******Trigger Warning: Traumatic Birth*******
As she pulled my son from my body, the sound of silence was deafening. That iconic wail of a baby’s first cry was absent from our birth story. Instead, she laid a beautiful, blue-tinged little babe upon my chest and began to rub his limp body vigorously. It was in this moment that our world changed forever.
Through my haze I heard the midwife say, “Someone call 911.” With an escalating tension in her voice she instructed me sharply, “Tell your baby you love him! He needs to know you love him! Bring him into his body!” My shock followed the rising panic in the room, and I was rendered silent, unable to say anything to this brand-new human, my child, who was born without life.
The paramedics arrived and whisked him and my husband away and I was left with my thoughts, bewildered and scared. My midwife reassured me over and over again. “He’s going to be just fine. They’re going to give him a little help and everything will be just fine.” If only she had known how wrong those statements were. Maybe, she did.
Three hours later, a nurse wheeled me into a NICCU suite where a team of doctors worked over a tiny, still limp body, in a plastic bassinet. The look in my husband’s eyes will forever be etched in my mind. His broken heart poured out through his normally gleeful gaze; in a sadness I had never seen before.
“It’s bad babe. He’s not ok. It’s really bad.”
There are progressive levels of realization during severe trauma. Your mind tries to tell you it’ll be ok, but with each new piece of information you receive, the severity of the situation becomes more apparent. It is a slow and heart wrenching process of grief consuming hope. And it was the most agonizing experience of my life.
One of the nurses asked us, “Would you like to name him in case he doesn’t make it?” We hadn’t yet decided what to call him, but without hesitation I said, “Oliver. His name is Oliver.” And so, it was.
The days that followed were a blur. I stood beside my son’s bed, keeping watch over his fragile body, overcome with surges of emotion mixed with an eerie sense of numbness that almost felt like calm. My mind returned again and again to the hours before his birth. Why had my labor stalled for so long? What had caused all of those decelerations of his heart rate while I was in the birthing tub? Was he slowly being suffocated inside of me? Why had my midwife whispered to her assistant, but then shrugged and looked away when I’d asked her if everything was ok? Was I supposed to know that I needed to be transferred? What was that mention of meconium? Should I have had an emergency C-section? What had happened to my baby? Why wasn’t he breathing at birth?
Little did I know, I would spend the rest of my life asking these questions without ever receiving any answers.
Eventually, Oliver opened his eyes and I fell even more madly in love with this little boy I didn’t yet know. Still in shock, weak from giving birth, yet fully devoted to this being that my body had grown, I clung to my hope.
Unfortunately, though, hope does not change what has already happened. The lack of oxygen had caused a catastrophic injury and our future was absolutely unknown. Oliver spent 72 hours in a medically induced hypothermia to mitigate further brain damage. On the third day, they warmed him, and I stayed up into the early morning hours in anxious anticipation of that first warm embrace I’d give my child.
When that moment finally came, they painstakingly laid him in my lap, taking extra care to untangle all the wires and tubes that were attached to him. For the first 30 seconds, I was in a state of bliss and then the torture began. His body writhed, rhythmically, his right arm extending out to the side while his face turned in the opposite direction, mouth open and screaming. Every 30 seconds another round of agony began. He was in pain, unable to relax his body or sleep. He wasn’t soft, curled in and peaceful like other newborns I’d held. He was rigid, stuck in a neurological pattern of extension and dystonia, and I couldn’t do anything at all to sooth him.
By the time the sun rose that morning, my heart was more shattered than words could possibly describe. The night had brought wave after wave of realizations. Nothing was ok anymore. He wasn’t going to be fine. The life and dreams we had envisioned for our family were disintegrating before our eyes.
That morning, my soul wept in an anguish that I wouldn’t wish upon my greatest enemy. The pain was inescapable. I laid, curled in a ball, sobbing on the small couch in the corner of his room until my husband gently told me to go home and rest. He picked me up from my puddle of despair and set my body, empty of its heart, in a wheelchair. As he pushed me out of the room, I was inconsolable. Through blurry tear- filled eyes, I could see the nurses observing my sorrow. One came over to rub my shoulder, offer a few words of hope. But I was already gone. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I had left my body, desperate to escape an agony I was sure I wouldn’t survive.
