Harper Jean Hedge’s first real-life photograph.
The lieutenant with the strange accent was getting concerned. His nurse had been poking and prodding with a 16-guage needle, trying to make a pathway for an intravenous feed, into Hailey’s hand.
“Holy shit!” Hailey whimpered.
Over and over, the nurse kept saying how sorry she was for the pain, and the lieutenant, a youngish looking doctor in scrubs with a brass nametag gave her a stern look. She stopped fishing for the elusive veins, buried deep under the swollen flesh of 41 weeks of pregnancy.
The lieutenant left the room, muttering something about having already admitted us for induction under what sounded like an Eastern European brogue. This was the first we’d heard of it. We asked the nurse what was going on, and she explained matter-of-factly that the IV, for which the lieutenant had left our room for a more skilled finder of blood vessels, was there to administer electrolytes because Hailey wouldn’t be eating during labor.
Wait, what? Hailey and I had just driven the 40 minutes of highway – which took us an hour longer than normal because of a poorly planned construction project in a tunnel under a black watery expanse between two Virginia peninsulas – because she hadn’t felt the baby move for a day. We just wanted to check in, make sure everything was OK.
The nurse told us that, whatever our intensions, Hailey’s blood pressure had been measuring too high for comfort and, because she was past full term, it fell within the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center’s blanket policies to induce. Hailey gave me a pleading look that said: I’m not ready for this!
“I’m so scared,” she said. “We shouldn’t have come in tonight; I’m so sorry for making us come in.”
Hailey coos at Harper for their first skin-to-skin contact.
I felt the same way, not ready either. But Hailey was 41 weeks pregnant. We chatted and reasoned that this wasn’t going to be any different than what the hospital had planned for us a week and a half prior – an appointment to induce on Nov. 24, this fast-coming Saturday. If we induced today, she’d be done. She’d been waddling around our apartment complex, eating spicy foods and bouncing up and down to induce the labor naturally, and no method worked. She was done with the pregnancy. Now was the time. In retrospect – and contrary to a form given us to sign by the hospital stating the facility’s voluntary adherence to a federal policy allowing patients to refuse certain types of care – I’m convinced that we didn’t have much of a choice. Had we fought, went my thinking, the doctors would have taken over.
A former first-class hospital corpsman came into the room with a bunch of sticking equipment and gave us his resumé: “I’ve been doing this for a long time, but no promises.” It was the first of many identical statements we’d hear over the subsequent hours. He tried and couldn’t find a satisfactory vessel. They were all too deep, except for one in the crook of Hailey’s right arm, which they didn’t want to use because its awkward placement would make it more difficult for her to hold the baby when it would be born.
In total, four technicians failed to find an adequate vein, until a man with a beard and some reassuringly funny voices finally decided the elbow vein was the only viable option.
The nurses were shocked at the size of Harper’s feet.
Hailey shook and tears flowed until doctors and nurses deluged Hailey with information, understanding nods and personal anecdotes. Hailey started to calm and found her breath again. I went to sleep. At about 2:30 a.m., they inserted a water balloon against her cervix, which would, as it expanded, force dilation and introduce doses of Pitocin, a synthetic version of Oxytocin, the hormone that inspires the uterus to contract. She didn’t feel any contractions, and the baby kept moving. The nurses had to keep adjusting the fetal monitoring straps to other positions and tighter, until Hailey couldn’t sleep. She had a blood pressure sleeve on her left arm hooked up to a monitor that buzzed and tightened the sleeve every 15 minutes. The staff inserted a catheter to sample her urine.
“I didn’t work at all,” Hailey told me later. “It was really uncomfortable.”
But the labor was not an intense one. On the ubiquitous 1-to-10 pain metric medical professionals use to guesstimate how bad a patient is hurting, Hailey said she only went above a 5 three times, one of them when the first nurse tried and failed to insert the IV.
“That felt like someone was killing me, like, in my hand,” Hailey said. “My body just went into mini-shock.”
Debbie McDonald meets her first granddaughter.
