Since Elana and I have both written about our laissez-faire, play-the-numbers approach to birth and its attendant risks, I figure we should give equal time to the tiny minority of cases where disaster strikes, natural childbirth is impossible, and only high-tech, highly interventionist medicine can save both mother and child. To this point — the story of our lousy, amazing week, in which Elana and the Lentil both almost died.
Tuesday morning, Elana got up and announced that her vision was blurry. We knew that was a possible symptom of high blood pressure, which isn’t good for pregnant ladies, so we called the OB/GYN’s office and asked them if that was the kind of thing that, you know…. They told us we weren’t being paranoid and we should get in the car and come on in. While we were getting dressed, Elana asked me to help her to the toilet, because she thought she might throw up.
She still couldn’t see very well and kept bumping into walls, which was pretty funny, so I laughed at her a little and helped steer her into the bathroom. She seemed a little unsteady, so I put a hand on her back. She reached back and brushed at my hand with her own. At first I thought she just didn’t need the extra touch (you know, sometimes too much contact is annoying, first thing in the morning), so I let go. But there was something odd about the way her hand was slapping at her back. She turned towards me, and I saw her other hand starting to curl up like a weird clawed fist. Her mouth was open in a peculiar “O” shape, and she stumbled toward me.
From all this, I cleverly deduced that Something Not So Great was happening.
When you’re in the Army and you’re about to Go Off To War, they make you take a class called “Combat Lifesaver,” in which you learn how to do things like apply a tourniquet and put in an IV, and where they teach you acronyms like
They also teach you how to do buddy carries:
Which is to say, the impression you get of first aid in the Army is that you should stop any obvious bleeding and then pick the person up and haul ass to the medevac point.
So when the EMTs have been in your house for twenty minutes already and there are seven of them trying to figure out how to move one gurgling pregnant lady out of the upstairs bathroom, you want to scream, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU??!! YOU TAKE THE LEGS, I’LL TAKE THE FUCKING SHOULDERS, AND WE GET HER DOWN THE FUCKING STAIRS!” But you don’t, because apparently these people are professionals, even though you saw one of them looking in the handbook under the chapter heading “Holy Shit — A Pregnant Lady Is Seizing!” And even when they later bump your wife into a wall and almost drop her on the way down the stairs, you resist the urge to punch anyone, because, you know, they’re saving lives here, so you try to be grateful.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure there’s more to real-deal, civilian emergency response than belt-dragging a guy to a helicopter, so I want to thank Kevin of the LaFayette Fire Department and all the other EMTs who showed up. (Seriously, it was like an ambulance convention on our street.) You guys rock.
Props, also, to my dad, who’s a registered nurse and was first on the scene. Not a lot he could do alone and without any equipment, but he at least knew what to tell the 911 operator.
Whereas I was all, “I think she’s having a stroke or a seizure or… something?” And then I thought about the time I was working on a reality TV show and one of the participants had a seizure. Or was it a stroke? Fuck.
I’m not usually a guy who falls apart in emergencies, and I didn’t fall apart right away there, either. I mean, I didn’t drop her when she fell, and I got somebody to call 911, and I corralled people and stuff out of the way while the EMTs worked. But somewhere on the ride to the hospital, I began this wave-upon-wave surge of crying that didn’t stop for several hours. I found myself crying in the front seat of the ambulance, crying in the ER, pulling myself together in the bathroom, then crying again when they showed her to me after the surgery. I kind of, sort of, usually managed to hold it together whenever she was awake — but then I’d cry again whenever I could get away. Jesus, the whole thing just knocked all the man out of me.
I mentioned “surgery.”
It’s funny — when you watch a lot of House, M.D., you sort of get the impression that they come to you and say things like, “We have to do an emergency C-section to save her life.” And you as the husband look grave and concerned and say, “Doctor, are you sure?” And then they say, “Yes, it’s the only way.” And you scrutinize them, trying to decide if you can trust them, and then you sign the clipboard and they sprint away to the OR to scrub in.
What ACTUALLY happens is your wife goes in one ambulance and you go in another and when you get there somebody makes you sign into the hospital and provide insurance information. Then you sit in another room for ten minutes, and then they come to you and say, “This is the doctor who’s going to take care of her — now why don’t you wait upstairs?” Then eventually some other people come to you and say, “Well, both mom and baby are fine after the surgery. We decided to put in tracheostomy in her throat, and she’s on a heavy sedative…” and about ten minutes later you realize that “surgery” means a C-section and that somewhere in this hospital is a baby with your name on it.
Then a sheepish-looking person asks you to sign some papers saying it was okay to do the stuff they already did.
And that is how those choices are made.
It turns out my wife had eclampsia, the very rare end state of the somewhat more common pregnancy complication preeclampsia. You can read Elana’s take on it here. Or you can read the always-funny Natalie Dee’s description of her experience. It’s a fucked-up, fucked-up thing, and scientists don’t know what causes it. Though there are some interesting theories.
We are all very well now, thank you. Somewhere in the world tonight there’s a beautiful baby boy named Henry who makes hilarious faces and eats like a champ, if you go by the neo-natal ICU staff’s encouraging words. He sometimes looks like this:
In front of the Catholic hospital where they saved my wife and my boy stands this statue, dedicated to St. Joseph The Worker:
In a constantly necessary effort to keep Jesus from being removed from ordinary human life, the Church has from the beginning proudly emphasized that Jesus was a carpenter, obviously trained by Joseph in both the satisfactions and the drudgery of that vocation. Humanity is like God not only in thinking and loving, but also in creating. Whether we make a table or a cathedral, we are called to bear fruit with our hands and mind, ultimately for the building up of the Body of Christ.
Or, as Johnny Cash once said,
“If you were a baker, and you baked a loaf of bread and it fed somebody, then your life has been worthwhile. And if you were a weaver, and you wove some cloth and your cloth kept somebody warm, your life has been worthwhile.”
It’s hard for me to think of people that applies to more than the nurses who have taken such amazing care of my family in this hour of near-disaster. Also the doctors, for whose life-saving knowledge and skill I’m eminently grateful. Truly — what a miraculously gifted group of people.
But it’s the nurses who wash people’s helpless bodies and answer their questions and hold their hands and patiently gather the statistics that make scientific medicine possible. Nurses bring you juice and drugs and chairs for your visitors and say sweet, cheerful things about how good you look. Nurses are your first line of defense against parents and spouses and doctors and other patients and the bewildering changes in your normally reliable physical system and loneliness. There’s no more blessed job anywhere.
I want to bake them all cookies, but I am embarrassed by the smallness of the gesture compared to the magnitude of what they do. Maybe someday when I’m really wealthy, I’ll come back and donate a nice break room with a Wii and a 24-hour-a-day chair massage service. I don’t know — I’m just spitballing here.
POST SCRIPT: Yeah, yeah, I know — our story is a perfect illustration of how important health coverage is and how you could be ruined in an instant without it. My dad and I spent a few minutes idly calculating the total cost of this freak occurrence, and we expect it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars. Back when we first got pregnant, there was a brief period where we considered just playing the odds and planning on paying cash for the birth. As my sister pointed out, we would have blown that cash reserve on the ambulances alone. So yes, without government-sponsored, government-regulated health coverage, we would have been financially ruined. (Which would also have cost me my security clearance, and therefore every last one of my career options. Which would obviously have ruined us further.)
But shit, man… this blog ain’t always about why a single-payer health care system would be better. Sometimes it’s just about us.