Birth Trauma Awareness Week Spotlight
Author: Cheryl Anne Ochoa
I reflect on the story of my first birth when I need to believe in miracles again. I had a beautiful, healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy. When the time came, my water broke in movie-style dramatic fashion at 40 weeks and 6 days. I was beyond ready to meet my baby. I labored for 14 hours, determined to go without medication. It was empowering--life-changing even. No one saw my son’s dramatic arrival coming, save for the fetal monitor that would pick up an occasional heart rate deceleration. Even then, nurses would reassure me, give me some oxygen, and encourage me to keep going. I labored on Good Friday that year and was able to get through those painful Pitocin contractions thinking about Christ’s excruciating journey to the Cross. By the end, I felt the urge to push so violently it shook my whole body. But, I was told to hold back to allow for the reduction of a pesky cervical lip. This felt worse than any pushing. When it mercifully came time for my body to do its thing, it was sweet relief. I found a good rhythm and was surrounded by my husband, doula, and medical team cheering me on to the finish line. No sooner than I found this rhythm to push did my midwife stare between my legs in horror. Her voice turned instantly from sweet to firm when she told me, “Cheryl, I see thick black meconium. You need to get on your back and push this baby out NOW!”
I did what I was told and had my baby out in minutes. I heard a soft cry and felt a couple moments of relief. He was touched to my chest, and then taken away. I was left reeling and disoriented. My baby was taken from me mere seconds after birth to undergo emergency procedures to revive his lungs, now flooded and collapsed with meconium (baby’s first poop). For those unfamiliar, babies’ first poop is thick, black organic material that is usually harmless—unless inhaled. He was working too hard to breathe, though I will always call it a victory that he was breathing at all despite what happened. I did not see or hear him for hours after he was immediately wheeled out of the delivery room. I did not see the doctors try protocol after protocol to revive him, only to decide that he needed more support. I did not see my husband transform into the amazing warrior dad he is in mere seconds when he followed our gasping baby out of the room.
All I remember was whimpering pathetically from my hospital bed, “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?” That question still stops me in my tracks whenever I hear them in any circumstance, even though it’s been 3 years. I repeated it to myself or anyone who would listen for what felt like an eternity when someone finally came back in my room. I felt like I was underwater when a NICU team told me that my son inhaled thick meconium and needed more respiratory support at another hospital. I was numb when I was told that an ambulance would take him away from me. I felt like a failure when they brought him back in my room, unconscious and tucked in his life support transport incubator and I had to tell him goodbye for a little while.
At that point, I was given a choice: to be transferred in a separate ambulance to my son’s new hospital and admitted as a maternity patient, or be discharged and receive no postpartum care. All I could think about in my numb stupor was the exorbitant looming monetary costs and chose the latter. And boy, would I come to regret it. If only I could have seen myself, bleeding and in no shape to walk after pushing my son out in minutes.
Upon this way-too-early discharge, I was driven by my mom and sister across town to my son’s new hospital. I’m sure they thought I was crazy during that entire ride. I was wildly describing my labor experience like a wide-eyed maniac. I’m sure I was talking a mile a minute--in shock and in denial. My extended family and in-laws were waiting for me outside of the NICU of the new hospital, not knowing it would be our new home for the next two weeks. Ever the extrovert and in complete adrenaline overload, I greeted everyone with a smile from my wheelchair I didn’t think I needed. A doctor came out to the lobby and greeted me. She then spent the next 20 minutes or so explaining my son’s condition. She might as well have been speaking to me in French. All I got from her lengthy, technical analysis was that my son wasn’t breathing on his own, that he could have an infection, and that he needed to be placed on a ventilator. I was restless and angsty. There were only 2 visitors allowed at a time in the NICU, and my husband was in with his Nana when I arrived, for some reason. None of it made sense. I had a deep yearning to see my baby. I was finally wheeled in, barely able to sit still. When I saw him, nothing and everything made sense. It was the weirdest, most surreal feeling. I wanted to touch him, hold him, yank every last wire from his tiny body and run away. But, at the same time, I didn’t know if I was allowed to touch my own baby. I even asked the nurse for permission. She told me that, due to his fragile condition, I could only touch his body very gently. He was sedated to keep from moving around. She told me he was struggling profoundly on the ventilator.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day, which was supposed to be the happiest of my life. At some point, my baby was moved to a dark isolation room and put on an oscillator. This loud monstrosity of a ventilator pumped oxygen to him so fast that it vibrated his whole body. I do remember that I felt great after birth and was confused why everyone said it took a while to recover postpartum.
