My husband and I were living in Seoul, South Korea when I gave birth to our son. It was my first pregnancy so of course I was clueless... and overdue (which is normal for first-time moms or "primagravias" as the docs like to call us). About a week after my scheduled due date I noticed some blood in my underwear. It was just a smear, nothing much, but I told my husband anyway. He called his sister and she told us that the baby "should be coming soon."
"Do you feel any pain?" My husband asked.
"No, just the blood spots," I replied. Still, I was a little worried. I had heard about "bloody show" but everybody had said that bloody show was "pink" or "blood-tinged" or "bloody, pinkish discharge." Nobody said anything about straightforward blood. I wasn't bleeding much but what I did have was definitely blood, like dark menstrual blood. There was nothing pink about it. I checked my symptoms online (yes, I know,... not a smart move) and got answers from: "Oh, that's just a precursor to labor" to "OMG!!! U N UR BABIE R GONNA DIE NOW!!!!1!".... so I was now worried and no less confused than before.
The blood spots continued on through the night and the next day, never getting less or more and never becoming "pink" the way they were supposed to. By the next evening I was getting cramps at regular intervals. The cramps were like moderate menstrual cramps. They'd appear, peak (which was only mildly uncomfortable) and then disappear again for a few minutes before beginning once more. "Is this it? Is this labor?" I thought to myself, "Oh yeah, the baby's coming now! Woohoo! I can stand this! Nothing to be worried about!"
The cramps then went away so I went for a vigorous walk (or as vigorous as I could make it considering I was nine and a half months pregnant) bring the cramps back again. The walk was very successful. The cramps came back, and came back with a vengeance. My triumphant feeling soon turned to fear as the cramps grew so painful that all I could do was curl up in a ball and cry. I had always believed that labor cramps began in the pelvis but these cramps would always start around my lower back and only spread to the front of my pelvis during their peaks. The cramps were so painful that I ended up biting my fingers as hard as I could because I had watched an episode of "House" where Dr. House purposefully broke his wrist to cancel out the pain of his Vicodin withdrawel. "Fresh, immediate pain closes the neural pathway to dull, chronic pain," he said... so I was trying to cancel the pain of my contractions by biting my fingers. It didn't work.
I desperately wanted a painkiller but I was afraid of taking medication like Tylenol or Aspirin because I didn't know if the pills would harm the baby. "I wanna go to the hospital NOW!!!" I told my husband, "I want them to give me an epidural NOW!!!"
"Oh honey, I'm so sorry," he said, He took my cell phone to measure my contractions. They were twelve minutes apart... far too far apart for the hospital to admit me. "Let's wait, okay?" he said.
"I don't WANT to wait! I want to go NOW! I need anaesthetic NOW!" I yelled and started crying even harder.
Another contraction hit and I got on my hands and knees because I vaguely remembered my mother saying that getting on her hands and knees felt a lot better during labor. Unfortunately, this position didn't help my pain. I started rocking back and forth and say "OOOOOOOOMMMMMM" during the peak of each contraction because the vibration effect of my vocalizations seemed to massage my abdominal muscles a bit and help decrease the pain. My two teenage nieces-in-law came in and asked if they could help me. The sight of me rocking back and forth on my hands and knees while saying "OOOOOOMMMMMMMM" must have been so strange. I could clearly see their expressions as they silently vowed to themselves: "Omigod, I am NEVER going to have a baby! Ever!" I really couldn't blame them.
My sister-in-law came in and started pressing the pressure points between my index finger and thumb. She pressed them very hard and to my surprise the pain from the contractions really did decrease a bit.
Still, I insisted on being taken to the hospital and given and epidural. The pain of the contractions was intense and I was in agony during the entire car ride there. When we reached the obstetrical unit an especially hard contraction slammed me and I grabbed the first nurse I could find. I clung to her forearms and begged- literally on my knees- to "Please, please, I need a painkiller! I'm in so much pain! PleasepleasepleasePLEASE GIVE ME A PAINKILLER!!! PLEASE! MAKE IT STOP!"