Besides that, it was a relatively peaceful 15 hours in a comfortable room away from home, given that Hailey didn’t sleep but for two hour-long naps. Hailey felt contractions, which waxed more intense for about three hours. She started worrying that the anesthesiologist wouldn’t be in in adequate time to administer an epidural, a spinal catheter that would make way for a numbing agent for the bottom half of her body. But he made it in time. The epidural was a thin, wire-looking tube that snaked over her shoulder, taped along the way and plunged into a hole in the small of her back. The lieutenant commander who threaded the needle for the catheter said it went directly into her spinal cord, a conduit for a local anesthetic regulated by a wall-mounted machine that looked like an electrician’s multimeter and about the same size, with a yellow, numbered keypad.
MIDDAY AND IN early afternoon, Hailey drifted in and out of sleep.
Debbie held Harper so Hailey and I could catch up on some much-needed slumber.
In a big halo around the entire top end of her body, the machines in the room produced a peaceful cadence of beeping and buzzing once the nurses left the room. But the melody was not unbroken; child labor is not supposed to be a relaxing experience. The nurses – some naval officers, some civilian government employees – scurried about making sure the various electronic devices measuring vital signs of Hailey and the child, a number of catheters and intravenous feeds were in working order and placed correctly.
On one of their missions, the nurses woke her up to insert another catheter, this one urethral. Hailey complained of pressure. The nurse asked her to rate her pain on the 1-to-10 scale.
“Maybe a 1,” Hailey said.
The epidural was working. Hailey kept grabbing a cylindrical clicker and pressed a button at the end. The multimeter-thing beeped three times and administered a dose.
“The man with the epidural deserves very large thank-you card,” Hailey said. A nurse with very dark features later confirmed that the anesthesiologists are among the most popular staff among the patients for their magic.
Harper is very big.
Still in and out of consciousness, Hailey kept saying weird things with no frame of reference, like she was high. “What shirt are you wearing?” “Do you drink a lot of water when you’re at work?” “I feel so doped up.” She also kept referring to a mechanical noise that sounded vaguely like a cat’s meow. “Is there a cat in the room?” The drugs, however were local ones that didn’t affect her sobriety. A nurse said Hailey was just overtired.
“This is much different than going into labor on your own,” another nurse said.
Hailey started making deep Oooohs and Aaaahs. The contractions started getting more intense.
“It’s like a trash compactor in there,” Hailey said.
Morning became afternoon and afternoon became evening, and Hailey lay on the mechanically reclining hospital bed. As she got closer, the nurses would reach in to check her cervix – 6 centimeters dilated, 60 percent effaced, 0 station; 6, 80, 0; 7, 90, 0-plus-1 station.
A Navy hospital corpsman checks for an adequate pulse.
Hailey threw up four times into blue plastic bags with rigid cylindrical cuffs at the top. The final vomiting was only water and bile; nothing was in her stomach. The nurses said vomiting during labor is helpful because it puts pressure on the contracting uterine muscles.
But despite the vomiting, for about two hours in the early afternoon, she made no progress. During pregnancy, Hailey and I had been growing skeptical of baby delivery in hospitals because of the industry it has become. Their credo: get the patient in, get the baby out, as quickly as possible. We’d seen a documentary and read literature proving that often, doctors decide to start administering Pitocin to women who are already in labor to “speed things along.” The drug makes the uterus contract more violently than it would naturally, which can cause the woman to elect for an epidural. The epidural makes it more difficult for the woman to push cogently, so, in the interest of time, the doctor advises a cesarean section, an operation in which surgeons cut through the woman’s skin and organs and pull the baby out through the hole manually.
It’s very important to note that this cookie cutter description – which I’ve noted in a previous article – is oversimplified, and that many hospitals around the country have strong policies against performing C-sections unless they’re absolutely necessary. And many of the sometimes trigger-happy institutions that do large numbers of C-sections are just looking out for patient safety – to prevent death from complications like a placenta that’s blocked the cervix or a baby who is simply too big to fit through the birth canal. But many others do it almost as a matter of course because C-sections can provide a strong legal defense for the respective institution in case of a disaster’s pending litigation. Also, the operation has become increasingly popular in circles of high society, with many celebrities of late scheduling C-sections for their babies.
