This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Click above for the rest of the story.
I will never remember exactly what she said, but it was something like this: this was a precipitous labor. Generally with breech babies, the docs will opt for a C-section, especially for a first-time mother who has “unproven hips”. In this case, by the time Allison was in the operating room, Hendrik was already too far down the birth canal. This baby was going to be born breech. That decision was made very quickly. To complicate things further, he was in a footling breech position, which greatly increases certain risk factors for both the baby and the mother. It would be hard, but Allison could do it. She would have to. There was no other choice.
But there was another problem. Hendrik had transitioned through the stages so quickly that his arms ended up above his head. It was impossible for both his head and his two arms to make it through the birth canal at the same time. If the doctors would have tried pulling him out, the extra pressure on our baby’s skull from his arms pressing into either side of his head would have caused serious damage, and maybe even death. The only way to avoid that was to get his arms through the birth canal first. This meant the doctor had to reach into the birth canal, place her fingers above Hendrik’s shoulder, and pull his arms down, one at a time. Remember, Allison had absolutely no pain meds on board.
Once his arms were through, the doctor knew that Hendrik’s head was tilted back. Again, had he been forced out, he could have suffered severe spinal injuries. So before moving him further down the birth canal, she reached to Hendrik’s face, placed a finger on either side of his nose and squeezed. This gave her a way to straighten his head, pulling his chin down to his chest as he finished his descent.
The doctor explained all of that to me for a reason. When she had pulled his arms through the birth canal, she felt a pop in the right shoulder. Best case scenario would be a broken arm or collar bone, she explained. Worst case scenario was a brachial plexus injury, which could cause his arm to be completely paralyzed. They needed to bring him to the NICU for observation, then a little later they would need imaging on both of his shoulders. The thought of my hours-old baby getting bathed in radiation didn’t feel right. But hell, what are you going to do?
She explained further about Allison’s physical condition for another few moments before promising that she would be by later. As it was, she had a scheduled C-section at 7:00AM that she needed to get ready for. Just like that, after telling me my baby almost died and more than likely has some sort of serious injury, she was off to the next task.
For a brief moment, I envied her. The trauma we had both just witnessed would be forgotten in the next ten minutes by this busy doctor. She got to escape the nightmare that had just taken place. I, on the other hand, had a wife who just spent 20 minutes in hell and a son who presently was in some other part of the hospital, alone.
I walked back into the OR to see that they were ready to wheel Allison back to the L&D room for a few minutes before transferring her to the post-partum unit next door. I don’t know what we talked about, but all either of us could think about was our son. Where was he? When can we see him? Is he okay?
The nurses’ patience with us was incredible. They understood the ordeal we had just been through and they didn’t seem bothered one bit by being peppered with all of our questions, asked over and over because we couldn’t focus on the answers they were giving. Finally, we figured out that they didn’t want to let Allison leave her room until she was able to urinate. I assume it had something to do with the painkillers that were finally administered, but I’m still not one hundred percent sure.
Hendrik was in the NICU, and I was dying to be with him. Allison would likely be on room arrest for another hour. I couldn’t wait that long. But I couldn’t leave my wife. Not after everything she had just been through. Allison must have felt the same pangs of distress I was feeling. Our brand new, minutes-old baby boy was somewhere in this hospital and he’d barely met his own parents. We needed to be with him immediately. Even though I’d just spoken with the doc about the baby, I still didn’t know what to expect. Was he in good condition? Was he in critical condition? Would he be in pain? Hell, he must be in pain if he had a broken arm! We finally made the decision that I would go to the NICU to be with him until Allison could join us.
After getting a set of incredibly vague directions to the NICU, I wandered around until I found a sign the pointed me in the right direction. I was confused because all the lights were off in the wing. Was this the right place? For the love of everything holy, where was my son!? I finally noticed a sign on the wall saying to dial a number to the nurses’ station within the NICU to be buzzed in. I did just that, and what seemed like 45 minutes later, a nurse finally came to retrieve me from the waiting area. It had only been half a minute.
The first rule of the NICU was that you had to wash your hands every time you entered the NICU. They had a large wash basin with various soaps and scrubbers. A sign on the wall proclaimed that everyone must wash their hands for three minutes before entering the NICU. No way. I made it 45 seconds before I couldn’t stand there any longer. I’d scrubbed hard enough to wear out any of my callouses. I was germ free, and they were just going to have to take my word for it. I hurried back to the nurses’ station and was directed to go to the right and around the corner to the first warming station.
