7 Minutes: The Unexpected Birth Story of Benjamin James
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
2020. A year of change, concern and uncertainty. For most of us, we didn’t know what to think about this “Coronavirus” and the two week hiatus we had to take from work, seemed like a welcomed holiday. I was teaching art to middle schoolers with exactly two weeks left to go before my due date with my third son. I was actually due on my birthday, May 2nd.
This was my second pregnancy with polyhydramnios, a condition where you have excessive fluid in the second half of the pregnancy, but this time it was slightly worse than the last. With my second son, I worked up until the day I delivered and I felt great, so I was planning on doing the same this time around but I definitely started to drag a bit at the end. This two week shut down couldn’t have come at a better time because it was going to run me right into my due date and I got a nice little break without having to use my days. Little did I know...
I had a scheduled induction, due to my condition, because the baby was breech for the last few weeks but he turned head down at the last minute. [The extra fluid allows them to move freely up until the end.] So, April 29th at 6am, they brought me in, much like the last time and prepared to induce. The only difference this time, was they didn’t do an ultrasound to confirm the baby’s position before starting the induction and before we knew it, just like that, I went from 1-4cm in about an hour or so. So, here I am, kicking back, feeling no pain, eating my snacks and smelling my essential oil sticks that the nice nurse in training gave me, when she and the head nurse both checked me to see my progress. They quickly left the room, only to return minutes later with the doctor and an ultrasound machine. Turns out, the head nurse didn’t think she felt the head...and she was right. The baby had turned sometime between the last appointment I had and me being induced. It could’ve happened while I had the epidural and I didn’t feel it, or it could’ve happened the day before. We’ll never know.
Having two, very active, little boys at home already [ages 1.5 and 3.5] and having had both vaginally, I really did not want to have a c-section with this one. I knew the recovery would be tough with them being so young and needy...and they’re not tiny children, so picking up a 30 lb one year old wouldn’t fly and you can’t not pick up a baby that young for weeks...just getting him in and out of the crib alone would be an issue and at some point my husband had to go back to work, or so we thought.
So, when the doctor’s first reaction to the ultrasound was to perform a c-section, I started to cry and asked if a version was an option. I had one with my last pregnancy, successfully. It’s typically performed by a high risk doctor who manually turns the baby, from the outside. It’s not at all pleasant, but worth the pain to avoid a cesarean. She agreed to call the high risk doctor up and get her input, to which that doctor said, “For the same reason your baby turned this late, makes you a good candidate for this to be successful.” This particular doctor performed my last version too, where I had no help with medication, at all. So, this time, with an epidural in me, I knew this would be cake! WRONG.
They attempted to roll the baby in a backwards motion, which is the lesser preferred direction, but it was also the shortest path to my cervix. The baby’s heart rate dipped, but turning on my side, taking in some oxygen for a few and my OB manually elevating him off of the umbilical cord got him right back to normal. They all left the room and I hung out for about 20 minutes to make sure he was 100% before they came back and tried it again. [My OB actually delivered another baby during this break from me!] This next attempt, they took the longer route, but rolled the baby in a forward roll, the preferred way.
Now, having this done before, I have my theories as to why things went south shortly after this next attempt. Hand positioning is everything with this procedure and you have to be delicate and precise. There’s a lot going on in there that you have to watch out for; you know, like organs, the baby, etc. It also helps to have knowledgeable professionals performing it. In my opinion, there should be a “team” of doctors, who roll at least two people deep, to perform these, since one has to “push” while the other “pulls”. Well, same as the first time, it was just the one doctor and whoever was willing to jump in, did! My OB made it very clear that she had never done this and asked for some tips. Similarly, the nurse that helped with my last pregnancy said the same and everything was great, so I wasn’t too alarmed. After all, she was an OBGYN with many years of experience. She had this, right? Again, WRONG.