So it justly freaked us out when the doctor who informed us that Hailey was not making progress suggested the possibility of a C-section. She told us she was induced with twins and didn’t have an epidural, while she explained the staff’s pondering of the surgery. “That’s why we have this lovely drug called Pitocin,” she said, explaining the drug’s properties and how medical staff administer it. With her hand inside Hailey, she gave us another resumé: “I’ve been putting the scalpel electrode on for 12 years.” The staff could no longer monitor the baby’s vital signs with external instruments because the baby kept moving. The electrode was stuck to the top of the baby’s head, along with another device that measured the intensity of Hailey’s contractions to determine whether a C-section would in fact be necessary.
Hailey gave me the same pleading look she had when the lieutenant and his assistant started jabbing her with needles. “I really don’t want a C-section,” she said. Again, neither did I.
The doctors left us for two hours, until they would come back for another measurement. We reasoned to ourselves that if this hospital were looking to rush us through as part of some corporate MO to turn a profit, it already would have performed the operation.
My new family, minus a dog.
HAILEY’S EYES GOT big and her breath bated as doctors and nurses invaded her with their hands, reaching toward – seemingly to – her throat, and her flesh swallowed their hands and wrists. They would say variations of, “OK, you’re gonna feel my touch here,” as they shoved forward. Hailey would sharply intake air, and they would say, “OK, lots of pressure now.” Then, invariably they’d look with an academic pensiveness into the wood flooring of the room and say, “I think – well – I don’t know … I need another doctor’s opinion.” Then, they’d make their diagnosis.
“Her cervix is pretty much gone,” one said. “We’re gonna give it about an hour and then we’ll start pushing.”
Another noted, “Nine and 0, 0-station 9; not too bad; maybe we can push now.”
It felt so close and so far away.
Hailey kept pressing the button for the epidural drug, as nurses and doctors offered ironic and sometimes conflicting support: “Just gotta let your body and nature work together.” “That’s why we have this wonderful drug called Pitocin.” The nurse kept walking into the room to look at a little screen that told her something about the baby’s vital signs. She had gradually upped the drug from a hazy numeric metric of “1” all the way up to “16” – “We can go up to 20,” she said – to increase the intensity of the contractions to better dilate Hailey’s cervix and prevent a C-section.
Playing with a human bobbly head.
Half an hour went by before the docs came back ready to go to work. Hailey was getting very hungry, not having eaten for about 23 hours. She begged for crackers.
“I promise I won’t poop it out,” she said.
She was getting toward the end of her patience.
“They should make a way to simulate labor – like in a safe way – so they can use it to teach teens abstinence or safe sex,” she said. “Because you have to be in it to win this shit.”
As shifts changed, new hordes of medical personnel who in any other circumstance would have seemed offputtingly friendly and compassionate came in to ask her how she was doing and to say they might be in the room when the baby came out.
The labor was never messy, frenetic or chaotic until about a 10-minute period at the beginning of the pushing stage. The nurse gave a word of advice, with an empowering tone: “Concentrate on pushing like it’s your biggest bowel movement ever; don’t think about anything else. Seriously, we see everything.”
Deep blue eyes, and a belch.
Hailey was apprehensive. I can’t say I wouldn’t have been even worse; I just kept thinking about lots of research I’ve read that suggests that a man could not endure the same level of stress a woman does during her travail. She was close. A doctor walked in the room at 8:21 p.m. and said the pushing would start now.
“I really hope that I can puke before I have contractions. I can’t believe I’m about do this! I have a 7-day-old child inside of me!” Hailey said.
The nurse, after preparing all the equipment, came to the bed and got the stirrups ready, propped Hailey’s legs into them and waited for a contraction. The first one hit, and the nurse started barking orders and encouragement: “Deep breath, chin to chest and push! Don’t let any of the air out of your lungs! Don’t grunt!”
Ten seconds at a time, three pushes a contraction, and after two, Hailey was exhausted.