"Look at me. Look at me," the nurse said. I looked into her calm black eyes and I swear that she must have taken hypnosis lessons because I could immediately feel my body calm down and my blood pressure drop.
"Now," the nurse said, "Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Like me. Like this. Can you do this?" She breathed in through her nose, a deep, calming breath, and let the air out through her mouth. I did the same thing and felt myself relax. Just watching her and breathing was calming me. My contractions calmed down too, causing me only to whimper at their peaks and not yell. The contractions also started to space themselves over twenty minutes apart. The combination of the breaths and the overall relief at finally being at the hospital and within arm's reach of painkillers made the contractions relatively mild. After an hour of monitoring the obstetrical staff concluded that I wasn't going to give birth anytime soon. They kicked me out and told my husband to not bring me back until the contractions were no more than eight minutes apart.
Getting me up and disengaging me from the IV and the various machines that were monitoring my contractions and the fetal heart rate caused the pains to intensify again. "I'm sorry, but you need to wait before coming back here," a small, polite nurse told me as my husband filled out the discharge papers at the desk. Just standing up again made the contractions get stronger and I started to grimace and sob. The nurse looked at my sympathetically. "Does it hurt a lot now?" Yes, it did, but honestly what could she do? She was right about the contractions needing to be closer together before another trip to the hospital was merited.
My sister-in-law was supporting me as my husband walked across the parking lot towards the car. Another strong contraction hit and I collapsed to my knees onto the cement. "Oh please, oh please, I want to go back," I sobbed and clung to my sister-in-law, refusing to move. She and my husband managed to drag me to the car and we all drove back to our neighborhood. We stopped by my sister-in-law's restaurant first (it's a 24 hour place) and the night cook made us fried chicken. My husband wolfed it all down hungrily but I was too nauseated to eat. Even between the contractions I couldn't get relief. My muscles still ached from the strength of the last contraction and I was constantly feeling queasy. When a contraction hit, I walked out of the restaurant, crouched by the side of the road in the snow and cried. I vomited twice, It was very late at night by this point so I don't think many people saw the large pregnant foreign woman moaning and vomiting by the side of the road, but I wouldn't have cared if the had. I was in pain and vomiting and I resented the fact that my husband was eating instead of driving me back to the hospital. He was probably waiting for my contractions to get closer together before driving back but I didn't care. At that point in time I was wishing hell to all pain-free people in the world.
I set my cell phone timer to time the period between my contractions. It was still over twelve minutes apart. Still, the sight of me looking miserable at the table (and the sounds of me crying and vomiting outside every twelve minutes) finally made my husband get the car again and drive me back to the hospital.
Once I reached the hospital again it was the same story. I started to relax and feel happier... and as a result the contractions decreased in intensity. They moved to about twenty-five minutes apart. The beautiful, hypnotic night nurse was still on call in the obstetrical ward and when I saw her I could have just married her on the spot. It was probably the mess of hormones rushing through my system but I just wanted to be with the night nurse forever. She was the only one who understood and could protect me. The night nurse continued to coach me through the breathing in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth technique. That helped decrease the pain of the contractions a bit. Also, during a contraction, I would close my eyes and visualize the black eyes of the night nurse and that really calmed me. To this day I don't know her name. She went off shift five hours after my admission and I never saw her again.
I was happier now. Despite the contraction every twenty minutes that would cause me to moan at the peaks and nothing more, I was comfortable. For some reason a nurse shaved my groin, giggling a bit because I had "so much hair!" Yeah, yeah... whatever. Just as long as the pain continued to be bearable I really didn't care. Another nurse, myseriously, braided my hair into two pigtails and attached ribbons at the end of the pigtails. I have absolutely no idea why she did this. In those first photos of me holding my son you can still see my pigtails. They were kinda cute... but at the age of thirty I sort of thought that I was too old for pigtails.
I sat up the entire time because sitting up was the only thing keeping the pain of the contractions at bearable levels. Lying down hurt and I hated doing so though the nurses kept on telling me to lie down. One nurse taught me to lie with my legs up and the soles of my feet together. It looked strange, like a yoga position, but it was surprisingly effective in reducing my muscle aches between contractions.
