My Baby Didn't Die
Content Notice: This birth story mentions the potential loss and death of an infant, grief, birth trauma, cesareans, medical anomalies, NICU, newborn illness, and alludes to stillbirth. Please navigate away if you are sensitive to these topics.
One year ago today, my baby didn’t die.
The night before, either in response to a cord accident, or causing it, she flipped breech. All 12 lbs 8 oz of her. I didn’t know that’s what was happening. It felt like a huge contraction, but none came before or after it, so I chalked it up to being 41 weeks and 4 days pregnant with a fifth big baby, soaked in a bath, and went to sleep.
The next day started like any other when you are heavily pregnant and sneaking past due. A sigh and realization that you aren’t in labor...again. Had a late breakfast. Texted some friends. Watched a movie with my bigs.
When Saturday was nearing an end, my husband offered to take the kids to the park so I could have some quiet. This was the first most important part of this story. My house is usually very busy and noisy, which we love, so alone time is rare.
In the silence of the late afternoon, I realize I haven’t taken time to count her kicks. So I make a huge ice water and wait. And wait. This is usually her active time. The time of day where she makes me groan while she stretches. She typically has the hiccups. But today, there aren’t any stretches. No hiccups. No wiggles. No butt sticking out.
I decide to encourage her. I look for something sweet. I eat a scoop of ice cream and go lay down. I talk to her and rub her and gently nudge her. I wait. And wait. Nothing happens.
I pull out my doula skills. I do some pelvic rocks. Some inversions. Nothing. She’s not even shifting.
My belly feels abnormally heavy. Not from her usual weight, but a sad, solid heavy. My alarm goes off. Something isn’t right. Nothing is right.
My husband walks in to find me sobbing. I tell him we need to go to the hospital. He thinks I might be having a “I’m still pregnant!” moment. I’ve had them before, so I don’t blame him. He says she will move, she’s probably just sleeping.
But he calls our midwife anyway. I speak to her and she hears me. She can hear it in my voice, this knowing. She tells me to go and she’ll meet me there.
We put kids in the car, I grab only my purse, and text my doulas. I am glad my husband is calm and hopeful, and that he is the one driving.
My palms are sweating and my heart is racing. I know too much of what this might mean, and I’m terrified that the non stress test and monitoring will confirm my worst fears...that it is too late. I can feel my blood pressure rising with the stress.
We take the elevator to the second floor, and with a shaky voice I tell them that I haven’t felt my baby move all day. She is kind and calm and takes us to a room. I change. She takes vitals. My blood pressure is high. And then the moment comes. She puts the monitor on, and we hear a heartbeat.
My baby didn’t die. This is the day my baby didn’t die.
But the heart rate is not a good one. It’s high. Really high. And not going down. They come in and out, grab the strip sheet, check my vitals, rinse and repeat. They’ve called for a biophysical profile ultrasound, and we wait for them to come.
My doulas and midwife have arrived to be with us. My father in law comes to be with the kids in the waiting room. It is the shortest few hours ever. The time flies and slows all at once.
The ultrasound tech comes in and begins. She stops to type “breech” on the screen. We are all in shock since she has been head down for many weeks.
Even now it feels so real, I am back in that room. Staring at that screen. At a very still baby. The flutter of her heart is the only movement on the screen. My mind cannot comprehend why she isn’t moving. She’s alive, right? There’s her heart. Why isn’t she moving?
The tech tries to encourage her to move. She pushes a bit with her hands. She moves the ultrasound wand all over. She pulls out an attached tool that vibrates vigorously and makes a very loud sound. She pushes it into one side of my belly. Nothing. Moves to the top. Nothing. Side. Middle. Bottom. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
She puts the wand and tool back and leaves the room. By this time, I am once again sobbing. I know she needs to come. And I am scared about what awaits us on the other side. Scared we are too late. Scared of another cesarean. Of being knocked out when she’s born. Of her not crying when she comes out. Of her dying.
