The Blue Chair

September 8, 2008

Gingerly I walked through the doors that said “OPERATING SUITES – AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY – NO ADMITTANCE”. They were odd automatic doors. The right one opened away from me, the left one toward me. I followed a perky nurse named Cari, a tired but spunky nurse anesthetist who was near the end of a 24-hour shift, and a hospital bed carrying my wife and unborn son. Our mission: to get Brenden out. The time was 1:30am. It was eerily quiet.

The contractions had gotten serious around 7am the previous day. I lay blissfully asleep and unaware while my wife doubled over and froze every 10 minutes all morning. At some point I hauled myself out of bed and wandered in to see her leaning over the couch and breathing hard. Maybe today was the day! And I just slept through the first chapter! This was not a good start to my fatherhood.

As planned before the contractions got serious, we had lunch with my grandparents and mom. We’d planned to eat at a local Mexican restaurant, since supposedly spicy food can induce labor, but since we were already in labor, we decided not to go there and have Jenny’s water break all over the tile. Instead, Mom picked up Taco Bueno, Jenny’s last meal before birth. By the time lunch was over, the contractions had broken the magical five-minute barrier, so we hugged the fam goodbye temporarily and drove to the hospital.

Our room wasn’t ready yet. I guess there’s no official checkout time from a delivery room. So we wandered the halls, stopping every 4-5 minutes to contract and breathe funny. Finally we got our room. Our awesome nurse, Teri, checked Jenny out and said we could stay, which meant this baby was coming out one way or another. It also meant we didn’t have to do the walk of shame back to the car because we’d come too early. She was at about 2cm. There’s nothing like childbirth to get people thinking about a woman’s cervix, an area many men might not even know exists. Apparently Jenny’s water was broken, but they weren’t sure when it had occurred. Just in case it had happened a couple days before, Teri fired up some pitocin. We’d hoped to avoid pitocin, but given the circumstances, we were OK with it.

Pitocin works, if by “works” you mean “makes your wife want to cuss and scream in pain.” By now most of our immediate family had arrived. Since labor contractions are normally only seen in movies, they tend to make onlookers stare in curiosity. So each time Jenny is in great pain AND being stared at like an exhibit at the science museum. It didn’t help the pain. Meanwhile, with the whole family staring, my job was to rub Jenny’s bare lower back. As you probably know, this area was just north of her butt, which means I appeared to be massaging her butt in front of her dad, the same guy who had threatened to kill me if I ever hurt his daughter. Finally Jenny told them to talk amongst themselves, which they did in the same way a driver keeps driving past an accident scene while checking out the carnage from the corner of his eye.

Blissful relief arrived around 6pm in the form of Jill, the nurse anesthetist. By that point Jenny would have happily signed both Brenden and me over to Jill in exchange for the epidural. Within a few minutes, Jenny became a new woman with hardly a care in the world. Unfortunately, it also started causing large drops in her already low blood pressure. Teri tried moving Jenny into different positions to fix it, but the pressure drop and new positions weren’t very comfortable for Brenden, and his heart rate started vacillating. Then we started getting more bad news: Jenny’s cervix had decided 7cm was about the right place to stop. 7cm might have been OK for a preterm baby, I don’t know, but for a potentially large baby like ours, it wasn’t going to work. Meanwhile, each contraction kept ramming little Brenden’s head into Jenny’s cervix without making it dilate as intended. His heart rate kept climbing toward the high end of the acceptable range. He was getting tired of this.

By midnight, some of the family had gone home for a nap or curled up in the room, unaccustomed to such late hours and unsure when the journey would end. All of us were numb and growing nervous. Teri, who was staying with us past her scheduled shift until the law made her leave, didn’t like the patterns on the monitor and the lack of progress. I started wondering how much more Brenden could take. I wondered how much more the rest of us could take.

The delivery room was very quiet and shadowy, with all of us locked in our own thoughts and not really sure what to say. Those thoughts grew darker as the clock ticked. My goal was to stay calm. I had to be a rock for Jenny to help her through this. She’s normally a rock herself, but this was new territory for both of us. I had to be a rock for the family as well. A panicking husband wouldn’t help the situation a bit. They had to know I was strong enough to be there for Jenny and for our son once he arrived. My insides were in a blender, but I prayed hard and kept the lid on.

Cari, one of the night shift nurses, arrived to get a briefing from Teri so she could take over. She didn’t like what she heard, either. The four of us discussed our options and agreed to a c-section if that’s what the doctor approved. They dialed up the on-call ob/gyn, who was covering for our normal doctor while he was on vacation, and convinced her to come up to check on Jenny. Dr. Dominique arrived, obviously tired but ready to work, and we all decided it was time to go in after him.