A nurse changed my .9% saline bag, which I thought was a painkiller IV bag. "That's why my contractions don't hurt so much," I thought to myself, reassured, "I'm on painkillers now." The contractions were so mild and so far apart that I could catnap between them. They barely made a spike on the monitoring machine. Then I discovered the truth about the contractions when another woman in the advanced stages of labor was wheeled into the curtained space next to me. She was crying and moaning. She was clearly in terrible pain, gasping "Ah,... Michaso... micha-michasoo..." which is Korean for "This is crazy!" Still, despite her pain she still found time to take a phone call on her cell, which I thought was rather amusing. Still, I silently telegraphed advice to her. "Get painkillers," I urged, hoping to communicate telepathically or something, "Get painkillers. Don't be a hero! Just get the painkillers and save yourself the suffering."
Then, suddenly, with a bolt of horror, I noticed something.
The woman in severe pain had the exact same IV bag that I had.
She was clearly not on painkillers, so that meant that I was clearly not on painkillers and that my contractions had merely slowed down naturally. In a few hours, whether I liked it or not, I would be back in her position, crying in unbearable pain.
NO! No, no, no, NO!!! Unacceptable! I would not accept the fact that I would have to give birth without painkillers. This was an option that my obstetrician had told me was the only allowable method to give birth. Two weeks earlier I had gone to the hospital for a routine check-up and my obstetrician, a tall thin man in glasses who spoke good-but-not-great English, told me that I would not be having an epidural. I had been surprised by that because I didn't know if in Korea it was allowable for a doctor to over-rule a patient when it came to non-dangerous medical practices. "Epidurals are bad for the baby," my OB said.
I blinked. I was no doctor but I knew that there was not one report, none at all, that showed a correlation between dangerous labor and epidurals. There was a slight risk with C-sections, yes, but not epidural-assisted births. Was my doctor joking? Surely, as an OB, he would know that epidurals were not harmful during the birthing process. Seriously, how well-qualified was this dude?
"Well, uh..." I replied at the time, "Um.. what if it hurts?"
"If it hurts you will.... " the OB groped for the right word, "You will.... endure."
Well, the hell with that. At the time I had never experienced a birth before but I already had firm opinions about anybody with a penis telling a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body. I made a silent pact that if the OB continued to deny me pain medication during childbirth I would elbow him in the testicles and, as he crumpled to the ground, yell: "Don't worry! You will endure!"
The OB must have read my mind because he was nowhere to be seen during my birth. Instead there was a female OB whom I had never met before... but I didn't care. The female OB was much nicer and definitely seemed a great deal more competent than the dink I usually saw. Still, she too denied me an epidural. Her reasoning? "I'm sorry, the epidural team does not come in on Sundays."
I had gone into labor on a Sunday. Dammit! "What???!!" I yelled, "Do you people think babies are never born on Sunday??!! How stupid is that rule?!! Givew me a *&$@##@ingepidural! Now!!"
"This is what happens with a government-run healthcare system," my dad said. He's a lifelong Republican and had showed up in the meantime with my mom. "In a government-run healthcare system anaesthetic is considered unnecessary so it's not paid for... and patients suffer."
"Now sweetie, it doesn't work quite like that," my mother said to my father, "Let's not talk politics now." She turned to the OB. "Dr. Kim, would it be possible to call in the epidural team today if we paid all expenses ourselves?"
"I'm sorry," the OB said.
"Well then," my mother continued, "What about transferring her to another hospital? The Red Cross Hospital is in Seoul, right? We can transfer her there and they can give her an epidural."
"That would not be a good idea, to transfer her at this stage," the OB said.
"No," the day nurse chimed in, "Don't worry, her labor is normal and she will endure the pain."
"Well, I'm afraid those are the only options," my mother said, "Give her a painkiller or discharge her so that we can transfer her to another facility."