I stayed away from the hospital for a full day. I tried to sleep but it was fitful rest, waking up over and over again, desperate to find out it was all a bad dream, but realizing again and again that it was not. I went to a farmer’s market that day and walked around in a fog, trying to behave like a normal human that I no longer was. I remember seeing a woman carrying a newborn baby in a pouch and how the grief and jealousy that arose literally brought me to my knees. “That should be meee.” I cried. “I gave birth too, but I didn’t get to bring my baby home. I didn’t get to feel that joy and happiness that we’re taught new mothers are supposed to feel. Why meee???? Why my baby??? Why did this happen to us??”
My natural conclusion in that moment, and one that I have revisited during many of my low points over the years, was that I was the reason this happened. My distrust of the allopathic medical world and the doctors who had failed me repeatedly throughout my life, had led me to the choice of a natural birth. I’d been totally confident about my decision, proud that I would save my baby from the bright lights and harsh environment of a hospital birth. But in the end, I had put my trust in a midwife who, despite her glowing reviews, was ill-prepared to safely handle an emergent labor & delivery. The guilt and shame of these choices engulfed me and led me to a deeper level of self-loathing than I had ever known. I was the one who failed my son. And that was an unforgivable error.
Over the next week, many of Oliver’s organ systems failed, more meds were added, more support was given. At one point, I remember looking around at all the different machines connected to him and marveling at the level of support this tiny baby needed to maintain life. At no time throughout this process, did anyone ask us if we wanted to continue to try to save him. And honestly, at this early stage of unknowns, I never could’ve made the impossible choice to let him go anyway.
At the end of the first week, we were called into a meeting room to discuss the results of Oliver’s MRI. Apprehensive, but focused on hope, I sat with baited- breath, awaiting our fate. The doctors tried to break the news gently, but there really wasn’t any sugar-coating the words they had to say.
“Your son sustained a massive, global brain injury. There is still a great deal of swelling, so we don’t yet have a final picture of its severity. But you need to know that we are seeing two distinct patterns of damage. One is the pattern that suggests Cerebral Palsy and the other is a pattern present in Mental Retardation.”
I didn’t think my world could implode any further than it already had, but once again, I was wrong. The walls of the small room suddenly felt like they were closing in on me.
I couldn’t breathe.
Cerebral Palsy? Mental Retardation?! Was that even a word that people used anymore?! With each passing moment I became even more irate at these idiotic humans with supposed medical degrees sitting across from us. I decided then and there that nothing they were telling us was true at all and that my son would make a complete and miraculous recovery. In later years, I’d come to realize that this was a totally appropriate and normal protective response and also one of the stages of grief, called Denial.
We remained in the hospital for the first 30 days of Oliver’s life. During our stay, we met our first palliative team, wrote Oliver’s first DNR and had impossible conversations about questions that have no answers. We waited and wondered and watched our child suffer in ways that no parent ever should and yet, somehow, we survived. All of us.
At 28 days old, Oliver had his first surgery to place a g-tube. It was a massive compromise on our morals. Before this experience, we’d been of the mindset that humans didn’t belong on tubes and machines and ‘artificial’ forms of life support. It’s ironic how easy it is to be sure of your morality until life throws a curveball at you in the form of your own child’s mortality.
We left the hospital beaten and battered but ready to begin our life in the outside world. As I have looked back over the years, on this picture of the beaming faces with their innocent smiles, I have marveled at how much we didn’t yet know.
Thankfully, we were still ignorant to the endless insurance battles, the many hospitals stays and the list of diagnoses that would fill our future. We had no idea how many pieces of equipment we’d learn to use or the vast clinical vocabulary we’d amass through navigating Oliver’s medically fragile life. And we certainly had no idea how many times we’d explode his g-tube feeding onto our bed/face/wall having, yet again, not closed the second port.
But along with all of the hardship, heartbreak and suffering, came a new perspective on life, a good, if not somewhat twisted sense of humor, deeper compassion for others and real, true friendships with people we’ve met along the way.
I realized, one day, that the name I had chosen in my moment of despair that first night in the NICU, Oliver, contained the word LIVE. And man, does Oliver live. He has traveled the country, hiked pristine wilderness trails and touched the hearts of people far and wide, including of course, my own.
I am not the person I once was. This Odyssey that Oliver leads continues to be the most powerful catalyst for change and healing that I’ve ever encountered. The beautiful boy has awakened the ferocity of my spirit and shown me the way of the warrior through his daily lessons of patience, love and perseverance in the face of great adversity.
This is our birth story. And, although Oliver’s birth injury is a part of our past, its repercussions live on in each present day as we face new challenges and adventures on this wild and unexpected path of life. These are the raw emotions still being processed and the scars that no one sees when they meet our family now, 6 years later.