I waddle down the long hallway, IV lines in tow as though I’m floating through a dream. Shawn walks beside me, holding my hand until the inevitable parting outside the surgery room, a separation that happens all too quickly. He is directed to the recovery area where he must stay put while the pre-operation preparations are completed. Everything inside me is screaming for him to come with me, but I remain silent. I feel so scared, so alone. My body is already shaking from the 13 hours of Pitocin that failed to induce labor quickly enough. The young, brunette nurse gently leads me into the operating room where I’m seemingly transported into another world. Everything is stark white, the lights are so bright I wish I had a pair of sunglasses, and it’s cold, unbelievably cold. I’m told to sit on the operating table, so close to the edge I’m sure I’ll fall off any moment, and slouch down low, as my spine is exposed through the back of the hospital gown. The shaking increases. Is this from the effects of the medicine, the cold, or the fear? Perhaps it’s all three, but hard as I try, I cannot stop shaking. Horrible thoughts race through my mind. What if the shaking causes the spinal to go wrong? What if I’m paralyzed? Oh, Lord, please help me to stop shaking. I wish Shawn was here.
The brunette nurse puts her arms firmly but gently on my shoulders and lets me lean into her as they rub sterilizing solution over my back. She’s younger than me, but right now she feels like a mother. Right now she is my only tangible form of comfort, of stability. The anesthesiologist tells me I will feel a poke that may hurt, but it will not last long. I brace myself, feeling all the while like a frightened little girl. I just want to run away, reverse the clock even 24 hours when I still had the hopes of a close to full-term pregnancy and a natural labor and delivery. It’s all happening too fast, too soon. I feel the jab, and it’s painful. An apology, I’ll have to be poked again. This time it hurts more, and always, the constant shaking. Within moments a warm, tingling sensation surges through my legs, and I am relieved to have some respite from the extreme cold. The next thing I know I’m being picked up and placed flat on my back, but I feel nothing from the waist down. I’m aware that my hospital gown is being lifted up above my waist—full exposure in a room of men and women, all wearing blue scrubs and face masks. I’m tempted to feel embarrassed, but all the other emotions quickly push down any concern for modesty or dignity—exhaustion, shock, fear, anticipation. I’ll see my baby soon. Just a few more hours, I tell myself, and Benjamin will be in arms. Meanwhile the oxygen mask is being fitted on, and the huge blue sheet is hung up in front of me. My husband appears by my head now, and relief washes over me. He tells me he loves me; I’m doing a good job, and everything will be ok. We’re having our baby! He even snaps a picture.
The shaking has intensified as the spinal fully sets in. My arms seem to have a complete mind of their own, and move constantly on both sides of me, causing my voice to shake when I speak. Now a new fear sets in. Will the spinal be fully effective? What if I feel the cut? I brace myself, wondering when it will come. The next thing I know I feel a pulling and pushing on my stomach (no pain), and my son’s first cry cuts through the cold, sterile air. My son, my baby I’ve been anticipating for so long; that was his cry. He’s actually arrived! I try to contain my excitement as I wait for him to be cleaned up and brought over so I can see him. Shawn watches them pull him out of my stomach and exclaims “He’s so long!” He excuses himself from me for a minute to go snap pictures while Benjamin is being cleaned. I hear my newborn’s cries becoming more and more distant. Meanwhile, I feel a slight pulling while my stomach is stapled shut. How thankful I am for the blue sheet that shields my eyes from the gruesome process. In our childbirth classes we watched a video of a C-section. In the car on the way home I cried and told Shawn “I don’t want to have a C-section.”
“Why would you have to have a C-section?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply, “but I don’t want to have one.”