The nurse looked very irritated. It's horrifically rude in South Korea- in fact it's practically incomprehensible- to not accept the word of an authority as the end of all arguments. The nurses left me in my curtained off space in the birthing ward to discuss the matter. The woman beside me wept and groaned constantly. I called the OB and said: "I'm so scared. That woman over there is in such pain. I don't want to be like that."
The OB nodded. "I understand," she said, "I think her baby might be coming in an hour. Unfortunately, we cannot give you an epidural."
I was so furious. Well, if they weren't going to cooperate then I wasn't going to cooperate. When they asked me to lie down I continued to sit up. When they told me to stop screaming, I still continued screaming.... mostly from pain but also partly from rage. There are few situations that excuse you from all bad behavior, but I believe being in labor is one of them. As far as I'm concerned, a woman in labor can rob a bank and she'd be entitled to every penny. The only time I cooperated was when the fetal heartrate dropped below a certain level and the nurses pressed an oxygen mask to my face. "Your baby's heartrate is too slow," they said, "You need to breathe deeply." I breathed deeply though I wasn't that scared. Almost all the birthing stories I had read on "Momaroo" had a part where the fetal heartrate became too low. No biggie. It was practically a normal part of the birthing process. I wasn't worried.
"You need to stop screaming," a nurse told me, "You're going to make the baby nervous and upset. It's not natural."
"That's ridiculous," my mother retorted, "Women have been screaming their way through labor for millenia. It's as natural as anything. She can scream if she wants."
I didn't get an epidural. The nurses did administer a painkiller by injection into my right buttock, radiating cold disapproval the entire time. "This will help with the pain," said one nurse, "It's not entirely safe for the baby but because you are insisting..."
I didn't give a damn. If this hospital believed that epidurals were unsafe during labor then clearly their bar of what was considered safe was WAY too high. I don't know what was in that needle but it didn't do much to help the pain. I still felt the contractions but the between-contraction gaps were pain-free. There weren't even any residual muscle aches, which was a heckuva lot better than nothing. Still, as promised, the injection wore off quickly and I wasn't given another.
Meanwhile the woman beside me gave birth. The nurses closed the curtains between us during the delivery process but I still saw pretty much everything. After the baby was delivered the nurses immediately wheeled the woman and the baby to another room and shut the door. Privacy for her at last, I guess. I could still hear her talking and I also caught sounds that were like duck quacks,... the first wails of her baby I was guessing. A tall, handsome man in an isolation gown looked through the window of the second room and took pictures. A masked nurse opened the door and beckoned him inside, so I assumed that the man was the woman's husband. Maaaan, how did she manage to bag a looker like him? Well, there was no reason for me to be nasty. A woman in labor, exhausted and in severe pain, almost never looks her best. She was probably really gorgeous 90% of the time.
I had been in labor for thirteen hours by that point. The nurses decided to break the amniotic sac so that they could speed up the process. At first they wanted to give me Pitocin for the sake of efficiency but I absolutely refused. I knew that Pitocin would just make the pain worse even if it did shorten the labor time. Still, I was amenable to having the sac split open since even I thought it was ridiculous that I had been in labor for thirteen hours and my cervix had not budged past one centimeter. The nurse stripped my membranes, split open the bag and I felt fluid dripping down my leg. It wasn't a lot of fluid. Nothing "gushed" out, unlike some of the accounts I had read online about the water breaking. That might have had something to do with the fact that I was way overdue and the baby was rather on the large side by this point (over eight pounds, as it turned out)... so there may not have been a lot of space for fluid.
Still, I was apprehensive because I knew that the contractions would get EVEN WORSE once the amniotic sac was broken. I was right. As soon as the first contraction hit I stopped screaming and just wept. "This isn't FAIR! This isn't FAIR!" I cried, "I wanted an epidural! I didn't want this... this isn't fair!" After the contraction faded I had a look at the machine. The contraction had spike up to eighty. My old college roommate who had also given birth to a son just six months earlier said that she couldn't stand contractions past sixty. When she had seen the needle spike up to eighty after receiving an epidural, she was aghast to think that some women were experiencing that sort of agony raw. No meds. Well, at least now I was one of those women who knew what it felt like.
