This year we have a harmonic convergence of Nurses Week with Mothers Day, an event that brought to mind a certain nurse who eased my passage to motherhood.
Nurse Margaret's Magic Words
"Dr. Spencer! Peggy! Please, sit down! Please! We do NOT want to have this baby in the tunnels!"
"Wait! I can't. Hoooo. Just wait a minute! Hoooo. Hoooo." I was contracting and panting, standing in front of the wheelchair, hanging onto my husband. My face was red, my breathing fast and strained, my hold on hubby just short of a vice grip.
Nurse Patty was not happy. She was a clinic nurse, temporarily relegated to transport duty. Not a delivery nurse. She had been assigned to wheel me from the clinic, where I had measured a mere 4cm twenty minutes ago, to the hospital, via the underground tunnel system, more direct and warmer than overground in November, but still quite a trek. She wanted to get there, pass me off, and get away.
This was our second baby. The first one, almost 5 years earlier, had taken her sweet time making her grand entrance, with several hours of labor at home and several hours more at the hospital. Plenty of time for everyone to be at their appointed places on cue. More about her another time. She deserves her own story.
They say every child is different from the get go, and they are right. This second baby rocked and rolled for 9 months, making me feel more like a private gymnasium than a holy vessel of life. I never forgot for one minute that I wasn't alone in my body. And when the time came, man, that kid wanted OUT. My labor changed from frequent but mild squeezes to out and out hard labor the instant my water broke as we pulled into the lot outside the clinic. Good thing we had gone there when we did. I had called the doc in confusion minutes before, asking, "How am I going to know when to come in? The contractions have been a minute and a half apart since I first felt them a few hours ago and they've never been strong." He wisely advised me to come on in, taking the fact of my phone call as evidence of a change in the labor progress, whether I was aware of it or not (I wasn't). He'd been there before.
After anointing the Honda seat, we made our way from the parkng lot into the clinic. I had to stop twice on the 50 yard trip, put my arms around my husband's patient neck, and pant through what were suddenly much more intense contractions. The patients in the clinic waiting room looked at us in alarm as we passed, and one nurse wondered aloud if this was the right place for us at this stage. Perhaps we should be at the hospital.
Our beloved and highly competent family doctor took us calmly into an exam room to "check" me, making reassuring noises to everyone. Getting up on the exam table and lying on my back was about as appealing as standing on my head in a tar pit, but I managed somehow, and he did his thing. "Four centimeters" he announced.
No way! Four?! Only four? That's out of ten, in case you didn't know. Four is the beginning of the beginning. It's usually not even considered active labor at four. I could have been at four for days. After four is when it gets serious, when the contractions get effective and start to do their work. Well, mine were feeling effective, all right. I thought he was going to say at least six. I was going to have six more centimeters of this? "Yep, looks that way. No, don't go home. Let's have you go over to the hospital. I'll meet you there after I finish my charting."
So here we were, making our halting way through the lonely concrete maze, me balking, Patty urging, my husband trying both to support my labor needs and get me to the delivery suite ASAP. "Stop!" I'd demand. "Here's another one!" I couldn't take them sitting down. I had to stand. There just was no question about it. So I stood. He held me. I panted. I breathed. Patty begged. I sat. We went on. The tunnel seemed endless.
Finally we made it to the elevators, none too soon for Patty. Pushed the button for the 3rd floor. Stopped on one, to take on several visitors and staff. Stood to pant between 1 and 3, not caring what the other riders thought. Out at 3 and into Testing and Triage, where Patty took her grateful leave.
Testing and Triage, or "T &T", is where women come to be evaluated when they're pregnant and have any kind of problem, from a bladder infection to labor. It's staffed by nurses and interns, and is usually a pretty controlled place, where things move at a reasonable pace. The typical pregnant woman at term will present to T &T in early labor and either be sent home to progress or admitted to Labor and Delivery ("L& D", naturally) to, well, labor and deliver.
