This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Click above for the rest of the story.
We arrived at the room no more than thirty seconds later, and as soon as we arrived, so did the others. First it was our L&D nurse. Then another nurse. Then someone else in a white lab coat. An anesthesiologist, perhaps? Finally, our midwife arrived, along with two more nurses. As the parade of people arrived over the course of one minute, I was busy trying to get Allison out of her clothes and into her gown. That proved to be incredibly difficult because she didn’t want to stand up out of the wheel chair. Finally one of the nurses piped up. “If you don’t want to deliver your baby in that wheelchair, I suggest you get into that bed.” And that we did.
I hoisted Allison up, pulling off the basketball shorts of mine she was wearing as I tried to slip the gown over her. I succeeded, but it wasn’t easy. The room was chaotic. Allison wanted an epidural, but someone informed her that it was way too late for that. This baby was coming. Right now.
I couldn’t believe it. Even after all the signs were there, I still couldn’t seem to wrap my brain around that fact that Allison wasn’t going to be in labor for 18 hours like I had originally imagined. Instead, I was going to meet my son in a matter of minutes! I was ecstatic.
I got Allison onto the bed on her hands and knees. She didn’t want to lay back. The head of the bed had been raised to the up position, so Allison crawled forward and hung over the back of the bed. The midwife took the opportunity to check Allison’s cervix, wanting to know if the baby was crowning. But, there was a problem.
I was busy whispering encouragements into Allison’s ear as she pleaded for drugs. I almost missed it. The midwife simply stated, “that’s a foot.” My head whipped around to look her in the eyes. “A foot?” Yes, she affirmed. My mind went into overdrive. That means he’s breech, I thought. “That means a C-section, right?” That’s right, she once again affirmed.
The already chaotic room got even crazier. Two nurses were trying to reposition Allison so they could wheel her to the Operating Room. Another was trying to get an IV started. A third person was confused about what needed to happen next and made everyone stop to figure it out. The midwife ordered someone else to call the doctor. She needed to prepare for an emergency C-section. The on-call doctor would be down shortly, and our regular OB doc would be there in 10 minutes.
Before I knew what was happening, Allison was being wheeled down the main hallway, through a couple different sets of double doors, and finally into the Operating Room. Outside the OR was a nurse’s station with a set of scrubs waiting for me. I tried to follow Allison into the room, but one of the nurses grabbed me and made me don the suit. As I worked to pull it over my clothes, our OB doctor came flying around the corner. She recognized me and gave me a quick smile, probably more to alleviate my nerves than anything else.
I could hear Allison groaning. She was in severe pain and just wanted it to be over. She still hadn’t given up on the idea of getting those drugs she wanted. No one was listening. Upon finally getting the scrubs on, I walked to the OR door and peaked through the tiny, round window. Through all the bustle and confusion, I saw my wife lying on her back. I saw the doctors and midwife collaborating on a plan. And I saw a foot. In fact, I saw his knee.
I started weeping. Everything was moving so fast. This wasn’t the way this was supposed to happen. Our baby boy had been head down the last four weeks. We had four different midwives at each of the latest OB appointments and every single time they were positive he was head down. How in the hell was I seeing a foot right now? A knee? Something was terribly wrong. I don’t know how I knew it. Maybe it was the chaos. Maybe it was the look in the doctors’ eyes as they discussed how to move forward. But this was wrong and I was sick.
My fear was confirmed a few seconds later. The doctors had made a decision, and they needed to explain it to Allison so that she could assist them. “Allison, I need you to focus,” the doc started. “Your baby is breech, but we aren’t able to do a C-Section because he is too far down the birth canal. There is no way that we can possibly pull him out that way. So you are going to have to birth him vaginally. We’re going to help you, but you have to help us do this. You have to listen to me and do everything I say.”
I was lightheaded. Was that even possible? All the books said if the baby is head down, you can try to deliver vaginally. If it’s breech, more than likely you’ll have to get a C-Section. None of them mention birthing a breech baby vaginally. Not a single one. I remembered seeing the diagrams and cartoonish renderings of a baby making its way through the birth canal. The head gets squeezed, the shoulders have to rotate. Even then, the baby is barely able to maneuver itself out into this world. How was it even possible for our baby boy to come out upside-up? How could he physically fit?
The next ten minutes lasted 45 years, it seemed. While at the window watching the doctor explain what needed to happen, a nearby nurse saw that I was woozy and made me sit down out in the hall. I needed to be with my wife. My face was covered in tears and I didn’t know why they wouldn’t let me be with my wife. The screams I heard come from her while the doctors were working were absolutely horrifying. A deep, resigned moan that carried her pain directly into my eardrums. It was sickening, and I was completely helpless.
