Before I had kids, I always thought of childbirth as a natural, magical and joyous experience. Yes, I knew it was going to be extremely painful but I also thought I had a pretty high pain tolerance. I was excited about giving birth. It was going to be the happiest and most memorable experience of my life. After all, both my mom (who had birthed 3 daughters) and my sister (who had birthed 2 sons at that time), had very quick and easy labours. So why would it be any different for me?
The birth of my daughter couldn’t have been anything further from “quick and easy”. After 32 hours of labour, my midwife finally looked at me and said “I think it’s time you had an epidural”. I had hoped for a natural birth, but in that moment I would have welcomed anything that would take the pain away. About 10 hours after the epidural, my daughter was finally born. I didn’t know it at the time, but as soon as her head appeared the midwife noticed she wasn’t breathing. To make matters worse, her shoulder was stuck. A senior midwife was called into the room for support. She reached her arm in and managed to free my daughter’s shoulder. As I waited for my daughter to be placed on my chest for some skin-to-skin bonding, a group of doctors and nurses rushed into the room. I had no idea what was happening. I looked over at my partner who was praying next to me. They quickly got her breathing and took her out of the room to NICU. I finally got to meet my daughter for the first time about two hours later. This was not the magical experience I had imagined.
It took me a long time to convince myself and my partner that we should have another baby. Eventually we assured ourselves that the next time would be different. That this time we would know what to expect. So, four and a half years later, I was ready to give birth again.
We got to the hospital in the middle of the night. My contractions were already a minute apart and I was filled with confidence. The midwife had done a quick examination and given that I was only a couple of centimetre dilated, she suggested we walk around for a bit. As we walked through a dark and quiet wing of the hospital, my water broke. It was like a scene from a movie. I felt a huge gush and then water poured right through my pants and onto the floor. I dropped to my hands and knees and couldn’t move. The intensity of my contractions increased drastically. My partner ran to find a wheelchair and wheeled me back to labour and delivery. After examining me again, my midwife had decided to call in a doctor. The baby’s heart rate was low and there was meconium in my amniotic fluid. We were going to have an emergency C-section.
As I was being rushed into the OR, a nurse asked “would you like us to keep you awake? I’m sure you’d like to see your son being born.” I tried to say “yes” but as I opened my mouth I began to vomit and couldn’t stop. Then the nurse said something like “that’s not going to work, we’re going to have to put you under”. And I was immediately placed under anesthesia.
When I woke up, I was incredibly swollen and attached to all kinds of tubes. I was told my son was doing well but being kept in NICU for a few days. The doctors explained that my son was born just minutes after I got into the OR, but briefly afterwards my blood pressure became unstable and I had experienced excessive bleeding thought to be secondary to an amniotic fluid embolism. What should have been a 45 minute procedure, lasted over 3 hours. I had lost approximately 4.5 litres of blood. Luckily, the doctors were able to save my life through blood transfusions.
That day, the blood transfusions continued and I was being examined frequently. A few hours later, my heart rate spiked and I had significant bleeding from the incision site. I was taken for a CT scan where they discovered I had internal bleeding. They needed to place another IV in but were out of options on my arms, so they put a central line into my neck (a long thin tube placed into a large vain above the heart). After the central line was in, I was back on the operating table under anesthesia.
I woke up the next morning in ICU. One of the nurses that came in to examine me said “you know, you should consider this your birth as well”. Shortly afterwards, the nurses brought my son up from NICU. It had been more than 24 hours since he was born. Holding him for the first time didn’t feel the way I expected – I felt detached. In my head, I actually questioned if they had given me the right baby. This feeling of detachment would last for weeks, which also resulted in me feeling incredibly guilty for feeling that way.
Over the next couple of days, I was showing signs of improvement. I was still on blood transfusions but things were starting to look more stable. One of the nurses wheeled me out of my room to shower. As we went down the hallway, I saw a pregnant woman looking like she was about to go into labour. I was completely consumed with anxiety. I needed to save her. I needed to tell her not to go through with it! I quickly realized that it was too late to “save her” and hearing those words would no doubt terrify her. In that moment, I also decided that it’s probably better not to share my birth story. I didn’t want anyone to think that they might have the same experience.
On day 6 things started to get worse again. My heart rate was up and I had a fever. I could feel that something wasn’t right. The doctors took me for another CT scan and found an abscess in my abdomen. A specialist was called in to remove it and I was back on the operating table. This time there was no anesthesia. I was awake for the full procedure.
At this point, my son had already been discharged from NICU. The nurses could no longer help with his needs and I was now responsible for keeping this tiny human alive. I had just started seeing the hospital physiotherapist who was helping me move and walk again. Thankfully, they allowed my mom to stay in my hospital room to help while my partner took care of our daughter at home.
Day 7, I was finally released from ICU to the maternity ward. As I waited to be examined by a nurse, I overheard her talking to a another mom that had just given birth. “You did such a great job.…you got him out so quickly…you should be out of here in no time.” Every word hurt. What had I done wrong? How could I have failed so badly (twice!) at something that should have come so naturally? Tears started to stream down my face. I felt like, somehow, this had all been my fault.
Day 8, I was discharged from the hospital. My life as a stay-at-home mom of two was about to begin. My husband was back to work and about to start travelling again. To be honest, I don’t remember much of those first few weeks home or even that first year. I was living in full on survival mode. I am so incredibly grateful for my family, who were instrumental in getting me through the really hard days and especially for their support with my daughter who was completely unfazed by what was happening. Having a midwife was also extremely helpful. My midwife had stayed in the OR through the c-section and came to visit me in ICU. Her support for my son continued once we returned home. Looking back now, I wish I had hired a postpartum doula. Having a doula around a few days a week would have been a worthwhile investment.
Four years later, a news story popped up on my phone “Sask. curler Aly Jenkins dies from rare childbirth complication”. I froze when I read the second paragraph “…Jenkins died from an amniotic fluid embolism.” I never told anyone that I had an amniotic fluid embolism. I tried not to think about my son’s birth too much, but reading that article brought out a lot of emotional baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying. I cried every night for two weeks straight, thinking about Aly and her family. I read every related article I could find. I even requested my medical files from the hospital. I had gone down a deep emotional spiral. It wasn’t until this point that I realized I might suffer from some form of postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Recognizing signs of PTSD can be hard. When I look back now, there were some pretty obvious triggers, like the anxiety I felt when anyone I knew was about to go into labour or avoiding any thoughts of my time in ICU. As hard as it was to read through my medical files, I’m glad I did. It helped me understand and accept what had happened. But what helped me the most was talking about it with my friends and family. Those conversations were pivotal in processing my emotions and ultimately helping me move forward.
If you’ve had a traumatic birth experience, I encourage you to share your story, whether it’s with a therapist, doula, midwife, doctor, a friend, or a family member. We’re so busy taking care of our children, that we often overlook our own wellbeing. It took me over four years to begin my healing journey, it’s never too late to start yours.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who donates blood. Without you, I wouldn’t be here to share my story.