“I can’t do this!” she exclaimed, most likely in concert with hundreds or maybe thousands of other women around the world going through a very similar experience at that precise moment. The pleading look. The nurses had me place an oxygen mask on Hailey’s face between pushing. The only chiding Hailey dished out was telling me she couldn’t breathe when I helped her hold her chin to her chest. “I’m OK, but please don’t do that!” That’s all there was; no You did this to me! moments.
Fifteen minutes and several contractions into the pushing, an intense determination came into her face. “Breathe deep, keep breathing, get the baby out. Breathe deep, keep breathing, get the baby out,” she chanted. The nurses had me push up on her right leg to counter Hailey’s pushes.
Sweet Dee was immediately protective, if slightly over-interested. “No licking!” will certainly become an even more common command in the Hedge household.
“You’re making progress. It’s millimeters at a time, but it’s progress,” said the doctor, who had now entered the room.
Pretty soon, they said it was just one last contraction, maybe two big pushes, and the baby would be out. They dismantled the posterior end of the bed, placed catching apparatuses on it and raised it high. The contraction hit, Hailey pushed, the baby’s chin popped past the pelvic bone, past the fleshy opening and the kid fell out, like a pile of squirming sausages, into the doctor’s arms. Rivulets of blood seemed to entwine the kid’s white skin, as it started screaming and the doctor clamped the umbilical cord. She pulled the cord from my line of sight.
“It’s a girl,” I told Hailey.
Take your pick: balloon vomiting escargot, or Harper’s umbilical.
THE DOCTORS TOOK Harper Jean Hedge to a machine that measured her: 10 pounds, 3 ounces and 22 inches. I took a picture of the electronic screen displaying this information. When I turned around, the doctor was fiddling around with clamps and a suture needle between Hailey’s still-spread legs with concerned look on her face, and onto the blood spattered wood splashed a small waterfall of blood – a bloodfall. It spilled from Hailey, ran down a crease in the white sheets and cascaded to the ground, in stunning bright red.
I rushed to Hailey’s side, and the doctor’s sweating, concerned brow came into view.
“Am I gonna be OK?” Hailey kept asking.
“Oh, yes, of course!” the doctor kept saying to her, only to turn to a colleague and spew a bunch nasty-sounding medical jargon. “I think we need to get her to O.R. for better viewing.”
After about 15 minutes, the baby had left the room with a gaggle of hospital staff. I hadn’t even gotten a good look at her. Hailey gave another pleading look; Don’t let me not be OK! I started to think about what I would do if something happened to Hailey and my entire world crashed down around me. And my own mental pleading started. Don’t think that way! The doctors were taking their time getting her out of the room and to a place where they could do something with her. If something drastic had to be done, they would have ripped the cords from the wall and would be rushing her to the operating room. Their nonchalance in slowly wheeling her out was soothing.
As she disappeared, I tried to figure out what my job was. Go tap my foot in the O.R. waiting room? Nah, I’d go see my kid.
I went to the observation room, and a couple nurses pointed to a sole light in the big dark of the room, where Harper lay in a clear bassinet with a tiny mattress in the bottom. She was huge – 10 pounds, plus! – and tiny. She wasn’t hideous, like I expected – not the terrifying monster I had seen in too many birthing videos during the pregnancy. Her face was smooth, her cheeks were plump and the top of her head was not shaped like a warhead. She had some dry skin flaking from her arms and legs and feet and hands. She had a diaper and a little yellowish, sickly piece of meat with a clamp on the end stemming from her bellybutton.
The nurses cordoned off the area around the bassinet, I took off my shirt and brought the baby to my chest. I sat in a rocking chair. She almost immediately pushed her balled-up little fists into my chest and extended her neck so her bobbly head could look around the room. Her dark-blue squinty eyes – whose color may well change – caught mine, and she stared. I thought about all the other babies I’d seen in my life – not a large number, but not a small one, either – and she was the best one.
Mother-daughter Portrait A.
IN THE OPERATING room, a number of goons ran around the bed Hailey was on talking about her. She wore a collar over which she could see the tops of heads moving and hear voices talking. The Three Stooges, wearing scrubs, masks and those funny bandanas with ridiculous patterns on them, put their faces in hers and tried to distract her.