She came at me with a CPR technique [opposite of how they should be] and pressed down right under my breastbone. I almost jumped off the table, numb legs and all. Remember, I had an epidural. Something hurt so bad, I thought she popped my diaphragm. I stayed strong, biting my tongue and they got the baby’s head to about 5 o’clock. While the high risk doctor gave him the extra push to 6 o’clock [right where he needed to be], my OB broke my water because she didn’t want to chance him turning right back around. I was so relieved, I was crying again. We did it. The baby tolerated it and now I just had to wait to dilate a few more centimeters and it was game on! So, with breaking my water, all this fluid has to go somewhere right? Well, it shot across the room like a dam opened up. I remember my OB making a joke about getting her pants dirty again and then shit got real.
The high risk doctor, who was monitoring the baby the entire time, noticed his heart rate dropping. No big deal, turn back on your side, oxygen on, give it a second. Nope. Other side. Nope. Better on the first side. The doc yells, “Turn! Turn back!” [All the while hand up there elevating the baby] Yells to prep the OR for a c-section. “Get on your hands and knees!” I position myself, still completely numb from the epidural, to lift myself up and flip over and as I raise myself up on an incline, the heart rate comes back up. “Hold it right there!” Ugh, thank god, I think to myself. I relaxed and took a breath. She yells to put a hold on the OR. Everyone starts laughing in disbelief. Little Bugger…It had been 7 minutes.
The elevated heart rate lasted for about a minute before it dipped again, which ended up being what helped save my son’s life. “Hands and knees!” she yells “Go! Drop to your elbows!” [At this point she’s up inside me again, elbow deep, trying to manually elevate the baby off of the umbilical cord, which is what I believe she thought was causing the problem. “Get on your head!” My husband is behind me watching this, shocked and awed, hand closed into a fist covering his mouth in disbelief. I’m feeling like something from National Geographic; an elephant pregnancy check or something. My husband, nurse in training, head nurse, OB and high risk doctor were all in the room. Somehow, there’s always a crowd when I’m going through something personal and “intimate.” Resident? Medical student who’s trying out Obstetrics? Random guy off the street? Bring it on, the more the merrier! Honestly, at this point I couldn’t have cared less who was there.
I heard her say I was hemorrhaging and then yell for the OR again. She flips me over on my back, throws a shower cap at me and tells me to cover my hair and just like that, I was the lead patient in a Grey’s Anatomy episode. Flat on my back, the overhead fluorescent lights whizzing past me repetitiously. I got the slightest glimpse of my husband in a yellow gown, frantically trying to put on booties, before I was rushed out of the room and into the OR. They transferred me to the operating table, strapped my arms down, sloppily draped that normally taught blue sheet in front of me. I remember it being uncomfortably close to my face because they didn’t have time to make it perfect. The anesthesiologist asked the doctor if he was putting me under. I heard, “There’s no time, just burst her with whatever you’ve got!” [Thank God for already having had that epidural] The doc says to me, frantically yet firmly, “Kelli, if you feel ANYTHING you HAVE to let me know!” ...and then she cut me open.
I felt every bit of it, not pain, but that things were happening. It was wild. I thought my husband was holding my hand, but turned my head to see it was a nurse. At that, I hear someone ask if anyone got Dad and the nurse ran out to grab Rob. They told him to stay where he was and someone would come get him...and then they forgot! In the meantime, I heard my doctor’s voice say “Baby’s out, he’s gray, he’s got to go!” and then he was gone. Rob comes rushing in, leaning down to be near my head, crushing my heart rate monitor and setting it off. He missed the whole thing. They were in such a hurry to close me up, they didn’t do a sponge count, but instead x-rayed me after. I was in there for 45 minutes but it felt like 4. From the time my OB made the final call for the c-section, to the time the baby was ripped out of me, it had been 7 minutes.
