When you sit down to write your birth plan, you feel like everything you put on the page is definitive. Like your instructions will decide the course of the entire process from first twinge to skin-on-skin.
The birth of my son wasn’t the worst birth, but it didn’t go to plan. And I think a story that might make any woman feel less disappointed, sad and alone about her unexpected birth experience is worth telling.
My pregnancy was a piece of cake. Not a lick of morning sickness, almost no change in energy levels, very little weight gain anywhere but my belly. I was fit and strong and optimistic about labour. My due date came and went and about 6 days past, the doctors raised concerns about the volume of fluids around the baby. As an understandably risk-averse bunch, that was enough to recommend induction.
I’d been afraid of induction my whole pregnancy. I have Crohn’s Disease and in my mind, this was a very real sequence of events once induction entered the picture: I’m induced > my body doesn’t respond well to the artificial hormones > labour doesn’t progress and I need to get an epidural > the epidural numbs me from the waist down > when it comes time to push, I can’t feel anything and I get a third degree tear > due to Crohn’s Disease inflammation, the tear doesn’t heal > I spend the next few years in excruciating pain with a third degree wound on my perineum that can’t heal > it worsens over time, escalating to a prolapse (your insides fall out of your butt).
I knew that might not happen. But there’s heaps of research about the increased risk of third degree tearing when epidurals are used. A third degree tear would be horrendous for anyone; for someone with active Crohn’s Disease, it could be catastrophic.
But you don’t say no to doctors. At least, I didn’t feel confident enough to do that then. So, I returned the next day to start the induction process at 5pm on Wednesday 23 December 2015.
At 5pm, the balloon was inserted and inflated to put pressure on my cervix. It would be in there for 12 hours, so I settled into my hospital bed waiting for 5am to come. The plan was to get the balloon removed at 5am then head to a birthing suite to start the hormone drip.
Small contractions began within an hour of the balloon insertion. They were 4-7 minutes apart, painful, but manageable. I slept a little and at 5am on Thursday 24 December, the team appeared to do their balloon removal. The balloon came out and the team told me I’d get the next available birthing suite.
A few hours passed and there was no room. Midwives popped in frequently to check my vitals, also explaining that there’d been a huge influx of women in spontaneous labour (i.e. not controlled like an induced labour), so there was a wait on the rooms.
More hours passed. It was late afternoon and I asked for permission to put my clothes on and go to a nearby café with my husband. We had a coffee and a snack while I breathed through the contractions that were still coming every 4-7 minutes. It was a scorching hot afternoon and hot breezes still bring me back to that day.
Back in the hospital, the afternoon was turning into evening. It had been 24 hours since the process had begun and no one could tell me when I’d have a room. I was furious. I felt so resentful that they’d started this process and couldn’t finish it. I could have been home, feeling comfortable and relaxed; but instead, I was in a hospital, stuck in a limbo and getting more distressed by the hour.
At 8pm, a midwife burst into the room to tell me I had a room. My water broke immediately. It was yellow-brown, indicating that the baby was, or had been, distressed at some stage. We were whisked up to the birthing suite; my arm was hooked up to the hormone drip and my belly was covered in nodes to monitor the baby’s heart rate.
I felt the intensity shift from the relatively mild contractions I’d been having for the past 28 hours to the contractions of active labour. They were deeply painful, but they were what I’d expected. I breathed through them and even chatted and joked between contractions as I wandered around the room in my Superman underwear.
As songs like “All-Star” by Smash Mouth and “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba playing in the background, labour progressed. The contractions grew more intense and closer together until they became so intense that I can’t remember much.
I have a flash of memory of laying on the bed, on my side, throwing up over and over. There was no break between contractions and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was convulsing as I tried to breathe through the pain but struggling to do so as the vomit came up.
I knew things were supposed to get intense. The problem was… I didn’t feel like I was anywhere near transition. I managed to ask for a cervical exam to see how it was going. They got the doctor in for a look and they told me I was only 4cm dilated. Transition usually begins at 7cm and you have to be 10cm for a baby to come out.
It was 4.30am on Friday 25 December and I knew I couldn’t keep going like this, possibly for 10 more hours. The doctor offered me an epidural which I declined. She offered an emergency Caesarian and I accepted.
They wheeled me into the operating theatre and while they sanitised my lower back for the epidural (which was only a no-no for me if I were going to be pushing), my husband got into the head-to-toe hospital getup he’d have to wear to stand beside me and hold my hand during the operation.
The epidural went in and the anaesthetist told me to lay down. They did the “ice test” to make sure I was fully numb. The ice felt cold on my skin. I told them I could feel the cold and they apologetically said we’d have to do a second epidural. I breathed through contractions, trying to stay still while the second shot went into my lower back.
