My mom recently described my wife as the “most happy pregnant girl she’d ever met.”
And she was right. For seven months, Bianca owned her pregnancy like the gift from God that it was. We went camping almost every weekend during the months of June and July (her 6th and 7th months of pregnancy). She slept on air mattresses, wore belly-baring bathing suits and happily drank from her water bottle while the rest of her friends (myself included) clanked bottles of beer and glasses of wine on summer nights.
She was growing a baby, and she was putting every ounce of positive energy into the process.
From January to July, she never got even remotely sick or swollen, and she rarely got exhausted. But on the 33rd week of gestation, that all changed. The story below picks up at that point.
A Headache to Remember
It was the morning of Saturday, August 3, and my wife and I had spent the previous evening with a few friends projecting a movie onto the outside wall of our apartment complex. I had just taken the whole week off of work to prepare our apartment for the arrival of our baby, whose due date was six weeks later, on September 20.
Bianca went back up to our apartment a bit early because she was tired and she wanted to elevate her feet, which had started swelling a few days earlier. The swelling came out of nowhere, but we assumed that the normal side effects of pregnancy had finally caught up with her. It also coincided with 100 degree heat, which we assumed to be a factor.
While sleeping that night, Bianca was a bit restless. She started shifting her body around in bed in the early morning and at one point began taking deep, measured breaths to keep herself relaxed. As daylight came, she woke before me (which is somewhat rare on weekends) and took a shower. She later explained that she had felt some slight tightness in her neck area and could no longer comfortably sleep.
After her shower, she went and sat on the couch in our living room. By this time, I was in the living room as well, clicking around on my computer. She told me she had a headache. I asked if she thought it had something to do with her poor night of sleep. She didn’t know, but she didn’t think so.
After a few minutes on the couch, she started rubbing her hands on her face and head, groaning and complaining that it had become “the worst headache of her life.” She then asked if I could go get her some Tylenol, which is a very un-Bianca thing to do. She doesn’t take pills or medicine to relieve pain. When she gets her period, she hunkers down in bed with a heating pad and rides the wave. She grinds it out and encourages her body to do the healing.
Her birthing plan, for example, was to deliver the baby in a tub at Sutter Davis without any medication or epidural. She would quell her pain with comforting music, meditation, deep breathing and the fact that she would soon be holding her baby. (We were waiting to find out if we were having a boy or a girl.)
I ran to CVS and came back with the Tylenol, which she took right away. Twenty minutes later, she walked into our kitchen and aggressively threw up in the sink. Not because of the Tylenol; just because it was time to throw up.
I helped her back to the couch, scooped up the previous day’s clothes off the floor and we drove directly to Sutter Davis Urgent Care in search of answers.
Hospital, Ambulance, Hospital
Bianca’s systolic blood pressure, we found out, was 180. Normal systolic blood pressure for women is between 100 and 120. Basically, it was extremely high and she was in danger of having a seizure, which would set off a domino effect of awfullness. There were also high levels of protein in her urine.
These – along with headaches – are symptoms of something called preeclampsia, we were told. It was the first time I had ever heard that word. I would hear it and use it myself hundreds of times in the days that followed.
Bianca was immediately placed in a wheelchair and taken to the birthing center. We assumed we would learn how to treat the preeclampsia and then we would go home. Bianca knew of the condition, but she wasn’t too familiar with the specifics.
Nurses took samples of Bianca’s blood and hooked her up to the first of many IVs. We waited patiently for the doctor to come in and deliver us the details. Finally, she did:
The only way to cure preeclampsia is to deliver the baby, she told us, and then she explained that an ambulance had already been called to transport Bianca to Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento. They would have to induce labor that night.
When the doctor left the room, Bianca resigned to tears. I leaned against her and began crying myself, trying to assure her that everything would be OK, but struggling to come to grips with the situation myself.
Digesting that information was probably the most emotionally taxing moment of my life. When I called my mom to let her know what was happening, I struggled to form sentences through broken sobs. After deciphering the words “hospital” and “Bianca” and “labor,” she told me she was on her way.
Bianca was loaded into an ambulance and shuttled quickly to Sacramento. I drove by our apartment in our car so that I could feed the cat and grab what was supposed to be Bianca’s pregnancy tote bag, which was to be filled with supplies that would be useful during labor. But since we were still six weeks away from her due date, the only thing in the tote bag was a silky nightgown. I grabbed it nonetheless and hit the road.
To Labor or Not to Labor?