Still, breaking the bag had definitely speeded up the process. The window above my bed had paled to early-morning blue. I had been in labor for about sixteen hours now. Still, my cervix was finally starting to dilate. I cried and screamed as the contractions came closer together. My mother clocked them at thirty seconds apart but they felt A LOT closer together. "That wasn't thirty seconds!" I wailed as the familier, ominous cramps (still starting in my back, not my pelvis) started once again, "I want my thirty seconds! Where are my thirty seconds?!" Despite my desperate sitting-up and hugging a big medicine ball the contractions continued. Finally the nurses gathered around and told me to start pushing. "Push like you are having a bowel movement," said the nurse who was standing right between my knees, ready to catch the baby.
I pushed at the next contraction and ended up passing gas right in her face.
"Sorry," I said.
"No, no, that's okay," she said. "Don't push until the next contraction, okay?"
I continued pushing but only ended up pooping twice on the table. I could see that the nurses were disgusted with me for that, but seriously what did they expect? They told me to push like I was having a bowel movement so of course that was going to happen. Still, they changed the sheets with marvelous efficiency and continued coaching me to push.
"On the next contraction, push," the nurse repeated.
With the next contraction I pushed and OH WOW! PAIN BEYOND MEASURE AND HUMAN UNDERSTANDING!!!! Seriously, I thought I had been in pain before? That was nothing compared to what I was experiencing now. Pushing during the contraction put me in such pain that I literally almost couldn't comprehend it. It was like it had zoomed up my pain scale and shot out the top, no longer able to be measured.
The nurse told me to push to ten but God help me I could only push to three. I was in such pain. When the contraction faded pushing became more bearable so I started pushing again but the nurse STRICTLY forbade me from doing that. "Only during the contraction," she said.
When I felt the next contraction it was the same story. The pain was so massive that I could only push to the count of three. This time I could feel what I thought was the baby's head pushing through the vagina and I heard the nurse say, "Good, good," at the same time.... but I couldn't sustain it. The pain was too intense. The baby's head simply sank back beneath my pelvic bone.
When the next contraction hit I didnt' want to push but the nurses forced me. One nurse grabbed the top of my distended abdomen and pushed down on it. The pain was excruciating and I screamed again as the nurse pushed down and the other nurse between my knees attempted to ease out the baby. This time I didn't even feel the head in the vagina. I could tell that the nurses were getting irritated by my lack of resolve and overall wimpiness.
"You need to push," the nurse said.
"I don't want to, I don't want to," I sobbed.
The nurses stalked out in disgust and I guess the OB sent my husband in to convince me to be a better patient because the next thing I knew he was at my bedside.
"I spoke with the OB," he said, "And she told me that you only have ten minutes left to do this. Only ten minutes. Can you do it for just ten more minutes?"
"Oh honey, this is so hard," I said, crying, "I can't do this."
Another contraction hit. Then, like a switch in my mind, I started pushing.... hard. My mother later said that I had just gotten "the urge to push" but to me the sensation was more like when you procrastinate for weeks on your college term paper and then, at 2:00am the day before the paper is due, you think "The hell with it, I'm gonna finish this thing." You slam back the coffee, you type out the papers on your computer, you tap away for hour after hour breaking only to use the bathroom and finally- FINALLY- by 9:00am the next morning you have a fairly passable paper double-spaced and stapled and ready to be handed in to your professor. That 2:00am moment was sort of what happened to my mind then, like I finally thought, "The hell with it, I'm gonna get this baby out of me." I pushed and pushed and- bizarrely- felt no pain this time around. There was pressure, certainly but none of that universe-breaking pain I had felt while pushing earlier. I squeezed my eyes shut and puuuuushed and once again felt the baby's head reach my vagina. I felt the nurse's hand slip into me to ease out the baby and then.... nothing. Damn. Still didn't get the baby out. I opened my eyes, and was surprised to see that there was no nurse standing between my knees. Wait, who had stuck a hand into me to ease out the baby then? I had clearly felt a hand. Had it been my husband? Why would he do that? I looked up at my husband but he was still standing near the head of the bed, both his hands holding mine. He was looking, however, between my knees and had an odd expression on his face.