And there he was.
Hendrik lay on a curved pad with a heat lamp a couple feet about his head. He was awake, quiet and alert. His big, dark eyes were staring out the window. The nurses had put some gunk on his eyes, evidently an antibiotic salve that would prevent any sort of eye infection. Not that he could see anything anyway. I studied him intently, speaking to him softly. His hands, his feet. This tiny human, he was beautiful. I told him I loved him for the very first time and for a few moments, the trauma from the operating room was gone. In fact, I wouldn’t think about it again for a few more hours.
He made the smallest sounds, little noises unintentionally coming out of his mouth. They were perfect. His movements were jerky and uncoordinated. He brought his left hand up to his face and curled his fingers under his chin, as if he were deep in thought. Was this foreshadowing what he would be like? Was he going to be like his mom? Analytical, intentional, determined, strong, loving, compassionate, and driven. Or would he be like his dad? Witty, light-hearted, emotional, abstract, silly, and shy.
As dumb as I felt doing it, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to snap a picture of my newborn son with my phone. I wouldn’t end up posting it on social media, or sending it to all my family and friends. No, this was for me and my wife. Something for us to enjoy. It dawned on me in this moment that no one in our family or within our circle of friends had any clue that Hendrik had been born. It happened too fast. But announcing his arrival would have to wait a little bit longer.
I watched Hendrik glance around for another few minutes before a nurse came over to perform a couple routine tasks. She explained she would have to prick his foot to draw some blood – this would help to determine whether he’d been hypoxic (meaning, without oxygen during birth, which could cause all sorts of ugly things). I knew the process would be harmless and he’d heal in no time, but the urge to shove her through the window when I heard him cry out was almost too much to control. Mercifully, she finished quickly and Hendrik quieted almost as quickly as he’d screamed out. My very first fatherhood instinct to protect my son had been quite an experience, but one I hoped the nurse hadn’t noticed.
Would you like to hold him, the nurse asked.
I had held him once before, but that was all a blur. Yes, I wanted to hold my son, and this time I wanted to remember it.
The nurse instructed me to sit down in the rocking chair and she would swaddle him and hand him to me. Evidently I looked nervous enough that she didn’t want me to be standing with my newborn. I trusted her judgement. When she finally passed him over to me, I was somehow surprised at just how small he was. Nineteen and three-quarters inches long. Seven pounds, 13.6 ounces. He felt like a feather, so tiny and feeble and vulnerable. But thinking back a few hours, I knew he was strong.
I’m not sure how long I sat with him, rocking him gently while he slipped in and out of wakeful states. I had unbuttoned my shirt and held him against my chest. The benefits of skin-to-skin contact had been researched and relayed to me by Allison, but we had thought he’d be resting on her chest. Not mine. Not like this. It killed me that my wife wasn’t with us. After everything she’d been through, she deserved to be with her baby. The guilt of meeting my son first while my wife was forced to wait alone in a room less than 50 yards away set in hard. What was holding her back, anyhow? Despite the multiple signs posted on the walls asking me not to, I pulled out my phone and dialed Allison’s number.
We spoke briefly. She told me it would hopefully only be a little bit longer. All she needed to do was to urinate. That would satisfy someone enough to allow her to leave the room. She asked if I was doing the skin-to-skin thing, which she was happy to hear that I was. Then she asked me if he was okay. He’s perfect, I told her. And he really was. But, at the time, I had no idea what challenges lay ahead.
About two hours after Hendrik had been born, my wife was finally wheeled into the NICU to be united with her son. I sat in the chair with Hendrik asleep on my chest, but as soon as she rounded the privacy shade, I was eager to hand him to her immediately. I was proud to introduce my son to the most amazing woman he would ever meet, his momma.
She didn’t hesitate to pull him close, showering him with love and kisses. After a few more seconds, she was eager to feed her son for the first time. And he had worked up a healthy appetite! At that point, the day finally started to slow down a little. Our brand new family was reunited, and we could start fresh. We thought about how quickly everything had happened. We arrived at the hospital at 6AM. Hendrik was born at 6:37AM. From three in the morning until about nine, everything was a blur. But now, we were together. ♦