Again, it didn’t take. The anaesthetist said he’d try a different method, a spinal tap. He sanitised the site, did the injection and asked me to lay down. In 10 seconds, he told me to try to move my legs. I lifted them into the air easily.
In a blink, the medical team changed course. They were aware of the baby’s distress and couldn’t spend any time troubleshooting; they got my consent for general anaesthesia, whisked my husband out of the room and within 30 seconds, I was unconscious. I’d been knocked out plenty of times for Crohn’s-related procedures, so the feeling of counting backwards as your body warmed and tingled was familiar. 5, 4…. 3……
When I woke up, I was alone in an empty recovery hall. The room was empty and I felt empty. The tiny person that had been growing inside of me for 9 months wasn’t inside of me anymore… and he was nowhere to be seen. I was half-delirious, still heavy-eyed and confused from the anaesthesia. A nurse appeared and told me everything was okay. She said the Caesarian had gone well and that my son had been taken to my husband for skin-on-skin within minutes of being safely removed from my uterus. They told me to sit tight and drink some water and that they’d wheel me up to my room to meet me son shortly.
I was settled in my hospital bed, trying to force the cobwebs from my mind, when a midwife brought my son in. He was clean and swaddled and tiny. I tried breastfeeding for the first time and kept him on my chest until I couldn’t fight the drowsiness and had to lay my head down.
I had a few hours with my son before a midwife explained that my son had irregular blood sugar readings and they’d have to take him to NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). In my semi-consciousness, I didn’t think to ask questions – I didn’t even ask when they’d bring him back. If I’d known he’d be in the NICU for the next five days, I might not have taken it so well.
It was about that time that the headache started coming on. What began as a small ache progressed into a searing pressure and debilitating pain. It was only bearable when I was lying flat; the moment I lifted my head, the pain was blinding. I had to rest my head on my husband’s chest to walk from my bed to the bathroom and keep it resting on him as I sat on the toilet to pee.
I told the midwives around 5pm on Friday 25 December but an anaesthetist didn’t pop in for a consult until over 24 hours later. During that time, I was bedridden. I worked up to a trip to the NICU in a wheelchair with pillows piled around me to support my neck. I spent about 20 minutes with my son before the pain became too much and I had to return to my room.
When the anaesthetist finally stuck their head in for a chat, he immediately concluded it was a rare complication from the spinal tap. I asked what it meant. He told me that when the team had injected the anaesthesia into my lower spinal column, they must have gone a bit too far in and punctured it. As a result, brain fluid, which travels up and down the spine, was leaking from the site in miniscule amounts. As the volume of fluid surrounding my brain decreased, my brain wasn’t suspended weightlessly inside of my skull as it should be. The pain I felt was the result of a change of pressure in my head and the weight of my brain pulling on the rest of my head.
He also explained that there was a fix. I’d be booked in for a “blood patch.” During the procedure, they’d take blood from my arm and inject it into the original spinal tap site. The blood clots and blocks the puncture, stopping the leak until the tissue heals up properly. He booked me in for the next day, Sunday 27 December.
The procedure went well and within moments of the blood being injected into my back, I felt the head pain easing. It continued to improve throughout the night as the fluid volume in my head returned to normal levels.
The next day, Monday, the midwives told me I would be discharged that day. But wait a second, my baby wasn’t ready to be discharged. His blood sugar hadn’t been regulated yet. The midwife explained that we could return to the hospital every morning and spend our days with him in the NICU until he was discharged. But wait a second, I had only spent a couple hours with him since he was born. I wasn’t even familiar with his face yet. The midwife explained that the visiting hours for parents of NICU babies were longer than a normal ward and that he would probably be discharged in a matter of days.
I broke down, sobbing. The past five days had been a distorted reality, blurred by pain and punctuated by the emptiness I felt in the place that had been my baby’s home for 9 months.
The force of the breakdown dislodged the clot and within an hour, the lightning-pain in my head returned.
I was booked in for a second blood patch the next day, Tuesday 29 December. It was a success and this time, it stuck. I woke up on Wednesday with a clear head and was told for the second time that I would be discharged later that day. But this time, it was accompanied by news that my son would be ready to go home that day, too.
An hour later, my son was wheeled into the room and the midwives showed us how to bath him. We waited as a family for the discharge forms to be finalised. And on Wednesday 30 December, almost exactly one week to the hour that the balloon was first inflated against my cervix, the new Power family went home – together.
Jo is the amazing creator behind the brand 'Things By Bean'.
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