Then it finally hit my dumb brain.
Had I just had the baby?
That sensation I had felt after feeling the baby's head reach my vagina was not someone's hand slipping IN but the rest of the baby's body slipping OUT.
I still wasn't sure, but nevertheless I yelled in my bad Korean "Hey! Baby is here!"
A seriously pissed-off nurse entered my curtained area. She had had enough of my crap- literally and figuratively- but her expression changed entirely as soon as she lifted my hospital gown and looked between my knees.
She yelled something in Korean that sent about five other nurses scurrying into my area. She then lifted up the baby- the entire baby- up off the bed. There he was! There was little Roy! Alas, the first sight I had of him was not of his face but of his bottom as the nurse lifted him up bythe ankles and the back of his shoulders and shook him (gently!) to encourage his breathing. I remember my mother saying that the first moment I was born she had thought I was stillborn. "You were so still and blue," she said, "I honestly wondered if you were dead."
"Don't worry if he looks dead," I reassured myself internally, "A lot of babies look like that when they're first born." I needn't have worried though. Even though Roy was blue I could still see his little hand moving slowly all by itself. It curled up and down and around a bit. Clearly this baby was alive!
I knew that I had still one last contraction to endure. The placenta needed to be pushed out but strangely I never felt that last contraction. The nurses may have pulled out the placenta themselves. I don't know. I do know that they whisked Roy and myself into the little room with the closed door where the other woman had been taken ten hours earlier. They helped me off the bed and onto the operating table and as soon as I braced my foot against the bed I felt it splash into a large mass of blood. I was bleeding a lot, like nine months worth of skipped periods plus interest. I didn't care. I was no longer in labor! Also (yay!) I was no longer pregnant and knowing that felt so good.
The OB draped me for surgery so that she could stitch up my vagina. I felt a few pricks since the aneasthetic wasn't total but I didn't care. I was so happy to be done with it. Another nurse placed Roy on top of me so he could start nursing. He immediately started suckling my left breast and the nurse complimented him for this. "Your son is very intelligent," she said, "A lot of babies need help nursing at first."
Yup, my son was smart. He was also tiny, despite being a good-sized eight pounds two ounces at birth. His little foot was curled up under my right breast as he lay on top of me and his bottom was so small that it fit entirely within the crook of my elbow. He had lots of black hair and large black eyes. Only one was open while he nursed so I opened his other eye just to make sure it was there. Call me neurotic!
The nurses stitched me up and bathed the baby. They put him in a tight little tub of warm water and I asked "Are you allowed to do that? I thought babies weren't allowed to have baths until their umbilical cords dropped off."
"This is to ease the transition from womb to world," the nurse told me.
"I think they know what they're doing sweetie," my mother said. My parents and husband had joined me and Roy in the room by this point.
The nurses put purple ink on Roy's feet and stamped them on his birth certificate. They put him in an ultraviolet-light bassinet (to discourage newborn jaundice, I guess) and wheeled him out of the room after we all sang "Happy Birthday" to him. The nurses also gave me medication to constrict my uterus and discourage too much bleeding .They put my hand on top of my lower abdomen and my uterus felt like a hard grapefruit under the skin. Still, every time they palpated my uterus I would feel a massive gush of warm blood flooding out of me. But none of this, none at all, discouraged me. I was so, so, so happy to no longer be in labor and to finally have finished my pregnancy. When they wheeled me to the post-delivery ward I saw that another pregnant woman had already taken my former bed. She was hooked up to a fetal monitor and I heard the beats of her baby's heartbeat as she started down the hard road that I had just finished. I felt so sorry for her and so glad that I was finished with labor. Of course the journey wasn't over then but I knew that a large step had just been surmounted and I was so glad it was done