September 12, 2020
Twenty-eight years ago, I spent the entire night in Duke University Medical Center, wide-awake, staring out the window at a full moon. Little did I know that I was being given a sneak preview of how exhausted and helpless I would feel twenty-eight years later. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the impact it has had on everyone across the country has varied; however, I have yet to hear anyone who hasn’t used the word “exhausted” to explain one of the ways they feel. Recently, I found myself trying to explain how I have been feeling. The waves of emotion – tired, joyful, foggy, helpless, hopeful, inadequate, strong, grateful, angry, sad – are so difficult to navigate, because they all come and go constantly. I was trying to compare it all to anything I had ever experienced in my sixty-one years of life. And then it dawned on me. This was the way I felt, twenty-eight years ago, when Austin was born.
The doctors and nurses and residents and medical students kept coming into the room to see if I had progressed any, but the answer was the same over and over again. Nothing. More Pitocin, more labor pains, but no dilating happening. Well, not past 5 centimeters, and the goal for birth was 10. A few days earlier, during my visit to the doctor’s office, “Step on the scale, please.” I asked what the new grand total was. Seriously? How could I have gained seven pounds in one week? She took my blood pressure, and sent me home with directions to stay on bed rest and check my urine daily. My due date was nine days away. At the time, I had no idea what preeclampsia was, but my then husband, a physician, tried to calmly explain the seriousness of it to me. Within twelve hours, bed rest quickly turned into being admitted to the hospital and being induced. I had no idea what I was about to experience. This was my first try at giving birth. The fact that I had gained over seven pounds in such a short time toward the end of my pregnancy should have been a clue, but I had nothing to compare it with, so I thought it was the North Carolina late summer hot temperatures making my body swell up. I only had two outfits left that fit. No maternity bras fit any more, and no shoes could be squeezed onto my feet. At that point I had gained 50 pounds total, which was not easy to carry around in my 4’11” body. The same body that had competed in its first sprint triathlon just one year prior to this birthing marathon. The same body that was swimming a half-mile every day up until the day I was put on bed rest.
Over 24 hours in the hospital of waiting, walking, water breaking, worrying. Many of those hours with a very determined baby repeatedly trying to find his way out, only to keep popping back up into my ribcage. Not a joyful feeling. At one point during this unpredictable time, I was told to get on all fours, as every doctor, resident and medical student in the maternity ward came rushing into the room to watch, when they realized that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. Clearly, this was way more exciting for them than it was for me. Eventually, I was told that a C-section was necessary. I cried, and reluctantly agreed. I still had one more birthing class to attend. It was the one about cesarean deliveries, so I had no idea what was about to happen. I was swiftly taken to an operating room. Why were they strapping my arms down? Why was I being given oxygen? My physician husband tried to explain things, but his colleagues from his department were away at a conference, so he was on-call. And it was a full moon. He was being called away frequently to answer calls or go to the ER. I was trying not to panic. We had just moved to Durham a few months earlier, and my family lived in Ohio, so we were on our own.
Eventually, Austin did arrive, as healthy as he could be. I, on the other hand, was shaking and shivering uncontrollably. I later learned that this was a typical response to the Pitocin used to induce me, as my body had to regulate its temperature back to normal. There was nothing normal about it. I cried and I worried, about me, and about my newborn son, who was in a room far away from me. So much for the TV drama beautiful moment when they place your baby in your arms and you look amazing and everyone is taking photos and videos. My body was shaking, my teeth were chattering non-stop as if I was locked in a freezer with no clothes on. I could not control one thing that was happening to my body. Where were the doctors and nurses? Where was my baby? Due to the non-stop trembling, I was not able to hold Austin until several hours later, and I had only seen him for a brief moment when his father held him up next to me in the O.R. When the moment he was brought to me to hold finally arrived, I was relieved. He had a full head of black hair and big alert eyes. He was perfect.
Fast forward to one week later. We had stayed in the hospital for a few more days and then headed home to start our new way of living. My parents had driven down from Ohio to help us adjust to this new lifestyle of no sleep and living in a fog. Yet, within hours of Austin’s birth, I wondered how I had even existed without him. Because I had a C-section, I could not go up and down steps and I could not lift things. Thankfully, Austin was a solid eight-plus pounds and a healthy eater, but lifting and holding him was a challenge with stitches and staples in my belly. Three days after arriving home, I was having some unbearable pain, so we ended up going to the emergency room. I had to wake up my parents to tell them that we were going to the ER and taking Austin with us (because I was his source of food). I was exhausted and tired. I cried and felt helpless, even with my mom there. How was I going to take care of my newborn baby if I was sick? The thought of taking my baby and sitting in the ER at midnight on a Saturday night made me sicker. I was diagnosed with an infection, caused by the fact that my water broke so early on while being induced, and I was readmitted to the hospital. We had to fight to have Austin stay in the room with me. They finally agreed, under the condition that I have a family member there every minute, day and night, to hand Austin to me to be fed and to change his diaper. The nurses were not allowed to touch him or do anything for him. They pumped antibiotics into me and within a few days, I healed and we went back home. I was exhausted. Between the nurses coming in every couple of hours to check on me and feeding Austin, I had gotten less sleep than I would have at home.
On September 12, 1992, I could not have predicted how the next twenty-eight years would unfold. Austin has continued to show the same determination and grit that he communicated to me when I was in labor. He and I have ridden the rollercoaster of emotions that life has given to us, and together and we have figured out how to be strong and to follow our passions. On the day he was born, I could not have predicted that he would have a baby sister or that his father and I would divorce when he was 6 years old. It has not been easy, and we have both encountered many challenges, personally and professionally, along the way. This pandemic continues to push me to learn and to bend and to grow. Turns out I had the same feelings twenty-eight years ago this week. The feelings of helplessness and living in a fog were much the same. The moments of joy and the feeling that I could push through were there too. I have watched Austin navigate this pandemic as he lost his job and could have easily given up on his dream, but he has not. In fact, I believe it has made him stronger and more determined. Today I celebrate not only the birth of my oldest child, but also the hope that he has helped me to have to “keep on keeping on” over the years. My birthday wish for him this year is to take what he is learning during this unpredictable time, and make the best of it. I pass on to him what I believe my dad would tell him today if he were still here, “We have no guarantees in life, so live each day to the fullest.” Can I hear an amen?