Medical staff had produced a shot of antacid and told her to take it “just like in college, just like in college.” She took the shot like a champ, she told me, to knowing looks from the staff. We know what you spent you time in college doing. They’d given her a bigger dose of pain medication with the epidural feed, which still in her spinal cord. They’d lifted her to an operating table because they didn’t think she would be able to move her legs, but her legs were moving.
“They were like, ‘Woah, why are you helping us?” Hailey told me.
She barfed on the Stooge who staff called “the attractive one.”
“I told them I was really afraid to leave you and the baby and, like, die,” she said, choking up a little bit. The Stooges made her feel better. “They were really good at what they did.”
The doctors inserted a balloon that was supposed to do the opposite of what the first one did and make her uterus return to its original position and stop the blood flow, and returned her to a different birthing suite.
IN THE FOLLOWING three days, I drove a lot, running errands and organizing and calling family and friends. Hailey’s mother, Debbie, had flown in a few days prior and was watching our dog. I brought her up on Thursday and Friday during working hours. She and Hailey tried to figure which features Harper inherited from which parent – the cheeks from Hailey’s dad, Skip, and the forehead and eyes from me.
Wonderful friends texted responses to a mass message I sent containing Harper’s metrics:
“Congratulations to you and Hailey on Harper Jean! She is absolutely beautiful! J and you guys are going to make awesome parents because you’re mega awesome! J” – Joan Doucette
“Eeeekkkk!!! Congratulations!!! I’m so excited for you guys and I’m so excited to buy a tutu for Harper jean!! Love you guys JJ” – Nikki Cristello
“Omfgggggg!!!!!!!! One million congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Maria Myotte
“Holy shit that’s a toddler. congrats and we love u send pict when get a chance and we love you hope hailey is doing well” – Angela Hedge Grant
“Congrats motherfuckers!” Jim Sojourner
And etc. etc. and so forth and so on.
Debbie and Hailey joked about the logistics of labor.
“I know, I pushed out a 10-pound baby with no episiotomy,” Hailey said. “Impressive.”
Hailey cooed at the baby to breast feed, even though she couldn’t produce any milk because, the nurses said, her body was too focused on replacing the excess blood she’d lost. I tried to imagine what people in the same situation did before the advent of formula. But that didn’t matter; it only mattered that the baby sucked for when Hailey could produce.
“Just keep sucking, munchkin; no sleeping, sucking,” Hailey said. Harper started making slurping noises. “Good girl! Keep going!”
Hailey inundated the nurses with questions, the real learning process being finding out how to learn how to be a parent.
Debbie exhibited a doting and comforting maternal instinct, rocking the baby so Hailey and could catch up on just a little sleep.
I learned how easy it is as a new parent to call a kid a dog when I’d only talked to our pooch, Sweet Dee, the way I’d now talk to the baby. “Jeez, dog,” Hailey said, catching herself almost immediately. “C’mon, pooch,” I said, picking her up. I didn’t realize it until a young black hospital corpsman in the room who had great tips for swaddling started giggling.
Hailey slowly started feeling better. The second day after the delivery, a nurse updated a doctor: “She’s been ambulating today; she took a shower today, she went No. 2 today.”
They took the balloon that was done fixing Hailey’s uterus out, and she was still sore. “My vaheena hurts so bad from you,” Hailey said to the baby in the birthing suite, using a bizarre accent. But she did feel better. “Oh, my god, I can do so much more without that thing in me.”
Thanks to a miraculous swaddling job by a helpful nurse, Hailey, the baby and I even slept for about two and a half hours the morning before the hospital discharged us. Hence, we were halfway cogent when we filled out paperwork required for the hospital to let us go. Harper was dressed in a brown suit with a hood that looked like a monkey and sleeping in a car seat carrier as we exited the building for her first trip outside into The Big Blue World. Her face was covered with a blanket to shield it from the chilly Virginia wind, and her sphere of traveling expanded 40 miles as we drove home.