She brings the doctor in. This doctor and I have a past. Not a fun one. She flips through the pictures. And the doctor looks at us and says, "It’s not good." She scores a 2, which is generous, and only because the fluid level is somewhat stable. Then she says it. “We need to get this baby out right now.”
There is urgency in her voice, and I know it’s true. I ask for a quick moment and they say yes, but please make it fast. The machine is rolled out and they leave. Suddenly, my hands are filled with my doulas hands. My husband's hand on my leg. My face cradled in my midwives hands. Hands, hands, hands. They are holding me to the earth right now. I cannot stop the tears, the grief. My baby, my birth, my baby, my baby.
My midwife gently says, “Kelli, in 20 years of practice, I’ve never seen a baby fail a BPP so miserably. But we are here and she still has a heartbeat. And you saved her by coming here.” It is all I need - to know this is exactly what needs to happen.
I will pause here in my story to tell you how deep the layers of hurt that go here. In addition to the current situation, we have a history of trauma with this hospital and even with this doctor. My first cesarean left me in incredible pain immediately following surgery and subsequently infected, my second left me debilitated because of compressed nerves. They cut my second child during surgery and created an issue that kept us stuck in the hospital ICU and separated from our baby for a week. There was poor treatment, violation of our rights, and a whole lot of not listening to or believing me. I’ve worked for years to undo the trauma these births gained me. And here I find myself, once again, facing a cesarean after two beautiful vba2cs and an unknown status of our long awaited for baby. We broach the idea of moving to a more family centered hospital, but quickly rule it out because time matters. It’s all that matters right now.
My midwife steps out to talk with the doctor. She explains my trauma and asks that the staff move forward with it all in mind.
The doctor comes in and puts her hand on my leg and sits on the side of the bed. Another set of hands. It is just what I needed to know this is the best right thing. We have a short discussion and then I say it. “Let’s go. Get her out.”
Every nurse and physician has been outside of our room waiting for us to say the words. The blur begins. More hands. IVs, shaving, iodine, vitals, monitors.
The doctor says she’s giving the anesthesiologist five minutes while they scrub in to try and place an epidural so I can be awake. If it doesn’t work, I’m out. He rolls off paperwork while prepping my back. He gets it on the first stick.
And suddenly there are hand squeezes and forehead kisses and a bed rolling very quickly down the hall pushed by countless people and nurses grabbing caps and booties without stopping and calling out orders.
I am put on the OR table, strapped down, drape up, scalpel to skin. I can feel it. And suddenly I am receiving another bolus and flipped head down, feet up. Another pinch test, and it’s worked.
They bring my husband in and he grabs my hand. So many hands. I feel them all, deeply grounding me, making me feel so far from alone.
She is out so fast. She is weak and attempts to cry. It sounds awful but it’s sound. She’s alive. And our hearts are pulled a million different ways. For now it’s not “is she dead?”, but “will she die?”
The NICU team is working on her and she is sounding better and better.
I am having a hard time staying awake. I’ve always had trouble with anesthesia, so the anesthesiologist has given me some sort of cocktail to keep me more stable. It is making me tired. I hear the doctor say she’s pinking up. I hear her comment on my almost non existent uterine scarring, which has made reaching the baby quickly a cinch.
And then somehow, we are in recovery and the baby is in the warmer being assessed. They tell me she is going to get to nurse. Even through my extreme grogginess, I am excited. Does that mean she is completely ok? Is this all over?
She nurses, but is becoming listless. I think maybe it’s because we’ve been through so much. But she’s not controlling her temperature at all and her blood sugar is low. They want to take her to NICU, and I want to do skin to skin but my fight is small and the exhaustion and meds are making it impossible for me to stay coherent. So she goes.
People are coming in. I don’t remember who or when. Except for one, my best friend. I remember losing it again as she took my hand. Hands. We’ve been through a lot together and this day will always bond us even more.
I am eventually taken to a room. I sleep. Once awake, I ask to go see her. They remove all of my lines and my husband lifts my mostly numb body into a wheelchair.