I don’t remember much else, only being in the recovery room all of a sudden, sitting up. The nurse in training was a doll and never left my side. Rob was gone, with the baby, I think. He had been taken to the NICU. I looked at the clock to see the time; it was 2:30pm. It occurred to me I didn't know what time my son had been born, so I asked. 12:21pm. TWO HOURS AGO?! I had absolutely no concept of time up to this point. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t brought me to see my baby yet! The nurse left and came back with a photo of my son, laying on his back, intubated, on a bag of ice. An arterial line already in his belly button to try and get as much blood from his cord back in him as they could. This was the first time I saw my son, two hours after having him, in a photo, like that...WTF happened?! I realized then, they had been stalling for time. They kept telling me I had to have feeling back in my legs before they would bring me in, but in the end, I was wheeled in on my recovery bed anyway. After all, I had just been violently gutted like a fish! I wasn’t walking anywhere!
My husband and I never got to hold him or really see him. He was facing away from us and already hooked up to IV’s and monitors by the time we got there. The head NICU doctor was on the phone calling for an ambulance to transport him to a nearby hospital with a NICU more capable of tending to him. We heard him yell “I don’t have 2 hours! Get it here now!” Umm, what?! WHY don’t you have two hours?! WHAT is going on?! Turns out there’s only two ambulances equipped to transfer infants and they were both out on other transfers up north. The closest one rushed back, the specialized team burst in, pointedly told my husband there was no time to explain all the paperwork, he vigorously signed it all, and off they went.
By now, I’m in my mommy/baby recovery room, [sans baby] anxiously waiting for them to bring him by so I could say goodbye [not yet knowing the severity of the situation]. Waiting, waiting...my husband comes in, alone. “They’re not bringing him by. They’re already gone.” I couldn’t believe it. I was already in the room when the ambulance arrived, so I missed the whole “pressed for time” conversation. I was so angry. I knew going into this practice that the NICU was only level 2, and that the level 3 was right around the corner in case we needed to be transferred. I just never thought I’d need it and I definitely never thought that, if we did, I wouldn’t be transferred with the baby! My husband gathered his things and left to be with the baby, leaving me indefinitely. With COVID, once you left, you couldn’t come back.
I got a call a few hours later from a Pediatric NICU doctor at the hospital the baby was sent to. She explained to me that the baby lost a ton of blood and oxygen, was critical and could potentially have brain damage. Come again? I held it together while she went on to explain that he would be undergoing a process where they would hook him up to a morphine drip and keep him on a cooling bed that brought his temperature down and held it there, to ultimately shut his brain and body down. This helped stop any brain damage in its tracks and prevent it from further damaging more tissue. He also had a build up of lactic acid, from the loss of oxygen [aka hypoxia] and so they had to give that time to leave his brain as well. He would stay cooled for 3 days before they switched the machine over and incrementally rewarm him back to normal body temperature. [Half a degree every 3 hours] He would need blood transfusions, plasma transfusions, platelet transfusions, IVs of antibiotics, nutrition [because he was obviously not eating]. He was on a ventilator and couldn’t be touched or spoken to. NO STIMULATION. He would be hooked up to an EEG, EKG and have CT Scans to monitor him for any seizure like activity [common with this cooling process], and check his lungs and heart. “Any questions?” She asks. Uh, ya think?!
So here I am, alone in this “mommy/baby” room, again, no baby...PUMPING to get my milk to come in and build/maintain a supply. I just had major abdominal surgery so I can’t get up AND I don’t have my husband, or anyone to help me! I felt like I had my appendix out. It was so awful. The nurses were ok, but I had to call them to come set up my pump for me, pump for 20 min and then call them back to pack up my colostrum and clean my pump for the next time. One time the nurse said she’d come, then never did and my precious production went to waste. All night I was poked and prodded. They had to check my platelet count by taking blood, at 4am, to see if I needed any blood [I did not]. It was just awful. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. In the meantime, I got the all clear to eat anything I wanted, so I ordered all of it and tried to eat my feelings through grilled cheeses and milkshakes and anything else fried that I could get my hands on...and then I violently threw all of it up. Twice. That was fun with the newly stitched up wound across my stomach. Lesson learned.
