter amount of time in-between. When they get to 4 minutes apart with a duration of 1 minute for an hour straight, then you head to the hospital. 4 minutes, 1 minute, 1 hour. 4-1-1. That’s the rule of thumb. I have an app on my phone to time them and I’m doing everything by the book. It’s my job and I’m taking it seriously.
It’s very early in the morning of June 4th, 2018. The exact due date for our new baby daughter, Emily. We’ve already started calling her Em.
The contractions were getting more intense and frequent late last night. We both tried to get some sleep. But around 1:30 am Allison had me draw her a bath. She said it helped her 9 years ago when she had her daughter, Sara. My step-daughter.
The contractions keep progressing while she’s trying to relax as much as she can in the bathtub. I’m on the app diligently keeping track. Doing my part.
I expected the contractions to be much more regular, but they’ve been all over the place. At least that’s what it sounded like in the birthing class and everything I read. I suppose that’s why they say to average it over an hour so you can see a pattern forming.
We hit the 4-1-1 benchmark, so I call the Birthing Center at Sonoma Valley Hospital. I tell them the contraction timing and how Allison is starting to feel intense pressure. The nurse says, “It’s probably time to make your way in.” No reason for alarm. Just make our way in.
I call Allison’s Mom, Jeni, who is on standby to come over and stay at our place since Sara is sound asleep in her room. Jeni lives 5 or 6 minutes away, only 1 or 2 minutes short of the hospital.
“Okay, I’ll be there in no time,” she says.
We have our stuff for the hospital stay ready to go:
Em’s going home outfit
Changes of clothes for us
A deck of cards and cribbage board
Whatever book we’re each reading
I head to the garage to pack up the car while Allison dries off and gets dressed. I’m excited. Any sleep deprivation I should be experiencing is non-existent. A hit of adrenaline will do that to you. Everything is going according to plan.
“Lyle!!!” Allison screams.
I have only one shoe on in the garage so far. I toss the other one on the ground and sprint inside. Her water has broken all over the floor next to our bed and she’s hunched over. A wave of panic washes over me and my mind starts racing. Holy shit! That’s not supposed to happen. They told us in the birthing class it only happens in the movies. Not in real life. Holy shit, holy shit! Stay calm for Allison. Stay calm. Stay calm.
“It feels like she’s going to come out now!” Allison says. Her voice shaking with fear.
“It’s okay babe. I’ve got you. The car’s ready to go and the hospital is close.”
I call Jeni again, “Her water just broke. How far away are you?”
“I’m right around the corner.”
Somehow Sara hasn’t woken up with all the commotion. I’m so thankful. This would freak her out.
I carefully help Allison down the few steps into our garage. I put a towel on the passenger seat and ease her into the car. The hospital is only a 7-minute drive away, so it’s quicker to drive there instead of calling 9-1-1.
I call the Birthing Center again on the way to explain what’s going on so they’re ready for us. I tell them we need a wheelchair for Allison when we get there. No one is on the road and we’re hitting just about every green light. I feel a strange mix of excitement and complete and utter terror as I try to get us there fast, but not too fast. I make some bad jokes to distract her from her pain and fear. To distract me from my fear.
We arrive at the hospital at 3:05 am.
I park in one of the emergency room spots near the entrance and run around the car to help Allison get out. There are two nurses there in dark blue scrubs with a wheelchair ready to go. They start making their way into the hospital. I grab our stuff and jog to catch up to them.
We take the elevator upstairs to the Birthing Center on the 3rd floor. It’s bustling with way more people than I expected at 3:00 am. They put us in the last room down the hall on the right. I see the OBGYN, Dr. A, through the window to another room right before ours. I’m surprised he got here so fast at this hour. One of the nurses says her name is Emily. I wonder if people call her Em too, but there’s no time for idle chit-chat now.
Dr. A comes in a few seconds later. He’s a tall, calm man, with dark wavy hair. He can be aloof at times, but he has the right kind of calm Allison needs during childbirth. He has done hundreds of baby deliveries in his career, including four in one night. He has a picture of the eventful night on the wall next to the reception desk at his office. He can do them in his sleep. Or at least do them at an hour when he’s usually asleep.
“I feel like I should push!” Allison says to him right as he sits down on a stool in front of her.
“Go for it,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Good. You’re doing great, Allison,” he says as he reaches down to feel for Em’s head, “Everything’s looking good.”
A nurse is attempting to place a heart monitor on Allison’s belly, but she’s having a tough time. I hear a faint heartbeat for a moment.
“Great job, babe!” I say.
And then there’s Em after only three pushes. 12 minutes after we arrived at the hospital.
A nurse puts Em on Allison’s belly just like they told us they would in the birthing class. This is the moment Allison has been waiting nine months for. It’s the single most important thing to her. This bonding time is scientifically proven to be beneficial for both the mother and the child. They told us at the birthing class how important it is during these first few moments of life. We’ve read all about it. We’ve dreamed about it. Mother’s skin on baby’s skin, so pure, primordial, and innocent.
