My birth stories are nothing like I imagined; nothing like I saw on TV, nothing like I had heard about from friends or family.. they were not beautiful, full of smiles or happy tears. I wouldn’t change a single thing about my boys, Sawyer & Nolan, but I would have done anything to change their first days.
As a first time mom, I did the research, took the classes, and felt like I had a decent birth plan ready. Sawyer decided to wait until I was almost 42 weeks pregnant to make an appearance and I was so ready to meet him. I was in labor for almost 40 hours and was not progressing no matter what we tried. At one point, a nurse told me he had passed meconium but not to worry.. some extra staff would be on hand when he was born and he would be fine. After what felt like an eternity of pushing and laboring, I finally said enough was enough and it was decided I would have a c-section. While it wasn’t what I wanted, it was what my body needed. I felt relief as we were wheeled into the room thinking ok, in the next 30 minutes, I’ll have him in my arms. Everything was prepped, they opened me up and I could tell it was a bit of a struggle to get him out but never experiencing this before, I figured that was the norm. At 2:17am on 2/17/18, he was born but the room was silent… then frantic. Why wasn’t he crying? What was happening? My husband and I were ignored while swarms of people came into the room. It felt like people never stopped coming. I begged the anesthesiologist who stayed by my side to tell me what was happening but she didn’t offer much. My husband, Lee, who is always a source of calm for me was as white as a ghost. Finally, we got some information. They were resuscitating my baby.. my new born baby wasn’t breathing and needed CPR. The nausea hit me and med after med was given through my IV to keep me afloat during all of this. After almost 40 minutes, we heard his cries.. the most amazing sound I’ve ever heard. But he couldn’t stay with us. He needed to go to UMASS by ambulance for their NICU and we had to stay while I recovered. Everything else was a blur that night.
The next few days (4 to be exact), Sawyer underwent an induced hypothermia protocol (“cooling” as they call it) to help fend off any internal swelling caused by lack of oxygen. We couldn’t touch him or hold him. No one knew what the extent of his injuries would be.. we wouldn’t know until an MRI could be done once he was warmed. Those were the longest, most drawn out days. Thankfully, the MRI was done and the neurologist told us his brain looked like that of a totally normal baby.. he appeared shocked but shared in our utter joy. Things progressed quickly after that (as quickly as they can in the NICU) and we were home all together after 8 days.
The stress of being a new mom kept those all of those scary memories out of my head for a long time; my brain’s response to all that trauma. Eventually, it hit me. Flashbacks to that OR, to the anesthesiologist saying “the doctors are trying to resuscitate your baby,” to the nights I stayed up thinking what life would be with a baby who severe suffered brain damage at birth. It would take my breath away for a minute but then I kept on pushing because as a new mom, I didn’t think I had another choice. It always felt semi “under control” if that makes sense but I knew if I ever wanted to have another baby, I needed to get help.
I sought out a local therapist specializing in birth trauma. I had no idea this was even a thing until I googled it. We used EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) to help my replace reduce the flashbacks and feel more calm when thinking about this whole ordeal. To my surprise, it worked well and quickly.
When I became pregnant with Nolan, I tried everything I could do to set myself up for a good experience. I made sure I was with an OBGYN that I fully trusted, made sure to deliver at UMASS for the NICU just in case, I planned for a c-section at 39 weeks, I remembered by strategies from therapy.. this time would be better.
At 35 weeks, I went to labor and delivery triage because I thought I was having some contractions. The initial RN and NP told me to expect to go home in an hour or so after some fluids, I was likely just dehydrated. That quickly changed as labor kept progressing and we realized i was having a baby that night. I went through a huge range of emotions; fear, anger, sadness. Would my plan still work? Could I still have the safe, happy birth I was so hopeful for? How would Sawyer feel with me gone for days without any explanation? How long would Nolan need the NICU? Why was this happening again?
As we prepped for the OR, I couldn’t help but worry though tried to keep positive.. what other choice did I have? I asked the staff to keep me aware of everything that was happening, good or bad; I could not deal with another silent room again. They promised they would.