I’ve never felt that intensely helpless in my entire life, and I hope I never experience it again. It was pure hell. For her. For me. For our son.
The doctor pleaded with Allison to relax her legs. Allison was flexing her thighs inward with all her might. All she knew in that moment was the pain she was feeling. Nothing else was able to register in her brain other than the instinct to fight (there was no option for flight). The doc begged, over and over, not fully understanding where Allison was mentally. The minutes were ticking by and the situation was becoming more dangerous. The doctor feared Hendrik may become hypoxic (meaning, not able to get oxygen) and decided it was time to make the situation known. “Allison, if you don’t relax your legs, I cannot get your son out. He will not make it if you do not relax your legs. So one more time, I need you to relax your legs.”
Finally, Allison let go. It was this moment that Allison recalls (in horror) having an out of body experience. The only thing she was even capable of thinking about was the searing pain she felt, and in an attempt to protect herself, she forced herself to separate her physical experience from her mental and emotional experience. Hearing her speak about her trauma is nauseating, and I may tell this story from her perspective at some point, but I’m not nearly eloquent enough to capture the profundity of her experience. But, it was her actions in those moments that saved our baby’s life.
The chaos in the room quieted somewhat as the doctor prepared to cut the umbilical cord. A sudden rush of movement and Hendrik Nolan Gapinski was immediately whisked away by a team of nurses and doctors, whose goal was to revive this little human being. I saw the top of his head as they ran down the hall with him. I stood and peered around the corner and watched from forty feet away as they firmly rubbed his tiny sternum. It was too much to bear. What if I was watching my son die in that moment?
A moment later, I heard one of the most sickening sentences I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
“Hey, umm, we’ve got quite a bit of blood over here. Okay now, she’s bleeding pretty good.”
I didn’t know the context behind the statement — turns out there can be some bleeding involved in child birth…who knew? — all I knew was that my wife was bleeding. A lot. Allison had been a port-partum nurse a few years before and she would tell me stories sometimes about moms who would hemorrhage after giving birth, which can be incredibly dangerous. So now I have my son 40 feet to my left who may or may not be breathing, and 40 feet to my right is my wife who might be bleeding to death (for all I knew).
I can’t overstate how frightening this was. You’ll hear people talk about life flashing before their eyes if they have a near-death experience. I guess I sort of felt the same way, but it was more so about my future. One without the little human I spent 10 months falling in love with. And one without my best friend.
Thirty seconds later a nurse who had prayed with me earlier exclaimed the good news. “Do you hear him? That’s your son. He’s crying! Do you hear him?” I didn’t. I couldn’t. I only cared about one thing. “How is my wife? I need to see my wife!”
The sweet nurse was probably past retirement age. She seemed to be there only because she wanted to be there. I don’t think she understood my urgency. “Well, I’ll tell you what, let me go see and I’ll let you know.”
In three long strides, I was at the double doors leading to the OR, and before the nurse could say anything, I was beside my wife for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. The room was still chaotic. The doctor and midwife were working to place sutures. My wife was still in severe pain and could feel every stick of the needle into the already tender flesh. The doctor kept trying to add local anesthesia, but it wasn’t nearly enough. A couple nurses were cleaning the mess. Another nurse was filling out some sort of log. Everyone was talking. And everyone was amped, except the Nurse Anesthetist. He was as calm as a Spring breeze through a grassy meadow. He was also in the process of onboarding some serious pain meds for my wife, albeit about half an hour too late. It wasn’t his fault. This entire thing happened too fast.
I spoke sweetly to my wife, who was still shocked and confused. She had a million questions but couldn’t focus on any single one. At some point, a nurse pulled me away and asked if I wanted to meet my son. She led me back out into the hall and around the corner where I had originally witnessed the sternal rub. Now he was being handed to me, wrapped in a blanket. For the first time, I got to see his face. My regret is that I’ll never remember what he looked like in that moment. My world was too shaken. I just knew that I needed to be with my wife. She needed to meet her son.
I brought Hendrik back into the OR so Allison could see him before they took him to the NICU for observation. His entry into this world had been overly traumatic for everyone involved, and especially for him and his momma. I put him on her chest and she kissed him sweetly with tears rolling down her cheeks. The baby was serenely quiet. No crying, just sporadic little whimpers to let us know he was still trying to figure out this new world. After a few moments, the nurse asked me to hand our son back over to her so she could take him to the NICU.
I did as I was told, and as I watched my son being carried through the OR doors, the doctor caught my attention and gestured for me to follow her out into the hall. Again, I did as I was told. The doc wanted, needed, really, to debrief me on what had just taken place. She took me all the way around the corner, out of earshot from Allison. After hearing what she had to say, I understood why she did that. ♦