My impatience is starting to grow. Why is it taking so long for them to clean my baby? I want to see him. I start asking if they are going to bring him to me soon, but no one is answering me. Shawn reappears, his face full of concern. My head is swimming as he tells me that Benjamin is having some breathing problems. They’re taking him down to the NICU to hook him up to a ventilator and do some more monitoring. I’m trying to process what he just said, but my mind is so fuzzy from all of the medicine, and my body is exhausted. I’m still shaking. I’m lifted from the operation table and placed on a hospital bed, then wheeled into the recovery area. Shawn is given a chair next to my bed. I waste no time in asking him to show me the pictures he took of Benjamin. A picture is better than nothing, and I’m dying to see what my baby looks like. From the first picture I know. I know but I don’t want to admit to myself that I know. I hear myself ask Shawn, “What’s wrong with his neck?” It’s so thick, almost like a head set on top of a pair of shoulders with a thick crease of skin in the back. I ask again “What’s wrong with his neck?” Shawn just looks at me and says nothing. He knows it too. He saw it as they were cleaning our son. Neither of us can bring ourselves to say the words that are hanging so heavy in the air, suffocating us. Benjamin looks like he has Down syndrome. I look at the pictures again and again, as though they might change if I keep studying them long enough. This can’t be my baby. This isn’t what I imagined he’d look like. There must be some mistake. I long for some words of comfort, some reassurance that this is all a bad dream from which I will wake at any moment. The effects of the medicine are too much for my exhausted system and I drift in and out of a fitful sleep. Shawn leans his head against the wall and does the same. All we can do is wait.
Dr. Jackson is by my bedside. She’s a professional African American woman with short cut hair and beautiful but serious eyes. In a clear and steady voice she tells us that Benjamin is having significant trouble breathing and is hooked up to a ventilator, which is doing most of his breathing for him. She also tells us that she has ordered a genetic test as Benjamin has some physical characteristics of Down syndrome. There, the dreaded words have been spoken. Our hopes that it was just us, that we were somehow mistaken by what we saw, are dashed to pieces. She has more to say, but I can’t take it in right now. My world is spinning out of control, even as my body has been for the last few hours, shaking, shaking, shaking. I ask again when I can see my baby, but I’m given no definite answers. Everything is out of control.
It’s been over an hour and still I have no feeling from the waist down. The anesthesiologist said that the effects of the spinal usually begin to wear off in an hour. What if my fears are coming true? What if I’m paralyzed? After the shock and trauma of the doctor’s news, this almost seems inevitable. Everything is already going to horribly wrong. A nurse comes and pinches my toes and pokes my legs. “Any feeling?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I reply
“Can you try to move your toes?”
I muster up all the strength I have into focusing on moving just one toe, but it seems useless. I can’t feel a thing. The fear is mounting. My upper body is still shaking.
“Keep trying,” she coaxes me.
I try with all my might, thinking once again that nothing is happening, but she says, “There! It moved a little.”
“Really, I still don’t feel anything.”
“It may take a little longer. I checked with the anesthesiologist, and he said sometimes it can take up to two hours for feeling to return.”
I am slightly relieved. At least I know my toe is starting to work again. The nurses start to discuss moving me up to my room. There are more surgeries taking place, and they need the recovery area cleared out for new patients. “When can I see my baby?” I ask again. I have to see him. I have to have some sense that a baby really was born. It all feels so surreal. They discuss wheeling my bed down to the NICU for a minute on the way to my room but decide against it. The morning is busy, and they all have much to do. I want to scream, “I don’t care how busy you are! Just let me see my baby!”
We reach my room on the third floor, and are left alone for a moment. Shawn’s and my eyes are wide with fear and uncertainty. We’re like two wounded animals trapped in a cage, wanting desperately to be set free. A heavy-set nurse with a kind face enters and introduces herself, giving us information and instruction, but I don’t really hear her.
I begin crying and ask, “When can I see my baby?”
She looks at me with compassion and says, “Well, you’re supposed to be on bed rest for a full 12 hours post surgery, but after you regain full feeling in your legs, I’ll get you in a wheel chair and take you down to the NICU. You’ll only be able to stay for 10-15 minutes, though, and then we have to get you back into bed. I’ll take you down one more time later this afternoon as well. “
I’m so thankful for her. Finally, someone is giving me an answer. I pray the spinal wears off quickly. The nurse leaves us alone, and the weight of what has just happened begins to press down on us. Shawn and I look at each other, and the tears begin to flow freely. Our entire world has been turned upside down.
Soon after Major Cheryl arrives. She walks into the room, eyes full of concern. I look at her and try to speak, but all that comes out is racking sobs. My body is still shaking. I still feel numb in my legs. I’ve never felt so completely out of control in my entire life. She begins crying as well, telling us she loves us and everything is going to be ok. I appreciate her presence and her tears of compassion, but her words feel so hollow. How can everything possibly be ok?