It only took one night of sleep, away from my brand new baby, to wake up feeling like I got hit by a semi truck and completely empty. Hormonally, the next couple weeks were rough. I was taught how to pump right after birth, but had to be taught again in the NICU due to being in a persistent state of shock for a couple days. My milk came in with a vengeance and then my body painfully craved the touch of human skin. I spent the first few nights (when I wasn’t pumping like mad), just touching my husband’s bare back as he slept. I know it sounds insane, but it makes me so sad to know now that all my body wanted was to touch and hold my baby. And I wouldn’t have a baby to hold or touch for the next 4 days. We spent all day and all night in that tiny dark isolation room, hoping to get the okay to hold our son. His condition waxed and waned, and sometimes stayed annoyingly stable. We were told he had something called “Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn”, basically meaning that the blood pressure in his lungs was too high due to failing to oxygenate properly out of the womb. It was a lot of science to process, and I often frustrated myself trying to understand it. But it was fatal without a significant amount of intervention.
Of course with all of this, my body took a harder beating than anyone realized. I was constantly walking back and forth across the hall to the NICU pumping room, standing for hours just staring at my baby, forgetting to eat and drink, and generally neglecting basic needs. There was one night a couple days after birth when I noticed a troublingly large chunk of skin where it shouldn’t be after using the bathroom. I panicked and told my husband and my son’s attending nurses. They looked at me urgently and told me to call my doctor. I told them I didn’t really know who my doctor was due to my premature discharge. I called triage at the hospital where I had my son and talked to the attending OB. She told me to get to the ER immediately. The difference between the quiet, sterile NICU and the disgusting, rowdy ER lobby was too much for me to handle. I burst into tears and started hyperventilating the minute we entered. I was rushed to the front of the line in my panicked state and put in a waiting area behind the lobby. I needed to pump urgently but no one accommodated me. My parents finally had to bring my pump from home. To say I was a mess would be an understatement. I was seen quickly for a piece of labial skin tissue that the doctor said could go necrotic quickly if it wasn’t treated. 4 hours and one less bit of skin later, we were home again to get 4 hours of sleep and come back for NICU morning rounds.
I got to hold my son for the first time on the 4th day of his life. I finally achieved my dream of breastfeeding him on his 9th or 10th day of life. All of this was not without tremendous effort and cost. My husband and I learned to maneuver the cords, bathe our baby trailed by his aggravating oxygen machine, dress him from the bottom up, and all sorts of parenting firsts overseen by the “un-intimate” supervision of medical professionals. I stayed the night alone at the Ronald McDonald family house to breastfeed him through the night. The fallout from our traumatic plunge into parenthood is still felt today, though more as a scar instead of a gaping wound. I inevitably suffered to adjust mentally to all of this, ultimately resulting in the unshakeable feeling that I had no bond to this baby. This feeling accelerated quickly into full-blown postpartum depression and more trauma to be experienced in that process. That may be a story for another day…
I was told my baby could have long-lasting cognitive, motor, medical, and speech problems. I was told to be prepared for anything and to plan accordingly with state supportive services such as Early Intervention. We were finally discharged after a 15-day NICU stay, with my son donning a tiny oxygen tube. We were followed by home healthcare religiously for 6 weeks, until the happy day his oxygen was discontinued by his cardiologist. I think about all of this and honor the quiet, humble, tenacious fighting spirit in my son from the minute he was born. That spirit is absolutely still with him today. I am blessed to witness his growth into the brilliant, articulate, active, thoughtful, hilarious 3-year-old he is. He now has a little brother he loves more than anyone. He loves to hear the story of his bravery through the NICU until he “felt better”. Sometimes I wonder if his mama “feels better", especially when the mental scars of my trauma ache out of nowhere. But then I realize that it is the highest honor to bear and heal from these scars for the rest of my life--as long as it means my son, Simon, is in the world.
Follow Cheryl on Instagram .