This is part 2 in a 7 part series. Click here to go to Part 1.
I’m going to tell you about the moment I cried.
I don’t usually cry in emotional situations, as backwards as that sounds; I usually get emotional after the event and it often takes a while for those emotions to be realised. Sometimes, though, it’s all too much. The birth of Jonathon Walter – “Jono” – was one of those moments.
It’s easy to forget how serious – and potentially dangerous – the business of childbirth can be and I’m not afraid to admit that I was complacent the second time around.
Charlotte’s birth was not without drama, but I never felt we were in serious trouble. There was an issue of distress and every time Sarah had a contraction, Charlotte’s heart-rate dropped, but it was never to a point where I worried.
This time, after the nine months of antenatal classes, we’d had our final quick refresher on the birth ward. The nurses had discussed the birth plan, as well as the potential risks, but were quick to put us at ease, pointing out we were in the best possible place if anything did go wrong.
Without a doubt, they were right, but it was easy to forget that the risks were real.
The lecture about the red emergency button that would summon a posse of doctors to rush the patient out of the room felt like a script reading of Men In Black:
“Do you remember the little red button? Push the little red button. And you might want to fasten your seat belt.”
With Jono, they pushed the little red button.
We’d had to induce labour as the placenta was calcifying and causing some issues for the baby. So, we’d checked in at 6pm and prepared to be induced. We were advised of the potential hazards, but assured the chances of them occurring were slim.
The worst of those hazards was a prolapsed cord, where the umbilical descends before the baby’s head and becomes compressed. Because the baby’s blood flow and oxygen are restricted the result can be fatal.
That prolapse was exactly what happened.
And it was accompanied by the umbilical cord wrapping around Jono’s neck. Three times.
Our obstetrician – an amazing woman who I believe saved our son’s life – later likened the effect of the loop around the head to Jono having ”bungee jumped” in and out of the birth canal on every attempted descent.
I rushed into the birthing suite at 2:30am, having received the call from my wife half an hour before. I’d been at home trying to get some sleep, about 15 minutes’ drive away, as we weren’t expecting to see action until the morning. I arrived just in time to hear the nurse diagnose the prolapse; Jono’s heart was nearly stopping with every contraction.
They rolled Sarah on her side and attempted to disentangle Jono naturally, but it had no effect and they slammed the red button.
I had 30 seconds by Sarah’s bedside before about 10 doctors and nurses filled the room, disconnected the bed and rushed her to an operating theatre in preparation for an emergency C-Section.
An emergency C-Section in the event of a prolapsed cord is obviously different to a planned one, or even some other emergency situations, and requires the mother to be under general anaesthetic, while the partner is also restricted from being in the room.
So, there I was, left in an empty room to ponder the seriousness of the situation. When I say “left”, of course the hospital staff were amazing and quickly brought me up to speed and told me what to expect. But then there was silence.
Sarah and I are a pretty practical couple and even though a caesarean wasn’t in our plan, truth was we didn’t go in with a hard and fast birth plan for either of our kids; if painkillers and an epidural were needed, we were happy to have them, and while we preferred a natural birth, if a caesarean was going to be safer, we’d accept that also.
But now I had to no idea what to expect and knew Sarah would be as anxious as hell. Not only was it all happening to her, but I wasn’t there with her. Would she be okay? What were the risks? Would the baby be okay? Was he okay right now? Like, RIGHT NOW?!
I could hear radio chatter and nurses talking outside the waiting room. One-sided conversations are a dangerous thing for a curious journalist, but I could already tell something wasn’t right.
The nurse came in with scrubs after about 15 minutes and told me to put them on, they were taking me to see the baby, which had been delivered naturally.
Confusion reigned; I expected a C-Section? I thought I wasn’t allowed in the room? And why am I seeing the baby, not Sarah?
I got a quick run-down: they had been on borrowed time and mere seconds could have decided the fate of our son.
Our obstetrician had walked into the operating theatre just as the nurses were about to put Sarah under; she told them to stop, get the forceps and told Sarah to push as hard as she could.
She believed she could deliver Jono faster than a C-Section. She was right.
We rushed down the corridor as I peppered with questions the poor nurse, who had remained in the same ward as me the whole time and therefore had few answers, but one piece of information stood out: Jono was on a “resuss machine”.
My assumptions kicked in: you don’t resuscitate someone who’s already breathing.
I asked if he was alive and she couldn’t tell me. Sarah was fine, though. She could tell me that. That was probably even scarier, the fact she knew definitively that Sarah was fine, but couldn’t tell me about Jono.
We approached the theatre and the nurse’s radio crackled: “We might run into them before we get to the theatre,” she said.
Sure enough, a trolley rattled past seconds later and there was Jono, under a bright light, with a circular hose-end being pressed to his mouth. He looked blue.
The doctors ordered me to follow them. And, then, I heard a muffled cry.
I looked at the doctor: “Is he alive?”
“Yeah, he’s going great. That crying is a great sign. This is just to help him breathe. He’s breathing by himself, but the little guy’s been through a bit, so we’re helping to make it easier for him”.
Then, I cried.
I’d comprehended the seriousness of what was going on, but my mind had given me a nice shot of adrenaline, before switching to crisis control. It wasn’t going to let me take in the emotional side of it until the scenario was over – one way or another.
Seeing Jono breathe, hearing him cry and being told he was “going great”, and having also been told Sarah was fine, meant the scenario – at least, my role in it – was over.
I continued my third-degree questioning and I was told Jono was never without an oxygen supply, despite the constrictions of the cord.
That was a big moment for me. You see, my dad died of a heart attack in 2006 and, although machines helped him breathe for a period of time, a lack of oxygen for mere minutes had left him brain dead. I was stricken with the fear of a similar result when I heard about the “resuss machine”.
Thankfully, that fear was never realised.
Jono rapidly improved to the point where he was out of special care within a day-and-a-half – half the expected time – and he and Sarah were home within four days.
It’s been a rough week and the challenges since the birth have been tremendous, but we have our little man, I have my wife and Charlotte has her brother and mummy back home.
It could have been so much worse and, as someone with no experience in childbirth beyond being a parent, I never realised.
A nurse later said to me (paraphrasing): “If you have another one and run into troubles, at least you know it’ll never be as bad as this, because this was the worst case scenario”.
My mum always had a “gotcha” line she would use at times of trouble: she would ask if things were as bad as they could be and, if the answer was no, she would reply, “then it’s not as bad as it could be, is it?” If the answer was yes, she would reply, “then things can only get better”.
After a worst-case-scenario start, at least we know things can only get better from here. Still, it’s time for a scotch and a long sleep before Week 2 begins.
Part 3: Single parents deserve a medal