INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE MIDWIFE
I’m posting this chapter from the novel Tightwire to celebrate International Day Of The Midwife. For the extraordinary people who choose this unique career — deepest gratitude. With special thanks to Mary and Pama, who guided me through nearly two days of labor, and launched me into the journey of parenthood many years ago. You were my inspirations when I created “Deborah” and “Rose.”
A Healthy Baby Girl
July 3, 1958
“Breathe, Mrs. Black,” Nurse Rose clasped her patient’s hand. “Have you heard of the Lamaze technique?”
“Sure,” Geoff answered for his wife, who was in extremis. “We took some classes last month.”
The two nurses exchanged impressed glances. They were both five-five and slender, but the resemblance stopped there. Deborah was all shades of brown, with black hair. Rose had red hair, hazel eyes, and wall-to-wall freckles.
“Good for you,” Deborah said. “Most people don’t know about Lamaze. It’s such a new idea.”
They watched Leah as they spoke. She lay still, panting. Even with her gargantuan belly, bathed in pain, she was a stunning woman: small boned, five-two, Mediterranean blue eyes, creamy complexion, jet black hair. She had refused morphine, as Geoff nearly body-checked the outraged Dr. van Heyst, the maternity ward’s holy terror attending, who insisted that “the little lady needs medication so she won’t remember.”
“Little lady my ass; I’m a rhino,” Leah snapped in the doctor’s face, then turned to her husband. “Get him out. He’s giving me hemorrhoids.”
Rose and Deborah gaped as Geoff, an ex-running back at Harvard, finally threatened to punt the obstetrician “into the next county if you come near my wife with a needle.” Leah had laughed between contractions. Now she was light years beyond humor.
“I’m overheating,” she managed to whisper. “I’m dizzy.”
Her nurses reached for cool washcloths. Women in labor, at some point, always felt like they were in a roasting pit. The Los Angeles summer heat didn’t help, bringing temperatures to the high nineties. The hospital’s state-of-the-art air conditioning system had just shorted out, and only brute agony kept Leah from fainting.
Dr. van Heyst strutted in to measure her cervix.
“Not a word from you,” Leah ordered fiercely. “But feel free to examine me. At this point, you could drive a tractor right in, and I wouldn’t feel a thing.”
The doctor nodded, tight-lipped. Rose and Deborah stifled their laughter. Their tyrant boss was actually intimidated by this tiny, laboring woman. Soundlessly, he finished his work. He shot the nurses a surly look, mouthed ‘It’s time,’ and stalked out.
Two orderlies appeared, and lifted Leah onto a gurney. They spoke gently, and she trusted herself in their arms. Rose and Deborah wheeled her into the hallway.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Black, but you need to wait here,” Rose said. She and Deborah had it down to a science – handing off the dads, when the moms went into surgery to deliver. “We need to put her under anesthesia to have the baby. Hospital policy.”
“It won’t be policy much longer. Lamaze will take over.” Leah spoke weakly, then her eyes widened as her cervix stretched impossibly to ten centimeters. Geoff took her hand, and their eyes met. She nodded to her husband as she felt her first urge to push. The pain was beyond imagination. Geoff grabbed the gurney.
“She’ll be fine,” Rose soothed him.
“In a few minutes she’ll be asleep and she won’t feel a thing.” Deborah took Geoff’s arm with the perfect blend of respect and empathy. “Come with me, Sir. She’s in good hands.”
“Stop the gurney!” All eyes snapped to Leah, but Nurse Rose and Nurse Deborah kept moving. “STOP THE FUCKING GURNEY!” The women froze. The year was 1958, and fuck was not standard fare, even in the throes of labor. “Push me down that side hallway, behind the heap of laundry!” Leah commanded. The nurses followed, as Geoff eased his wife’s transport out of sight. Leah forced herself up on her elbows. “I was under anesthesia for my first child’s birth. I am not missing the birth of this child. I’m having this baby right here, right now, in this hallway, with no anesthesia.”
Leah collapsed down for another contraction, and Geoff took over.
