This week we celebrated the 14th birthday of my oldest daughter Reese. And as we always do, we spent some time reminiscing on the day of her birth.
The year was 1999, it was May and we were living in Quincy, Illinois. As the last few weeks wound down on Lisa's pregnancy, we purposely didn't know the gender of the baby. We had specifically asked our ultrasound technician to not reveal gender and we'd managed to stick with it. But due to some old-wives tales that we'd been leaning on and other predictors, we'd both sort of subconsciously been assuming it was a boy. Based on the heart rate and the way Lisa was carrying, we were not the only ones.
On the evening of May 18th, we had tickets to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at midnight at the local theater in Quincy. Months earlier, when we'd learned that Lisa's due date was likely to be near the movie's release, I'd quipped that It'd be unfortunate if they were the same day. "Because then I might miss the birth of my firstborn." Laughs all around.
But as Lisa progressed and the baby grew, the due date got refined and it started to look more and more like it would be really close. As Lisa was a diabetic, the concern was that the baby would gain too much weight too quickly before full maturation of the important organs like heart and lungs. It was clear from some estimates that despite our best efforts to keep Lisa's blood sugar levels within a normal range, this baby was going to be a nice eight pounds or more. Lisa's doctor decided that if she had not gone into labor by May 20th that we should have a scheduled inducement for that day. The appointment was made and a few bags packed.
We saw Star Wars. Lisa waited with me in line and stayed for the whole thing. As much as I loved the movie, I was at many times very worried for my wife. She was very, very big at this point and there was no sitting or standing position that was comfortable at all. The movie theater seats made it even worse. But she was a trooper and made it through the movie.
The next morning after the movie, it was still the 19th. We slept late and lounged a bit. We made some last minute prep of our house and bags and got ready for whatever the next day would bring.
The morning of the 20th we arrived early to Blessing Hospital. Lisa was checked in and prepped for an inducement. For this process, a slow IV drip of Pitocin is administered in increasing dosages until labor begins on it's own. Since we can't ever do anything the simple way, we waited for hours and this went nowhere. The doctors would administer one dosage which would get some contractions started up, but they'd eventually fade away. They'd up the dosage and contractions started again, but then fade away again.
This went on all day.
We were in the hospital at 6am and 12 hours later, we were still waiting and patience was starting to really wane. I'd updated family, took a much needed nap which Lisa was jealous of, had a bite to eat which Lisa was also jealous of, and sighed heavily along with her. The Pitocin was just not doing what it was supposed to do, which apparently is not uncommon. They'd broken her water, fed her ice chips and monitored mom and baby's stats very closely. Nurses came and went with shift changes. Centimeters were dilating at a snail's pace. This was not going anywhere.
They gave her an epidural for the pain, in addition to other pain medications. The process for the epidural was not fun. I had to wait outside her room and hug her mom while I could hear Lisa crying as they inserted the needle into her back. I wanted to rush in and punch the anesthetist in the face. But once it was in place, painkillers were flowing directly and Lisa could relax much more comfortably.
At some point during the 8pm hour, the mood and activity rapidly changed. The machine monitoring the baby's heart rate and blood oxygen started to give some warning signs. When the medical professionals start to get concerned looks and start waiting a beat before answering your pointed questions, you know it's time to be concerned along with them.
But what could I do? There is something utterly powerless about being a father-to-be in a delivery room. You want to be there. You have to be there if you are smart. You are not the center of attention of course. But moreover, you aren't even a necessary accessory at this point. You're just there for moral support, but it's also one of the biggest days of YOUR life as well and it's hard to be calm. The wife you love is about to go through a mysteriously miraculous medical ordeal and someone you've never met is about to be born. You've been told your life is gonna change, but you can't anticipate how and you are really not sure you are ready.
They wheeled Lisa away to prep for surgery and a nurse gave me a 30-second explanation of what a Caesarean section was. It sounded serious and something I wanted to ... think about for a minute? Was there a decision to be made here? It didn't seem like it. I also didn't have a lot of time to absorb this information or to form follow-up questions. A few moments later, I was given a surgical gown and mask with quick details of how it goes on. I was told to wait alone in a room adjacent to where Lisa supposedly was and one of the nurses would come get me when everything was ready.
The waiting. I was likely only in that little room for two minutes or so. But it felt like forever. I'd never had so many thoughts stacked on top of each other. Most of them were unpleasant, worrisome thoughts. I seem to most people like a pretty happy guy, but I have a dark imagination and it went scary places at that moment. My wife and unborn child were in potential danger. Here I am surrounded by the best possible medical technology and highly trained staff. I should be hopeful and excited, but suddenly the world is dark and cold and miserable.
The nurse must have seen a look on my face because when she came to get me she stopped and said "Everything is going to be fine." Still skeptical, I was led to the room just next door and immediately the mood changed. Simply put, the weirdness of the scene wiped away the despair and replaced it not with hope but with surreality. There was my wife on the table, laid out completely naked. She looked pale and was shivering mildly. Because of the epidural, she was numb from the middle of her chest down. She looked nervous, but not ashamed of her nakedness or even aware of it. The room was filled with so many people, all busy at their tasks. Minutes before, there had been doctors and nurses in and out of our other room down the hall and I'd recognized most of them. But now, everyone was in green surgical gowns, caps, sterile gloves and face masks. I didn't recognize any of them until they began to speak. I was led to my wife's left shoulder as they began to cover her lower half with cloth and drapes. Her hands were tied down loosely, "so she wouldn't try to help," the doctors quipped reassuringly. A final drape was hung across her chest so that most of what was happening at her torso was not in view, unless I stood to look.