The next morning, as I’m scratching off whatever skin was leftover from the night before, because I was reacting to the drugs they had me on, another doctor from my practice came to see me and explained her theory; that when they broke my water, the large amount of fluid created such a forceful gush, that it ripped my placenta right off the uterine wall; a placenta abruption. [A known side effect of having polyhydramnios] and that’s what caused the bleeding and oxygen loss.
She laughed as she scolded me for eating so much, told me the delivering OB was upset and shaken up, said I could leave after I peed and hit 24 hours from delivery and went about her day. The nurses tried to encourage me to stay for 4 days after what had happened, but I hit my limit when I went to get something out of my bag and saw the baby’s homecoming outfit in there. I didn’t even shower. I got up, peed and literally walked myself to the car, where my husband was waiting like it was a curbside pickup for takeout, because he wasn’t even allowed in to help me out.
The first thing we did was go home so I could kiss and hug my little guys [who did not understand why Baby Ben wasn’t with me], and so I could shower and go up to see Ben in the NICU. Well, the shower curtain and rod fell down on me and I seriously underestimated how swollen I would be after this delivery. I looked like Tim Allen from The Santa Claus, in my new, “chic”, matching sweat suit I bought from Lou and Grey to wear home. It was a great start to day 2. As I cried, tearing through my wardrobe, desperate to find anything that fit, I relied on the underlying humor of the day’s events so far to lighten the mood and had a quick but much needed chuckle with my husband, before reality set in.
You think NICU baby and you think preemie. At least we did. You think NICU baby and you think parents [plural] who don’t leave the baby’s side, day and night, a special room designated for them. Not now. Again, because of COVID, visiting hours were limited, only one of us was allowed IN THE HOSPITAL at a time and once we left, we couldn’t go back until the next day. Naturally, after having the surgery I did, I couldn’t drive myself. I wasn’t allowed. And I wasn’t going to make my husband wait in the car for 12 hours while I visited. After all, he wanted to see the baby too, we had the other two at home waiting for us and we were no longer right around the corner from our charming little hospital. Now, going to see him was a daily event that we had to block out a few hours for. So, for the next two weeks, we took turns going up to the NICU for an hour or so a day, we took turns seeing our son for the first time; laying on a cold bed, motionless, exposed and alone, hooked up to a million different tubes, monitors, IVs, machines etc, without each other to lean on, hug or fall into crying. We took turns hearing good news and bad. We took turns holding our baby for the first time, nearly two weeks after he was born, without each other there to document it. I started scheduling my visits to be at a time I was due to pump, and would do so at his bedside. I nursed my baby for the first time, almost two weeks after he was born...alone. And the day I heard the best news of my life, the moment we were waiting for, holding our breath...that his MRI came back normal and there was no evidence of brain damage...I was alone.
In the spirit of keeping the theme, I spent my time there, cried and hugged my baby, still hooked up to oxygen and whatever else was left, handed him back to his nurse and calmly walked down to the car where Rob awaited his turn. I said nothing. I let him go up and get the news himself, first hand, from the wonderful nurse who took such good care of our little warrior from day one. I just felt, if we couldn’t experience that anticipated moment together, he should at least get to experience it how I did. To feel his legs get weightless under him and have to ask her to repeat herself for fear of mishearing the information. Don’t get me wrong, we would have loved this baby no matter what the outcome and we were more than prepared to do so. It was just different knowing that he didn’t have any issues in the womb and that I kept him safe and healthy until the bitter end, only for this to go down how it did. His nurse told me that she belonged to my practice and would have delivered at the quiet, quaint little hospital I had...until she walked into the first day of her job as a NICU nurse and saw all of the full term babies, because she too, associated the NICU with preemies. She switched shortly thereafter to a practice that delivered at the hospital with the level 3 NICU.