“We’re doing it her way,” he stated flatly. “You both can go. Leah and I will do it alone if we have to.” The nurses looked at each other, then up at Geoff. He stood a rangy six feet, with the easy assurance of an athlete. His curly blond hair was graying, his eyes green. His mouth was full, his nose straight. He was a handsome man, and with his wife, a striking couple. “It’s Leah’s body, and this is our baby. I know it’s not conventional, but we’re going to have a natural childbirth.”
“But the doctors say…” Rose began.
“She’s a doctor,” Geoff interrupted.
Leah gritted her teeth as the next contraction seized her – a vise gripping her lower back, radiating outward to clamp her hips, her pelvis, her thighs. Her hair was plastered to her forehead. Her face dripped sweat. She whimpered, no longer able to control her breathing.
“She doesn’t look like a doctor,” Rose said absurdly.
Deborah watched wordlessly, her brown eyes enormous.
“She graduated from Radcliffe, Phi Beta Kappa,” Geoff bore into them. “She just got her medical degree from UCLA, only two women in the class. She graduated number three out of fifty. She’s a doctor, and a woman, and childbirth hurts. Her pain is normal. She wants to be conscious for the delivery, and your hospital policy won’t allow that, so she’s going to have this kid right here, right now, in this hallway.”
“Geoff, shut up and breathe with me, goddammit!”
“Is she always this determined?” Rose whispered to Geoff as the contraction tapered.
“She’s right here, ladies,” Leah barked. “And yes. She’s always this determined. But at the moment, she’s unusually dilated, which makes her dangerous.” Geoff looked at Deborah and Rose; they looked at each other; suddenly all three were laughing.
“That wasn’t a joke,” Leah snarled, “and the next one who cracks a smile while I’m having contractions will…”
“Dr. Black,” Deborah touched Leah’s shoulder, “it’s okay. Where I come from, they said only white girls could be nurses. Some rules need to be broken.”
Rose bent towards Leah. “I’m Jewish. In the first grade, my teacher told the kids to be kind, it wasn’t my fault. The hallway it is, Doctor.”
Leah reached for her midwives.
Deborah squeezed her hand, dodged into a locked room, grabbed a cup of ice chips. Tenderly, she spooned a few into Leah’s parched mouth.
“I’m scared,” Leah whispered.
“Stay angry,” Deborah answered.
“I’m always angry,” Leah began to cry. “I usually hide it. Now I feel like I’m leaking. What’s wrong with me?”
“You’re in labor,” Deborah placed a soothing hand on her forearm. “This would be a good time to stay mad as a lioness.”
“Keep your hand on me. It’s so comforting.” Leah’s eyes widened in horror. “What kind of a thing is that to say? I’m sorr–”
“I’m right with you,” Deborah answered simply.
Rose cooled Leah’s face with a moistened cloth. Deborah held her the entire time. Geoff coached her – when to breathe, when to push, letting her nails tear his hands when she lost herself in the pain. The head crowned, a burning bowling ball forcing its way through. Leah tried to tell them that something was horribly wrong, that she was ripping apart, that her Lamaze instructor’s description of “opening like a flower” should be punishable by dismemberment. But before she could find the words, there was a soundless popping, a vicious wrenching, and Deborah caught the baby in a clean sheet. The pain was immediately bearable.
The adults wept.
Deborah nestled the baby in Leah’s arms. She cradled the warm bundle, stroking a tiny cheek coated with moondust. Her nose was squashed, her ears proud and prominent. She had two tufts of hair, one dead center, and one towards the back.
“She’s beautiful,” Geoff breathed.
Rose touched Leah’s hand and whispered, “Ready for the invasion?” She mussed her own hair, untucked a shirttail, and ran into the main hall. “Get a doctor!” she screamed. “It happened too fast! Someone help us!”
“What the hell’s going on?” Dr. van Heyst charged to the rescue. He grabbed
the bleating infant and did a quick exam. “It’s a healthy baby girl,” he glowered. “Congratulations, Mrs. Black.”
“It’s Doctor,” Deborah grinned, as the Birth Squad burst out laughing.
“It’s Caroline,” Leah reached for her daughter.
Tightwire, a novel by Amy Kaufman Burk, is available on Amazon.