Everything moved quickly but without the frantic environment I had experienced before. Nolan was born and was crying; we did it.. he was here and breathing! I asked Lee over and over again if he was ok, relief taking over with every yes. After a few minutes, it was decided Nolan needed some oxygen supplementation with CPAP. I knew this was common with premeeies so I reminded myself all would be ok. Lee headed up to the NICU while they finished closing me back up from the c section.
Immediately after they left, the mood changed. Again, I was in a frantic OR but now, I was alone. People started moving quickly; someone let out a frantic “shit!” while another staff member shouted to remind her “the patient is still awake!” After a few minutes, the attending OBGYN leaned over the curtain and said sternly said “Erin, we need to do a hysterectomy now so you can live a long life with your boys, ok?” Dumbfounded, I nodded my head. So I could live a long life? What is happening?! She told me quickly my uterus wouldn’t contract and I was severely hemorrhaging, losing tons of blood. Frantic calls were made to the blood bank for stat transfusions, a code white was called over head. They asked me if I wanted to be intubated since the epidural would be wearing off soon.. it wasn’t meant to last this long. I said no multiple times, I would make it without. Whether it’s a crazy thought or not, I felt that if I were awake, I could fight harder to stay alive.. I had to live. Thoughts raced in my head, how would Lee raise a newborn and a toddler? How would he tell Sawyer I was never coming home? How could this be happening? I continued to hold out until I was writhing in pain and everyone knew it. The CRNA student, who has the most calm eyes, told me she would get me to my boys but I needed to be intubated now; I gave in.
I woke up in the PACU relieved. I felt awful, like I had been hit by a truck but I was alive so I counted it as a victory. Lee came to see me, I have no idea what we spoke about but I kept telling him to leave and get some rest. Shortly after his visit, I felt a feeling I had never experienced. I was nauseous, hot, cold, shaking.. all at the same time. I looked at my vitals.. my blood pressure was dropping rapidly; I was going into shock. The staff turned the screen away and told me not to focus on the numbers as they called the ICU to find me a bed, called in the physicians and gave me meds to try to stabilize me. I just bought myself a ticket to the ICU where I typically see patients of my own, where my colleagues were now going to be my caregivers. It felt surreal. I truly can’t remember most of the next 24 hours but I know they included more meds, blood transfusions, a CT scan to look for more bleeding.. this was supposed to be my time with sweet little Nolan yet we were floors apart, each dealing with our own crises, alone. Everyday was a bit better from there. Recovery was terrible but I got to see my baby, talk to my family and show Lee I was going to be ok.
Nolan ending up spending a few more weeks in the NICU which was so so hard on us, Sawyer and our family members who couldn’t see him because of Covid restrictions. We did our best to survive those weeks; to put a smile on for Sawyer and sob each night getting into bed from pain, exhaustion, sadness and fear of what we had been through.
Before I even left the hospital, my OBGYN spoke with me about seeking out help. She checked in with me often after discharge and when I told her I was having trouble finding a therapist with availability, she connected me with a social worker through the hospital. Within a day, I had a whole page of readiness from support groups to yoga to reiki. I went the more traditional route and did talk therapy with Nolan always snuggled in my arms. Just talking it all out, putting the pieces together, recognizing what triggered me, helped tremendously. A big thing for me was experiencing anger towards other women who had positive birth experiences. I would never wish a tough birth on anyone but I also felt like, why couldn’t I just have that too? The jealousy ran rampant through me. Social media was causing me to think these things more and more as people post through a perfect lens 99% of the time. We made a plan to limit my time, block accounts with new babies, remember it was ok to tell people I just didn’t want to talk about births for a while.. good/ bad/ or neutral. It was ok to avoid the subject for now for my own health even if it might upset someone else. We also made a plan to go back to work. I would have to return to the ICU where I was treated, work with those colleagues again. I asked management if I could avoid that particular ICU while I transitioned back to work and they were more than accommodating. It took me a while but a month or so in, I mustered the strength to go in there. I immediately turned right back around.. but hey, a good effort for the first try. Each time I went, I made a bit more progress.
One more thing that therapy and this experience taught me is that it is ok to feel a mix of emotions all at once. I can feel immense joy that my boys and I are safe and healthy while also feeling robbed of a good, even decent, birth experience. I think a part of me will always mourn what could have been, especially because I will never get another opportunity for a re-do.