I told the family the latest, as I’d done a few times that day. I’d never been called to deliver medical news to a group of people before. I almost felt like the doctor I’d dreamed of becoming as a boy. This time my heart was racing a bit as I summoned them from the waiting room to come back and, well, it felt like kissing her goodbye, but that was way too morbid. Although a c-section is absolutely routine, it’s still major surgery with a risk of various problems. So there’s always that small chance in the back of your mind that it might be goodbye. Millions of women had died in childbirth over the centuries before c-sections became a safe and viable option. We’d come a long way, but mothers still died in 2008, and so did babies. The family seemed to understand the seriousness of the situation but also seemed surprisingly calm, almost relieved that the path was chosen and the end in sight.

I put on my paper scrubs over my clothes as the family was leaving, including those goofy shoe covers that seem like a slip hazard due to their lack of traction. When the time came, Jill and Cari started wheeling Jenny down the quiet hall toward the operating room with me following like a really tall lost puppy. Finally the weird doors to the operating ward opened. Jill took Jenny to the left to prep for surgery. Cari sent me to the right and pointed me to a lonely blue chair in the hallway. “We’ll come for you when we’re ready”, she said before disappearing into the OR.

I sat in that blue chair for perhaps ten or twenty minutes. Except for Cari and Jill’s coming and going at the other end of the hall, it was very quiet. A female housekeeper briefly emptied trash bins nearby in the recovery area, just like they did about this time in my own office while I was working. Except for those distractions, I was painfully alone with a million different thoughts, prayers, and fears:

In a few minutes, my life is about to change forever, all because of a tiny little person that Jenny and I made with help from God’s miraculous power. I can only think of two other instances when I so clearly recognized that the next few moments would be so life-changing: when I sat down on the beach in Panama City, Florida to accept Jesus as my savior on June 23, 1992, and while I waited at the altar for Jenny to enter the room on January 4, 2003.

Dear Lord, please help the doctor and nurses do this right. Keep Brenden and Jenny safe. Help us not to be afraid.

Beyond the ability to pray, I feel absolutely powerless and completely out of place. I’m banished to this sterile hallway because I’d be in the way in the OR, but that’s exactly where I want to be. I want to know what’s going on. I want to hold Jenny’s hand. I want to see Brenden’s monitor. I want someone to tell me he’s going to be OK. No one had done that because they couldn’t guarantee that, which scared me.

If it would somehow cost every cent I have to save him, I would absolutely pay it. Life-changing, life-and-death moments are a great way to get your priorities straight.

I know Jenny’s going to be okay, but is she REALLY going to be okay? Will I have to raise Brenden alone? Will I still have either one of them after tonight?

Holy cow, we are about to be parents!

Finally Cari came and said it was time. I entered the OR, which was smaller than I expected after watching Dr. Nick do heart surgery on The Simpsons. They’d hung a large blue sheet between Jenny’s chest and belly so she couldn’t see the action. I was right on the border, so if I leaned I could see pieces of the action but didn’t have to see a thing. Jenny seemed surprisingly calm for someone who was about to get sliced open and have her distressed baby removed while fully conscious. I held her hand. We talked a little, about what I can’t remember.

At some point they started. It just took a few minutes. I was fascinated by everything around me. Had it been someone else under the knife, I would’ve wanted to watch the whole thing from a better seat. But this time I didn’t try too hard.

My first clue was Jill, who said, “Look at that bald head!” I couldn’t see him until they cut the cord and brought him around toward the incubator. For months prior, when I envisioned Brenden’s birth, I expected myself to cry. He would emerge from Jenny somehow, immediately squirming and crying, and I would well up and share a moment with Jenny. Instead, the first time I saw him, he was an ashy blue-purple color. No crying. Not really any movement. I was too scared to cry and couldn’t take my eyes off him. I didn’t want to look at Jenny. Three nurses went to work, one quickly suctioning fluid from his mouth and lungs. Apparently they used a handheld respirator on him a couple of times, but I don’t remember that part. I just kept telling him in my mind, Breathe. Breathe, little guy. Come on. Breathe.

Finally, a weak little noise, almost too pathetic to be called a cry. But it was sound that came from his throat, which meant some air was getting in. The nurses kept working, sucking fluid out, wiping him off, checking vitals. Finally they wrapped him up and handed him to me. He was finally ours. He was so tiny and felt so fragile, so utterly helpless and completely dependent on us and the nurses. It was both a huge relief and a bit scary to hold him. After wondering whether he would make it, holding him felt surreal. I showed him briefly to Jenny, who told him hi and smiled at him. I peeked around the curtain at Jenny’s belly, which looked like an autopsy scene from CSI, covered in blood and weird unidentifiable tissues that are normally on the inside. Not wanting to pass out while holding my newborn son, I looked away.

Then they had me walk down to the nursery zoo window to show the family while they sewed Jenny up. As I walked, I remember being terrified I would slip in those goofy shoe covers that have no traction and drop him. But I didn’t. We rounded the corner.

Our immediate family was there in the window, all smiles and cameras. I walked carefully, trying to hold him up enough for them to see. The flashes started. I felt like a movie star, even though I knew I definitely was not the star of the pictures. Brenden seemed confused by the real world, squinting a bit, squirming, and whimpering. I kissed his cheek, feeling a bit like Federer kissing his first Wimbledon trophy. This long, long journey was over, and a fantastic new one had just begun.