Now, over the course of Ben’s two weeks there, he successfully completed the cooling and rewarming process, it took a minute for his body [organs, processes etc] to kick back into gear afterwards and start to work again, but it did and he learned how to suck on a pacifier while getting my breast milk through a feeding tube, so he could associate the feeling of being full with sucking. Eventually, he learned how to suck, swallow and breathe as they introduced a bottle and after he did that successfully for a few feedings, they allowed me to nurse him! It was around this time that every day we went in, something was removed from him until he was left with just the oxygen or CPAP. Everyday got better and better. He had some setbacks along the way, which were super aggravating, yet “expected” for this process...I still didn’t want to hear it. All I wanted to do was get him home. The final straw that nearly broke the camel’s back was being told, for the second time, that we could take him home and then his potential apnea kept him there for another two days. We were told we’d have to bring him home on a monitor 24/7 for four weeks. He ended up passing the test and they deemed it safe for him to be discharged without the monitor. HALLELUJAH! So after a birthday and mother’s day came and went without all my children under one roof, we finally got to take Ben home to meet his brothers on May 12, 2020.
What a whirlwind! I felt horrible guilt for pushing so hard to avoid the c-section. The irony in the whole situation is that, had I gone ahead with a scheduled one, cool calm and collected, this would have never happened! Although the whole basis of this post is about the unexpected, right? Still, it took a long time for me to make right with myself about it. All I kept thinking was I put this beautiful little miracle baby at risk, for the sake of my other two, because all I worried about was not being the best mother I could to them, if I was incapacitated for weeks. And in the end, I wound up with a c-section recovery, worse than normal, anyway. That’s what I get for trying to control everything.
Fast forward to just about 3 months after this horrific day and our big guy is happy, healthy and seemingly hitting all of his milestones. He wakes up every day with a smile on his face and gets mad as hell when the other two don’t let him nap. It takes a lot to check ourselves on a daily basis when the 3.5 year old is trying our patience or the toddler is somehow climbing on the counter when I’m trying to nurse the baby. We have to stop and say, we asked for all of this, we’re lucky we have this and it’s going to go by so fast, we need to soak it all in now. We find ourselves, every so often, watching Ben as he grows, smiling and laughing at his big obnoxious brothers, saying, “Remember he almost died?!” Now, those 15 days that seemed like they had no end in sight, seem like a lifetime ago and it feels like we’ve had him forever. Sometimes we forget that we missed the first two weeks of his life when a monthly anniversary comes up so quickly. After two mostly normal and routine deliveries, we went into this one thinking it would be a cake walk and it was anything but. It tested our marriage, it tested our boys and their level of awareness, our 3 year old all but would climb on the roof and jump off to get our attention if we started talking about the baby or the doctors...and it certainly tested our strength.
I am thankful for the doctor kicking it into high gear when the pressure got real and saving his life by getting him out so quickly. We were told 10 minutes without blood and oxygen is when they really "go down the tubes". We had 3 left to spare. I am thankful for the head NICU doctor who got that extra cord blood back into our son and knew to start the cooling process using ice, while we waited for the ambulance. I am thankful for the team who rushed back to transfer our son and got him to the new NICU and on that cooling bed at hour 5, when we only had 6 before it was too late. I am thankful for science and the crazy process that helped our baby recover. I learned that the human body is an amazing thing but no matter how much modern medicine we have, we truly have zero control over it. Most importantly, I learned just how strong I am, even when I felt I was at my weakest. I am now and forever will be a part of the NICU mom’s club and while everyone’s story is different, they are all our own. It changes you. Some for the better, some for worse. Some have happy endings, like mine and some do not and that breaks my heart. Nobody should have to go through what so many moms [and dads] have to go through, during a time when it should be the happiest of their lives. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I truly believe that, regardless of how it may present itself in the end.
But, I’m real. I have my good and bad moments as a mom of 3 under 4. I get stressed. I get frustrated. I get sad about how stressed and frustrated I get. I wonder if I’m doing a good enough job. Then, I think of my friend who just delivered her perfect baby girl, alone in a dark hallway, unexpectedly, and I remember how truly strong a woman is. We are warriors. Our bodies go through so much with everything working out perfectly, let alone all these crazy stories you hear. I told my friend, she trumped me, with what she just went through and she responded by saying, “Nah, I just joined your club.”