I looked her in the eyes and smiled, hoping it reached the limited part of my face she could see. "How are you doing?" I asked, for what seemed like the millionth time that day.
"I'm just fiiiiine," she said reassuringly. This was how I got reintroduced to her anesthesiologist, who I had not seen since he gave her the epidural. And I was to also learn that as much as that experience had not been fun at first, it was now the best thing to happen to her all day. He was now her new best friend. In fact, it appeared Lisa was a little bit ...drunk, though it sounds inelegant to say it that way. She was certainly happy and calm, if a little chilly.
Work began in earnest on the other side of the drape cloth. Throughout her pregnancy, Lisa had a young female doctor resident who saw her weekly and got an update on her progress between visits. She was there, but also her boss and several other doctors were in the room with various jobs to do. Off to the side a small team of nurses and possibly a pediatrician waited for the handover of the baby. I never counted but including them all, there must have been about 15 different people in the room.
I stayed seated on a stool by Lisa's side for the whole procedure, holding her hand, speaking to her calmly (despite my own fears) and generally staying out of the way. There was the sound of tiny instruments being handled and used. There was the beep of two heart monitors, one for Lisa and one for the baby. There was occasionally a weird smell of smoke as they cauterized something.
Lisa was never in any pain that she mentioned. There was a period of intense nausea, either due to the meds or due to the pressure being placed on her abdomen. Her friend the anesthetist was prepared with a little pan. But as she hadn't had more than ice chips all day, this passed quickly. She occasionally drew drowsy but never really asleep.
Minutes passed. There are many layers of skin and muscle and tissue to cut through in the abdomen. For those that don't know, the cut is along the bikini line several inches below the belly button, but above the pubic bone. I didn't watch, although I occasionally felt like it. Near the end, I did stand up and peek for a moment over the drape cloth. There was blood, but not as much as I'd pictured. I expected to be freaked out by what I saw and some otherwise tough guys apparently pass out with one glimpse of their wife's internal organs. But the unreality of the moment fooled me into thinking that what I was seeing could not be real and therefore dismissed it. I sat back down without my eyes absorbing much detail other than an array of blood and tissue. The whole time, I did not let go of Lisa's hand.
More minutes passed and they neared the moment where they would bring our baby into the world. We'd been asked during the day if we knew what the gender was and although we stated emphatically that we didn't know, we also were still assuming that it was a boy. It just felt right after thinking that way for weeks and months.
The baby was pulled headfirst from Lisa's womb at approximately 8:52pm on Thursday, May 20th, 1999. There was an almost immediate cry but it sounded wet and hoarse and tired. It had apparently been a long day for all of us. Our doctor held the baby aloft for me to see and then said something that I didn't register at first. Her words I will never forget.
"It's a girl!" she announced.
"What?" Lisa and I responded dumbfounded at the exact same time. There was no disappointment in our voices, only surprise and wonder. A girl? A girl! A beautiful baby girl.
How does one describe beauty? I'll tell you what was beautiful to me. She was slightly purple, soaking wet and covered in splotches of a white waxy substance. She was wrinkly in funny places but overall a chunky baby. Her ears were folded the wrong way against her head. She took big gasps of air and let them out in a squawky Donald-duck cry that stirred something new in me I've come to equate with love and an overwhelming desire to do something immediately. On the surface, this description does not sound beautiful, but I had never seen anything more wonderful to my eyes.
They carried her to a warmer bed and began to dry her off and run a few initial tests. A hospital bracelet was placed on her ankle and a matching one put around my wrist with one for Lisa too. They stitched Lisa back together. As the adrenaline crash hit us both, Lisa dozed a bit. They transitioned us back to our own room, then from there to a more calm recovery room. Lisa's mother would visit us there, then later my mother too.
Reese continued to cry like she was under water. Apparently when a baby is born through the birth canal, they get most of the liquid in their lungs squeezed out of them. There was some minor concern about oxygen levels and they put her in a simple oxygen hood. I took this in stride, but Lisa was immediately concerned. It reminded her of her brother Matthew's death. When she was nine, her first little brother was born with a major heart defect and died after three days. The tubes and oxygen apparatus scared her a lot. But I was reassuring and hopeful.
In the days that followed, Reese would be fine and pass every medical test. Her skin did yellow with some minor jaundice, which was caused directly by the inefficient processing of oxygen. But they gave us a UV blanket to wrap her in and that fixed her right up. She was our cute little glow worm. We learned to change diapers constantly. We learned to swaddle. We took a million photos. We were starter parents with very little experience, but we got good quickly enough. Lisa's mom was there. My mom was there. My dad, stepmom and stepbrother showed up a bit later. We were surrounded by love and hugs and lots of support.
Now all these years later, we have a teenager.
Worth it. Every day.