On Thursday, October 9, at around 8:30pm, after getting back from my little niece Lila’s dinner/birthday party, Suz started to feel something that resembled gas pains, only it was clear after twenty minutes or so that the pains came and went at regular intervals: she was in labor.
I was on task, digging out my old-school calculator watch, with its handy stopwatch mode, timing the contractions.
This went on for hours, in and out of the bathtub and our bed. Neither of us got any sleep to speak of.
When I asked her what a contraction felt like, she said it was like "someone is stuffing towels up my butt."
We knew we needed to go into the hospital when the contractions were less than 4-5 minutes apart (check), going on for at least an hour (check), and lasting at least a minute long (uh… sometimes). Usually, they were a minute long, but sometimes much shorter. We decided to go in to the triage room of the Meriter Birthing Center to get checked out at 4:40am.
Susanna wants to point out that, on the way, we had to "run many errands". The car had no gas (fill-up). We had no cash (ATM). I was starved (McDonald’s). She had a contraction while we were stopped at the drive-through window.
And when we arrived, we were discouraged to learn that after nine hours, Susanna hadn’t dilated at all; her cervix was still 0cm.
By 9am, she’d finally progressed to 4-5cm dilated, and it was clear this was no false alarm, so we checked into the hospital and got settled in our own birthing suite, where we planned to labor, deliver, and room in for a few days after. (The best laid plans . . .) At this point, Susanna could finally hang out in a bathtub, which was a relief, and I had a nice long couch to stretch out on for a bit.
When we’d checked into the suite, we’d met the first of three — yes, three, one after the other — nurses who would take amazing care of us that day, night, and next day. First there was Jackie, and when her shift was over there was Jen, and then when Jen’s shift was over, there was a different Jackee. All three of them were warm, friendly, helpful, and extremely competent, and we were so grateful for their support and patience. These were just three of a whole staff — RNs, NAs, residents, and even cleaning crew — who would make our hospital stay comfortable. We can’t say enough about the Meriter Birthing Center staff.
We called my mom and dad at this point to let them know we were in labor, and insisted they not come until later as it was obviously progressing slowly. Within 90 minutes or so, they were at our suite door with both of my sisters, a brother-in-law, and our niece. It was great to see them, but we let them know we thought they would be hanging out in the waiting room for a very, very long time.
Again, I asked Susanna what it felt like. She said, "Like an enema, except with towels instead of water".
At just before noon on Friday, the doctor on call, "Dr. Jenny," did another exam and Suz was still only 5-6cm dilated. The doc recommended we artificially break her amniotic sac to speed things long a bit. Suz had decided before the birth (with my blessing, but I was willing to support whatever her preference) that she would try to labor and deliver as naturally as possible, with a minimum of medical intervention.
I asked the doctor and nurse to give us a few minutes to talk it over. I looked up the procedure in the tome I carried with us, The Birth Partner. Artificial rupture can speed up delivery, but not much on average (up to 90 minutes). Nevertheless, we decided it was time to do something to move things along.
After we said we wanted to go ahead, the doctor used a plastic tool the length of a knitting needle to tear the amniotic sac. When the fluid came out, they found that it had meconium (infant poop) in it, which can be a sign of fetal distress. It happens more often in longer-term babies, but August was a few days early (our due date was Tuesday, the 14th).
So this was a worry, and it meant that we would have to do more constant monitoring of the fetal heartbeat. Thus it was time to scrap another item on our birth plan, which was intermittent instead of constant monitoring of the boy. They strapped on a belt monitor, which detected fetal heartbeat (pretty well) and contraction strength (pretty poorly). Augie’s heartrate was fine, and would continue to be for the duration.
At around 3 in the afternoon, the check of Susanna’s cervix showed that nothing had progressed much… she was still only 6cm dilated. While the contractions were frequent and brutal, they were apparently not getting the job done.
The doctor recommended pitocin (an artificial hormone) to stimulate stronger contractions, and we agreed. They added an IV and a pitocin drip, and over the next hours the rate was progressively increased.
One drawback of using pitocin is that a side effect of stronger contractions is more intense pain during them. Around 5:30pm on Friday, they had become painful enough that Susanna called her code word, and we ordered up some pain killers, starting with a narcotic.
Soon thereafter she said getting the narcotic was "the best decision I ever made." The contractions were still painful, but she was much less bothered by them. She kept saying she was so happy, and had been contracting while standing for much of the time until now. However, with the narcotic in her, I saw her knees buckle once, then twice, at which point I insisted she sit or lie down.
A short time thereafter they put in an intrauterine pressure monitor so we could get more accurate measurements of her contractions. The pitocin levels kept going up.
Around 7pm, the narcotic had worn off enough, and the contractions were severe enough, that we decided it was time for an epidural. Within an hour, Suz had a spinal block and an epidural catheter. Suz had been really struggling with contractions before, but after the block she didn’t even realize when the next contraction came.
A cervical exam showed she was 7-8cm dilated. The baby’s heart beat was still fine. The doctors and nurses more or less let us be for a while. Both of us got a little, much needed sleep.
At 11:13pm a cervical exam showed Suz was fully dilated — finally! The nurses and doctor kept up the pitocin so Susanna could "labor down" for a couple of hours and try and keep the boy moving.
Susanna’s legs were totally numb. She could sort of move one. That she couldn’t at all move the other really bothered her.
My eye was on the monitor. When I saw a contraction coming, I would grab Susanna’s right leg, the nurse her left. Three times per contraction, Suz would take a deep breath, then push down as if pooping.
This went on for two solid hours. The nurses said Susanna was pushing as hard as she needed to be. However, instead of getting the final push he needed to progress down the birth canal, the boy hadn’t moved at all. Dr. Jenny felt strongly that a vaginal birth was not possible at this point — we would learn later that his head was 38 cm in diameter — and recommended we move on to a c-section. We had known this was coming, and agreed. Whatever we needed to do to make sure the boy arrived safely, we would do it.
Susanna was completely, totally exhausted, and I wasn’t far behind.
Around 4am, I walked out to update my family. My sisters and husbands had hit the sack for the night hours before, but my stubborn parents were still there. My mom was just outside the door, so she had a good idea what had been going on.
About a half hour later, Susanna was being wheeled down to the operating room. I had to stop before going in and wait while they prepped her. For the first time in 33 hours or so, I was apart from her and felt totally helpless. Her fate was completely in someone else’s hands.
She saw me waiting outside, and we waved to each other. A second later she was out of my view. I stepped aside a bit into the corner and for the first time let myself stop being strong. I sobbed for a few seconds; it felt like we’d been defeated after working so damnned hard for so long.
Suz was completely spent. I know she worried that after all of this that she wouldn’t have the energy to interact with our baby, or breastfeed.
I donned scrubs and was ushered into the operating room and led to the Susanna’s side. There was a blue sheet separating Susanna’s head from the rest of her, so we couldn’t see what was going on. There was much commotion, and I resisted the urge to look around the sheet to see.
However, 15 minutes or so in, the doctor asked if I wanted to see the birth. With not a small bit of trepidation, I looked around the sheet as they pulled my boy out of Susanna’s abdomen.
Almost thirty-three hours after it started, Susanna’s labor was over. On Saturday, October 11th, at 5:22am, August Collier Stewart was born.
Despite her fears, once she heard him squawk, Susanna had plenty of energy to meet her son. Twenty minutes or so later in the recovery room, we did get Augie on the breast for his first meal. After a while, I was able to take Augie out into the waiting room where my parents and sisters fawned over the new Stewart.
It was over. And just beginning.