The NICU is hot and dark. But then she’s there, snuggled on my skin. We get to nurse again. Her blood sugar stabilizes but her temperature is still not. They are running all sorts of tests. I begin to get sick. So I’m taken back to the room for more meds and rest.
The next few hours change everything.
As we are getting ready to go see her the next morning, we are told we need to wait. They come in to tell us she is not doing well.
Multiple seizures. Kidney failure. Liver failure. Pulmonary hypertension. She is on multiple medicines, cpap, and on low stimulation restriction. This will mean no more skin to skin. Limited NICU visits for us and none for others. I am even told I shouldn’t touch her.
We are heartbroken. We announce her birth and ask for our people to rally.
We are called in that afternoon to watch a seizure in progress. If I thought that things had been hard up to that point, this moment proves me wrong. It is the most helpless feeling a parent can have to watch their newborn endure that. Pink skin, soft rolls, perfect lips, red hair. Clenching and jerking and foaming.
When we return to our room, we fall into each other’s arms and sob. My husband has been the one holding us up until this moment. Watching his fear played out in tears makes my grief that much deeper. At some point, we both fall asleep, albeit restless, from pure exhaustion.
NICU is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Glimmers of hope, frustration, endless pumping, good news, bad news, confusing reports, exhaustion, constant change, not enough change.
For 8 days, we keep watch. Eight impossibly long days. EEGs, echocardiograms, sonograms, blood test after blood test. Slow improvements. From cpap to nasal cannula to no oxygen needed. From IV to umbilical catheter to being fed through a tube. Pumping every two hours around the clock. Slow and steady recovery of her organs. And then finally, provisional release to a room-in for 48 hours with us.
The blur suddenly stops. I don’t know how to feel normal, but we just dive in. She lays on my shoulder, her arms and legs free from lines and cords. She nurses well and freely. We nap, do skin to skin, get to know each other as if nothing has ever come between us. I dress her and brush her hair, and change her diaper. Her siblings come to meet and hold and explore her. “Look at her little toes, mommy!” “Can I give her the paci?” “I love you, Tilly!” Our hearts swell and bodies relax and begin to release the stress of it all.
The NICU continues to monitor her and confirm, she’s doing fine. We will leave on seizure meds and see a pedi neurologist, but she’s mostly fine. After two days, they give us the discharge papers. We go home.
And then we are home. We are home and nursing, sleeping, cuddling. We are home, and my baby didn’t die. And over the next few weeks, I think of how grateful I am that my baby didn’t die. With every doctor appointment, every dose of medicine, every milestone reached, every cleared and perfect test, every week and then month, every retelling of the story. She lived. She lived. She lives.
And today, she is one. One whole year of smiles, giggles, feet kissing, perfect health, breastfeeding, growing, snuggles, babywearing, naps in my lap, rolling over then crawling then walking, sundresses, hugs, splashing in the bath, sweet cries, saying mama, open mouth kisses, sun in her red hair. She lives.
*Our family is so grateful to every person who touched our story. Countless medical professionals - our family doctor and pediatrician, lab technicians, sonographers, neurologists, cardiologists, the entire NICU staff, the doctors, the nurses (oh the nurses, so many times you held me together), the Emergency Room doctor and nurses who saved my life, even the janitor on the postpartum floor who checked on me daily. Our church and homeschool community and friends and family who fed us (so much food!), sent us gifts, soaked my feet, entertained and cared for my children’s hearts, let me cry, brought us flowers and fruit and elephants, drove me around, prayed endlessly and sent me scripture and quotes and love and love and love, let me nap, held us close. Our doulas who never left our side, who held our hands, who made the difference in how we navigated this process, and helped us come through with less trauma. Our midwife, who heard us and held us and advised us through it all, who taught me how to listen to my body, to do kick counts, to use my intuition. So many hands came together every step of the way. We always felt your hands.
And to Matilda, who held on with all of her might. We are so thankful for God’s care of you and us, little one. Happy Birthday.