Making Sense of What You See

A critical midwifery skill is to prevent (to the greatest extent possible) and repair the damage that can occur to a woman’s body when a baby is born. Sometimes, even if a laceration (“tear”) occurs in the genitalia or perineum, the best thing to do is to let the body heal on its own. At other times, suturing (stitching) of the damaged skin or muscle is required. While the hand skills of administering local anesthesia and suturing are not very difficult, learning to identify the relevant structures of the body in their damaged state and learning how to use one’s judgment as to where and what to repair is difficult and intimidating for any student. Here I recount a complex laceration repair that I observed early in my midwifery training. The woman’s personal details have been changed to protect her privacy.

*****

I have been on the unit for two minutes, and have forgotten to eat breakfast. I have missed a birth by a hair — I arrived early, but not early enough — and have had time to change and take a breath before entering Alba’s room. Her baby has been taken away (“Smelly baby,” the nurse whispers to me); its fever and odor indicate chorioamnionitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the baby in the uterus. Alba is propped up with her legs open as the midwife finishing 24 hours on the L&D unit investigates her vaginal laceration.

It is not the worst laceration I have ever seen, but it is the most unfathomable. Is it a “2nd degree”? A “3rd degree”? How many muscle groups will need to be brought back together? The midwife has begun suturing but Alba bleeds and bleeds — she has already lost 600cc of blood, and has received misoprostol to stop the hemorrhage. I enter with the midwife coming on for the day, her bright pink lipstick meant to inspire energetic confidence. After being awake for nearly 30 hours, the midwife repairing Alba’s laceration is showing signs of exhaustion; the repair is seeming unmanageable to her. She has missed the deepest point of the laceration, and is now wondering aloud if what she has done needs to be removed so that we can start over. The new midwife relieves her, and tells her not to worry. She positions herself at Alba’s perineum and adjusts her glasses.

Sitting by the midwife’s side, what I see is: lacerated tissue on the right, lacerated tissue on the left. Blood: rivulets, seeping, the occasional tiny spurt. Swelling. Interlocking stitches and a suture hanging from the vagina onto a clean towel. I am allowed to insert one sterile hand into the deepest part of laceration to feel the tunnel it forms under the existing suture; I am thankful for the epidural placed during labor that allows me to do this without Alba feeling pain. I am allowed to offer my opinion on how to repair it — a few deep, interrupted stitches, followed by further interlocking stitches — and I am permitted to wonder aloud how to perform such a deep repair when stitches have already been placed. (Repair on the horizontal plane, I’m told, not the vertical.)

Alba continues to bleed. I feel lightheadedness creeping over me and think about the granola bar in my bag, wishing I had stuffed it into my mouth before coming into the room.

The midwife stitches, I blot and retract labia. She instructs me: Suture like to like, and I attempt to identify any two pieces of tissue that actually look alike to me. I watch her deftly place interrupted stitches deep into the wound, and she points out the borders of the intact anal capsule; a deep 2nd degree laceration, then.

And as she slowly repairs, the bleeding stops and the muscle and skin come together — seemingly by magic, although I know very well that it is no such thing. After two midwives, nine packets of suture, 30 gauze sponges and an hour and a half, Alba’s body looks almost as if no damage had been done at all. I tell her how brave she has been, and how we will make sure that she heals properly with no infection. I am sweating.

The midwife turns to me and narrates my thoughts in a low voice: When I was a student, I was sure I would never be able to do this.

 

Telling Hard Birth Stories

Today is a quiet one on my narrow New York City street; the still, cold air, thick with snow, seems to be keeping everyone indoors. From my window I can see a lone soul scratching at the sidewalk outside his doorway with a shovel; the dull sound of ice giving way from the concrete echos distantly. Such days put me in mind of birth, of the calm needed to allow a woman to proceed unmolested, of the womb-like protection that should surround the mother. A day like today, on which I feel so grateful to be sheltered by four walls and roof, makes me want to shelter others, to bring everyone in from the storm.

For the past few months I have been wanting to use this space to tell stories from the end of my training as a midwife, but I’ve hesitated because they are often difficult stories. They are not the joyful, life-affirming tales of an eager, almost-midwife. Instead they reflect my state of mind at that time: sleep-deprived; constantly worried that I wasn’t skilled enough; convinced that I going to harm a woman or her baby.

As I was finishing my training, I was preoccupied with the transition to the very serious role of becoming a clinical decision-maker, and my concern over what would happen to the women and families that I cared for became all-consuming. All of which is, of course, a recipe for the burnout I then experienced and from which it took several months post-graduation to recover.

I’ve been wanting to tell the story of the last birth I attended as a student, mostly because it was so glorious, such a ringing high note on which to end my training. Instead of the sudden complications and near-disasters I had been witnessing, that last birth went so beautifully that there was almost nothing for me to do but admire the woman in her elemental elegance. No one laid an unnecessary hand on her, and she gave birth to her baby “in the caul” — that is, still encased in the bag of waters — like a goddess giving birth to the moon. For those of you who aren’t squeamish about human birth, here is a video of what that can look like:

 

Not long ago I realized that I had also been wanting to tell that happy story first in order to cushion the blow of all of the hard stories to come. I hadn’t wanted to scare off the students or aspiring midwives that read this blog, to have them think that this tremendous work is all anxiety and sleeplessness and heartache. But I do want to record how I actually experienced that time of transition, so I will begin with a snapshot of what happened to me at the end of last summer, when I slept very little, and with a promise that these stories won’t last forever.

*****

I am starting to forget things.

I always remember to check total weight gain, blood pressures, immunization status, but it’s all the other things — my parents’ anniversary, what time I’m supposed to be at the dentist’s office, which day last week I met with a friend…I’ve lost my makeup case three times this week. I definitely remember going out for dinner last night, and I definitely remember coming home and eating blackberries on the couch — and then I woke up in a haze at 8am. I have a vague recollection of announcing, at 11pm, that I was “just going to take a little nap.”

I read through a woman’s prenatal chart and see my name at the end of two of her notes; there is proof that I’ve seen her before, though I have no memory of it. I see a woman in the clinic elevator and put on the cocktail party face meant to meant to communicate all things to all people: that I’m a friendly stranger, that I’m happy to meet you, or that I’m so pleased to be seeing you again. I wait for her reaction to tell me which one is the case.

Five hours is starting to sound like plenty of sleep to me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only one unable to function after a few days of so little rest. On days off when I can sleep for eight or nine hours I wake up feeling like all is well with the world, and then wonder what on earth I would do if I had small children and couldn’t sleep for eight or nine hours on these days off. The next night I get five and half hours again and feel as if I haven’t slept in a year.

Normal people, the non-future-midwives, can’t understand why I start getting nervous and looking at my watch at 9:00pm the night before a shift. And I can’t understand how the seasoned midwife who has been on for the past 24 hours greets me looking so fresh, makeup recently reapplied and hair repositioned just so.

On the nights when I lie awake for a few minutes before sleep, after reciting the Shema, I think of Keats: “Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords/ Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;/ Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,/ And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.”