Within a split second, I can tell something is terribly wrong. Em’s skin is a dull grey color. She isn’t moving at all. She isn’t crying.
Shit! Something’s wrong. Aren’t newborns supposed to come out screaming bloody murder?! It’s okay. They told us this happens sometimes. She probably needs help clearing out amniotic fluid from her airway. No need to panic. They’ve got this.
My eyes dart up to look at Dr. A’s face. He looks calm and focused, as usual. He tries to suck fluid out of Em’s airway to help her breathe. Nothing. He tries again. Nothing again.
My heart sinks into my stomach and a lump forms in my throat. What is happening?! Is this really happening to us?
A nurse scoops up Em and takes her to an isolette in the corner of the room. Another doctor, Dr. S, swoops in. He starts giving out instructions to the three nurses surrounding the isolette. The next thing I see, he’s doing chest compressions on my new baby girl.
Fuck! No, no, no, no, no! This isn’t happening. We did everything right. Why is this happening? I don’t understand how this could happen. Allison is the picture of health. She’s a dietitian with an impeccable diet. She’s in incredible shape. She even went swimming yesterday morning. And she’s only had like 2 glasses of wine the entire time I’ve known her. What the hell is going on?!
We’re in complete shock. We’ve been sitting here for what seems like an eternity. I switch back and forth from holding Allison’s hand to hugging her. Both of us crying. Dr. A is still attending to Allison and dealing with the aftermath of the birth. Both Allison and I are oblivious to it. Our minds are racing as we hear Dr. S counting compressions. The nurses telling him if they're getting a pulse or any breaths. It’s not going well.
Is she dead? This never even crossed my mind as a possibility. How could this be happening?! Why is this happening to us?! Please baby girl, you can do it. Breathe, Em. Breathe.
We never say it out loud to each other, but as they’re doing CPR on Em, we both think we’ve lost her. But after an excruciating 40 minutes, they’ve got Em stable. Sort of. They have to breathe for her using a bag and oxygen. But she is alive.
The nurses take her in the isolette to the room next door. The one I saw Dr. A in when we arrived. I give Allison a kiss and follow them. It feels horrible leaving her by herself without me and without Em. She’s in good hands with the nurses, but she still hasn’t held her new baby girl.
Several doctors have had a couple of tries each to get Em intubated. It has been excruciating to watch. I can see the distress in the doctors’ faces as they have to abort yet another try and regroup. A new doctor comes in dressed in street clothes — tennis shoes, faded jeans, and a plain black t-shirt. It’s clear he rolled out of bed not too long ago. He puts on his glasses and surveys the situation. Dr. S brings him up to speed. He has the nurses get Em in the proper position and intubates her on his first try. I thank him as he leaves, presumably to go home and back to bed. I realize I didn’t catch his name.
The nurses are breathing for Em using the bag, which is now connected to the intubation tube. They don’t want to set up a breathing machine since she won’t be staying in this cramped room. It’s almost 6:00 am and they haven’t had a chance to measure and weigh Em yet. She comes in at 19 in long and 6 lbs, 7.4 oz. I wonder how much she would weigh without the intubation gear on her face.
Dr. S tells me that Em’s brain has suffered a lack of blood and oxygen. It’s what they call a hypoxic event. Or, to be more accurate, hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). I had to Google it. She’s eligible for therapeutic hypothermia, or whole-body cooling. Meaning her body will be cooled about 6 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours in a row to help give her brain a chance to heal. It’s sort of like icing an injury. It’s a relatively new protocol that’s only been used on newborns for about 15 years or so. The problem is, they don’t have the equipment to do it at this hospital. She needs a helicopter transfer to Sutter Hospital in Santa Rosa.
This is so surreal. I can’t believe this is happening to us. I want to be with Em and with Allison right now. Together. This is so hard.
Damn, I’m starving. When did I last eat something?
I walk back to the room next door where Allison is recovering. I see some blood still on the floor below the hospital bed. Allison turns to look at me as I enter. I can see the terror through the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Hey, babe. She’s doing okay,” I say as I approach the bedside. I sit on the edge of the bed and hold her hand. “They have her stable now and they intubated her so they can help her breathe more easily. They’re getting a helicopter here to transfer her to Sutter in Santa Rosa. They’re going to cool her body temperature down to help her brain heal.”
“Okay,” Allison says. Her voice and body shaking as she cries. She’s barely able to get that one word out. Tears are pouring down her cheeks.
I hug her and don’t want to let go. But I know my job is to be strong for her and to be with Em during her tough entry into this world. I grab some trail mix and a water bottle from our bag and head back to the other room. Back to the uncertainty about what will happen next.
Read Part 2 here:
Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom. I’m honored. In a world where attention spans are getting shorter each day, it means a lot that you’ve spent this much time with my writing.
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This is one of the few times that I've ever teared up from reading something. One of the only other times I can remember was when reading "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi.
Hi Lyle, wow. This left me rattled and feeling things. Moved by the writing and the vulnerability.