When I got to Sutter Memorial Hospital, Bianca was in a shared room that was partitioned off by a curtain. Her roommate had the curtains down and the TV on. It was dark and sad compared to the spacious room she occupied at Sutter Davis.
Bianca had been given a steroid shot (which I learned helps mature the baby’s lungs) as well as an IV of magnesium sulfate. Her pain was now in check and her blood pressure no longer at dangerous levels. Still high, but now under control. Her preeclampsia, at this time, had become “mild” rather than “severe,” like it had been earlier. Labor would wait, and more labs would be conducted.
By that evening, Bianca’s legs and feet had swollen up to the point that you couldn’t even feel her ankles even if you searched for them with your hands – another side effect of preeclampsia. She could feel the fluid pooling up in her hips as she spent all day and night reclined in a hospital bed.
Her sister, Vanessa, drove up north from Orange County immediately after getting the news on Saturday. She and I went back to sleep in Davis after Bianca had fallen asleep. When we returned early the next morning, her blood pressure was still in check. Her mom arrived on a flight that morning as well.
The goal, according to the doctors, was to keep the baby growing inside her for as long as possible, which possibly meant several weeks in that shared hospital room, swelling up and laying in bed.
This possibility made me so sad for Bianca, and yet I knew the value of the maturation process that was happening inside that womb. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how valuable that maturation process could possibly be when the aforementioned womb is terribly sick. Is it still an ideal environment when the mother’s body is rejecting her own placenta? I had a hard time accepting that.
After getting poked and prodded and tested all day, Bianca slept Sunday night in the hospital – the same night Curiosity landed on Mars. If that rover ever finds anything groundbreaking, I’ll surely be reminded of that hospital room.
And then came Monday, August 6. Our one-year wedding anniversary.
The morning was filled with lab tests and urine samples, just like the previous two days. But that afternoon the doctor entered the room with a bit of news. Bianca’s blood pressure was back up. Excess protein was again spilling from her kidneys into her urine. Although she was taking occasional pain killers (her medicine boycott went indefinitely on hold), she could feel the headache creeping back in.
Her preeclampsia was once again severe. It was time to induce labor and birth this baby.
A Change of Scenery
We gathered up our clutter and loaded it onto a cart – this included plants and flowers that had been brought by guests to help cozy up the room. Bianca was wheeled from the High Risk Maternity area to Labor and Delivery. We unloaded the cart and put the flowers and battery-operated candles on the windowsill while nurses hooked Bianca up to machines and another IV.
The doctor said Bianca deserved a shot at a vaginal birth, which is something she has always looked forward to. (She’s kind of crazy). The doctor said it was actually still the preferred way to go anyway, because Bianca felt strong enough and a C-section is major surgery.
So we moved forward with the plan to induce labor around midnight with a pill that would thin out Bianca’s cervix. That would take about 12 hours, at which point they would begin giving her Pitocin. After that, labor could last a couple of days. Or it could happen quickly. There was no way of knowing.
While Bianca settled into her new bed, I ran downstairs to my car to grab a portable speaker so that Bianca could listen to the birthing playlist she had begun creating on my computer. When I got back up to the room, she was wearing an Oxygen mask, which scared the hell out of me. Bianca told me that the baby’s heartbeat had dropped a few times while I was away. The drops coincided with her Braxton-Hicks contractions.
The doctor returned to the room a few minutes later and took a seat in front of Bianca’s hospital bed. Here’s the gist of what he told us:
There are two factors that dictate these decisions. One is the mom’s health. The other is the baby’s health. Up until now the baby had been pretty much unaffected, which is why the doctors had decided to treat Bianca’s symptoms and monitor her closely while the baby continued to mature inside her. Now that her symptoms had again become severe, the doctors decided it was time to induce and get the baby out. These decisions were made out of concern for Bianca’s safety.
Now, for the first time, a decision was being made out of concern for the unborn baby, who was showing the first signs of distress. You could see on the monitor – which tracked Bianca’s contractions and the baby’s heart rate – that as contractions came on, the baby’s heart rate noticeably dipped. That hadn’t been the case in the previous days. It was time to start talking about a C-section, the doctor said.
“When would we do it?” Bianca asked the doctor.
“In about an hour,” the doctor replied.
Our moms had just left the hospital (after having been there for nearly two days) to check into a nearby hotel room. Bianca and I spent the next few minutes alone, hugging each other and again accepting the evolving situation.