I was not the typical T &T patient. I was really laboring hard by this point. Internally, I was struggling to find a rhythm, to settle in for the long haul, to pace my breathing and stay calm and all that other crap you read about that doesn't apply to real life. I felt totally out of control. It was like a giant hand would reach down, pluck me up, squeeze the livin' breath out of me and drop me like a spent sponge, only to wring me out again a minute later. I was only partly present, dimly aware of a triage nurse asking me for a urine sample (There was no friggin way I could sit on a toilet, much less manage a sample collection), of my husband answering the questions I couldn't. I wanted everything to slow down, so I could hang on, so I could catch up. I heard fragments of conversation. "They said she was four." "She doesn't act like four." "Can we check you?" "We better just get her out of here." "Can you walk?"
I could walk. It was a matter of feet from T &T to L &D. I knew that. I had worked in both places, had collected the urine samples, had examined the cervices, had coached the labor and caught the babies. In another life. Now I felt like a stranger, a frantic, out-of-control instrument of someone else's design. I had been taken over, occupied, shoved aside for the crew. My cervix had gone from 4 to 9 during our subterranean voyage, unbeknownst to me. I was already in Transition, that wild-eyed no-woman's land that causes many of us to declare absurdly that we're "not doing this any more", as if we had a choice. All I knew was that this was moving a lot faster than I was ready for. Life had taken over and left me hanging onto the back, just hoping not to fall off. I wasn't sure I could handle it.
Next thing I knew, a cool hand was on my neck , a steady arm around my waist. "Let's go." I stood and started to walk, with this cool stranger helping me. She looked familiar. Long dark hair, cat glasses, untroubled face. We started to move, and made it a few feet before the giant hand came down again. There's got to be a stronger word than "squeeze". SQUEEZE! My mind closed in, focusing on the sensation, struggling, fighting. Then Margaret's two strong arms wrapped around me, and her calm voice spoke low in my ear. "You can do this."
"You can do this."
Four simple words. One simple concept. It sunk right into me, all the way down. From top to bottom, her gentle confidence became mine, and I felt my breath slow, my shoulders soften, my body relax. Her words settled into my womb, and I felt it, too, relax and open. The last centimeter gave way, the gates were wide open, it was time. And I believed her. I believed her.
The last minutes of labor are a bit of a blur. A nurse telling me to go ahead and push. Me insisting I'd wait for my doctor, while I panted and held off. Doctor arriving just in time to throw on gloves. Husband right there, touching and encouraging me. Two gigantic, wrenching pushes, mostly involuntary and entirely effective, and here came Derek, diving headlong into life.
I fell back exhausted, bathed in sweat and grateful tears, holding my slimy baby on my slimy belly. Taking what felt like my first voluntary breath in days, I understood that what had just happened was done TO me more than BY me. If I had passed out in the tunnels, my body would still have done its job, and this boy would have been born. It's a natural process, unescapable, inevitable. Maybe "through me" is a more apt phrase. "They come through you; they are not from you," cautions Khalil Gibran.
So maybe I didn't do much. Maybe the Universe picked me up and squeezed me like a grape until the tender flesh inside popped out. Maybe I was just a tool, the skin of the grape, a holding tank. But, as I gazed down at this wild child who had taken me on a wild ride, as I felt the love bloom inside me, I heard again the magic words of Margaret the nurse, "You can do this" and felt the rise of gratitude and pride. It couldn't, after all, have happened without me. And, though logic tells me otherwise, I don't think I could have done it without Margaret.
I ran into Margaret (and this IS her real name) in the supermarket one day, when wild child was about three years old. I reminded her who I was, and thanked her for her magic words and her steady hands. She just smiled and nodded. All in a day's work. Last I heard, she had gone on to become a midwife, a perfect move. She'll be smoothing the passage for many fortunate women.
And she'll never know how often, even now, I think of those magic words and say them to myself. In times of struggle, when the task seems impossibly huge, when life's pain threatens to overwhelm me, I remind myself.
I can do this.