One morning in early July, five days past my due date, I woke up feeling...different. It's hard to describe but it's like there was a slight tingling inside of me, a tightening, noticeable but not intense. I ate breakfast with my mom and Chris while my sister slept upstairs. The tingling sensation got a little stronger, like period cramps, but nothing that impeded me from finishing breakfast and drinking coffee. Around 9:00 am Chris and I took a walk around our neighborhood and it was then, standing on the sidewalk a block away from our house, that a cramp came on strong enough that it forced me to stop, hang my head, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. We hadn't started timing them yet but after a few more intense moments like that during our walk it was clear that I was experiencing contractions.
When we arrived back at our house I went straight upstairs and laid on the bed to prepare my mind for the unmedicated labor for which we had planned. Chris came up with a big glass of water for me and his computer so he could do some work. Less than ten minutes into his work I had another contraction, this one stronger than the last. I drank some water and continued to try to rest. A few minutes later, another surge. That's when we knew these were real labor symptoms and not Braxton-Hicks. Chris promptly closed his laptop and texted our doula, who told us to time how far apart the contractions were happening. By then I felt like they were happening every minute but Chris assured me they were seven minutes apart. Still, there was no doubt that our baby was coming.
Chris alerted our mothers that I was in labor because they had previously been instructed that they should leave during labor so that Chris and I could work through it together like we had learned in our classes. Then he ran a bath, laid a couple of outdoor pillows in the tub, helped me in, and poured me a glass of champagne. We were in the so-called "wine window", a sexy, exciting time during labor that we learned about in our Hypno-birthing class. The premise being that contractions (or surges) are far enough apart that mom can relax in a warm bath with a celebratory drink while dad rubs her feet. Sounds beautiful, right? I was so looking forward to the wine window. Except once I got in the tub the contractions came on stronger and more frequently so the only thing I could do was grit my teeth and breathe through them. Enjoying some champagne was far from my mind, though I did manage to get down a few sips.
My doula arrived around 11:30 am. At this point the surges were less than four minutes apart with an intensity of an eight on a scale of 1- 10. I told her I felt a lot of pressure on my lower back so she told me to hold my belly up during each surge to help relieve some of that back pain - which worked. She suggested that I get in the shower because it helps with contractions, the "water-dural" as the natural-birth circle refers to it.
It was while I was in the shower that my doula noticed what I had assumed was blood dripping onto the shower floor. She said she was worried that it might be meconium mixed with amniotic fluid. I told her that I hadn't thought my water had broken yet and that I thought it was blood, which, in retrospect, didn't make too much sense because blood is red and this liquid was brown. She took a photo of the liquid and texted it to another doula who said she wasn't sure what it was, either, but that it would probably just be best to take me to the hospital. By then my contractions were about three minutes apart so it was time to go anyway.
At 12:30 pm we were in the car. I wore my Bucky sleep mask and listened to relaxation music on wireless headphones in order to focus on myself and to block out external stimuli, like sunlight and traffic. Thirty minutes later we arrived at the hospital, checked in, and were swiftly taken to our labor and delivery room where I was outfitted with a fetal heart monitor and then given a quick vaginal exam to see how things were progressing. Baby's heart rate was good and my cervix was eight centimeters dilated, about the width of a donut. My obstetrician was promptly notified that the baby would be ready to come out any minute and he said he was on his way. The nurses didn't seem concerned about the brown liquid that was dripping out because the fetal heart monitor showed that baby was fine. I was then allowed to move freely about the room in order to continue working through my unmedicated labor - only two more centimeters to go and baby would be arriving soon!
About thirty minutes later, just before they were about to remove the fetal hear monitor from around my waist, one of the nurses noticed that the baby's heart rate was dropping. They had me lay on the bed again to check my dilation. I was ten centimeters, ready to push! But baby's heart rate continued to drop so they thought it might just be a matter of positioning that was causing the distress. They had me try out different positions - all fours, side-lying on my left, side-lying on my right, etc. At this point the intensity of the contractions had reached an all time high and I told my doula I was ready for an epidural. She whispered into my ear that I was almost done, that they were already prepping the baby's bed, and that all I had to do was just hang on for a few more minutes. But then my baby's heart rate had dipped even further and, suddenly, the room began to fill with more nurses and doctors who were discussing what needed to be done. My OB had not yet arrived when I heard my doula whisper in my ear, "Your baby's heart rate is really low and they need to get him out. They're going to take you to the operating room for an emergency c-section. Your doctor isn't here yet but they can't wait for him so the hospitalist is going to deliver the baby."
A minute later, at 1:45 pm, my OB arrived in the nick of time to a chaotic scene, was updated on the situation, and rushed to prepare himself for surgery. In a daze I was swiftly wheeled into the operating room, desperately squeezing Chris' hand before leaving his side in alarming recognition that our birth plans were unraveling. The brief memory I have of my time in the operating room is a nightmarish blur. The lights were extremely bright, there were people in blue gowns everywhere, rushing around me, and the tension in the room was palpable. Then I saw my doctor's face and he asked if I could try to push my baby down as much as possible because he wanted to see if he could vacuum him out, thinking that might be faster than cutting me open. I pushed two times as hard as I could and it wasn't enough. That's when he said, "Okay Ana, this isn't working. We need to get your baby out." I was put under general anesthesia and then a stillness washed over me and the lights went out.
I'm told my son, Felix, was born at 1:52 pm, after a fast, intense, and unmedicated six-hour labor. I wasn't conscious for his delivery so I didn't see my obstetrician pull a lifeless baby boy out of my body. Unlike we had written in our birth plan, he wasn't placed on my chest for immediate skin-to-skin bonding where we would make eye contact for the first time; there was no breastfeeding, no golden hour, and the placenta cord was clamped immediately so that he could be transferred to an incubator, whereupon a respiratory therapist, whom we will always refer to as Felix's angel, performed chest compressions on him for nine minutes until he finally took his own shallow, little breath. Then a plastic tube was inserted through his tiny mouth and into his tiny trachea so he could receive oxygen support. Following that there were more procedures, more tubes, more medicine, and more machines. Chris bravely stood by - terrified, confused, and sad - taking photos because he thought these were the only moments he'd have with his first child.
Meanwhile, a few rooms down, I was waking up from the anesthesia, alone and confused, due mainly to the pain medication. I was not yet aware of the situation with Felix until Chris and my OB walked in and, somehow, calmly explained what happened - he'd aspirated on meconium towards the very end of labor. They told me that Felix was about to be taken by ambulance to the children's hospital because he was very sick. Everyone was positive about it all and I would learn later that they were doing that for my benefit, no one had any idea if Felix would actually make it through the night. Before the departure the EMTs wheeled him in next to my bed so I could see him and hold his little hand. And in that brief moment of touch, holding my sick baby boy's tiny hand, my mind hazy with drugs and my eyes blurry from tears, my life was forever changed.
Felix spent the first twenty-eight days of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). During that time I learned a great deal about myself and about life. Felix has been my teacher without uttering a single word. He has taught me about patience; he has taught me about the capabilities of my body; he has taught me about priorities; about confidence, self-worth, and self-love. Felix has also been a coach, challenging me and pushing me in ways I never imagined: like in the ability to repeatedly inject myself during all the IVF treatments, then dealing with the physical and mental changes during each trimester of pregnancy; afterwards, the marathon that is labor, and, later, in overcoming the nearly debilitating emotional distress that comes with having a traumatic birth and a sick baby in the NICU . He is my silent tutor, teaching me about life. That's why I think of our pregnancy - pre, during, and post - as magical. The journey we have taken, first as one and now as two, has earned us the right to feel like unicorns.