The next 45 minutes were a blur. While frantically loading our plants, flowers and tote bags onto the cart, a nurse came in with a set of disposable scrubs and told me it was go-time. I threw the last items onto the cart, quickly changed, and then followed Bianca’s gurney through some double doors and into a private hallway. They wheeled her into a room and left me to sit on a chair outside while they numbed her up.
I sent our parents the following text message:
“Ask for Bianca Cox’s C-section recovery room. Go there. Surgery bout to start in a few. Turning my phone off. Love you.”
Those were easily the heaviest five minutes of my entire life. I had spent the last 48 hours comforting my wife and helping her to navigate a difficult situation. The birth she imagined for herself had evaporated into a cloud of tubes and wires -- and now scalpels and anesthesia. I knew I loved my wife before all of this, but as I sat and waited in that hallway, my love for her and our baby really was all-consuming.
There are plenty of clichés about the character-building power of adversity. “Never to suffer would never to have been blessed,” said Edgar Allen Poe (according to a random Google search I just did for “adversity quotes”).
There are thousands of other quotes just like this one. But seriously, it’s true.
Bianca became pregnant very easily, within weeks of us deciding it might be a good time to start a family. For so many people, getting pregnant takes years, or it isn’t possible at all. That’s some serious adversity, right out the gate.
Some women end up getting very sick during pregnancy and their bodies veer off in crazy, unpredictable directions, leaving them uncomfortable for the better part of a year. Also adversity.
Bianca’s first seven months were nothing but smooth sailing. Total ease. Not a single noteworthy challenge. She truly was the happiest pregnant person imaginable. And then came that Saturday morning headache. We were now being tested.
Finally a nurse peeked out the door and told me I could come in. As I entered the room, Bianca was looking back at me and smiling while a few people in hospital masks worked on her abdominal section. The surgery area was shielded behind a tarp.
I sat down next to Bianca and asked how she was doing. She said she felt like a frog in a biology class, but that she was fine. She told me to sing her this song, so I held her hand and did so very quietly in her ear. A few minutes later, the doctor asked if we were ready to meet our child. We were.
He held our baby over the tarp so we could find out for ourselves if we would be raising a son or a daughter: We were greeted by Noah Jameson Cox, dripping wet in a glorious coat of blood and amniotic fluid.
Bianca and I kissed each other again, and then I followed Noah across the room, where he was cleaned off and I snipped his umbilical cord.
He was then rushed outside to a portable nurse’s station. At this point, he was taking very deep breaths for several seconds at a time, and then stopping completely, to the point that he would go limp and silent. Scary stuff for a guy who was only a few minutes into fatherhood.
The nurses would rub his back and he would fire right back up into the heavy breathing routine. This happened over and over for about the first 10 minutes of Noah’s life. His cart was quickly wheeled to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he was hooked up to an IV and a heart rate monitor and all kinds of other stuff. During the commute, he suddenly snapped into a normal breathing pattern, like the little champion that he is.
His cry was simultaneously heartbreaking, relieving and beautiful. I’m sure that feeling is true for parents of full-term babies as well. It’s just nice to hear life in action.
While the nurses settled him into his new home, I began snapping photos and becoming increasingly blown away by the fact that this amazing little guy had been in my wife’s belly for the past seven months.
Bianca was wheeled in about an hour later so that she could touch her baby for the first time. I loved watching this moment, even though it was sad that she couldn’t hold him.
That night, she pumped two almost-full bottles of breast milk (colostrum), which is rare for a mom when a baby comes so early. The nurses were impressed. I loved watching Bianca get excited about the active role she was able to play in the nourishment of our young baby — especially right after surgery and while coping with a serious illness.
Seven Days in the Hospital
Bianca’s initial arrival at Sutter Memorial was at around 1 p.m. on Saturday, August 4. Noah was born two days later, on Monday night — on our anniversary! Bianca spent the rest of the week recovering from surgery and dealing with lingering preeclampsia symptoms and blood pressure issues. After a few difficult days of getting her blood pressure in check, she was released the following Saturday afternoon, exactly one week after checking in. Now we’re both home.
Noah has been on the up-and-up since the minute he was born. It’s tough that he will have to remain in the nursery for another couple of weeks, but it’s the reality of the situation, so we wholeheartedly accept it. We can visit him anytime we want, 24 hours a day, so we’ve built that into our routine.
He’s eating and breathing and generally just being extremely cute and awesome. He just needs a little bit more time to grow, and then he’ll be home with us. And since that’s really all that matters, I’ll end this story right now and get back to work.
Follow Justin Cox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CoxJustin