I gave birth to my first baby on March 17, 2020. It was nearly the exact moment the US began to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My pregnancy was full of surprises from the start, but ending with a COVID birth story was the biggest surprise of them all.
I knew my fate. I was not certain of many things during pregnancy, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I would go past my due date. I told my doctor this at my 28 week appointment – if my sister was any indication (she was a few days past 40 weeks with all four of her kids), then I would likely be “overdue”.
At the time, my doctor sweetly reassured me that going beyond 40 weeks is normal, common, and completely okay. As 38, 39, 40 weeks came and went, however, I was not completely okay.
Holy shit, was I tired of being pregnant. Oh, and holy shit, a PANDEMIC.
Before Labor Started
At my 38 week appointment, I asked my doctor if he could sweep my membranes (seriously, I wanted to get this show on the road). He said he would try, and boy did he try. Ouch. I was nowhere near dilated that day, which made it all the more thrilling when later that night I discovered some really gross stuff in my undies! I took it to be my mucus plug and texted my sister a picture of it.
Don’t worry, I asked her if she wanted to see it first and triple checked that I didn’t accidentally send it to our family thread for our parents and brother to enjoy.
Yup! That’s what it looked like! Oh my god, I could go into labor any minute!!! (Bless you heart, sweet and hopeful 38-week pregnant Kelly, you dear thing. Labor? Any minute? Oh, dear, such sweet and innocent optimism.) Fast forward two full weeks, two more membrane sweeps, two more “lost mucus plugs”, and maybe two centimeters of dilation. I was still pregnant AF.
At my 40 week appointment, on March 9th, we made a plan for induction. If I didn’t go into labor on my own, I was to be induced at 41+1 on March 16th, 2020. I could have pushed my doctor to let me go to 42 weeks, even though he had stated that he was really more comfortable with 41 weeks. I could have put my foot down, and he would have conceded. But I didn’t. In fact, much to my own surprise, I completely welcomed the idea of an induction.
I had moved past the very uncomfortable stage of pregnancy onto the in constant pain stage of pregnancy. However, my biggest motivating factor was not my mental or physical state, but rather the state of the world that week.
This IS a COVID Birth Story
As more and more information became available to the public, the great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 began to really hit its stride. Hand sanitizer became a regulated commodity, and the term “out of an abundance of caution” became a catch phrase. Suddenly people who thought everyone was overreacting in the beginning of March began realizing the gravity of this pandemic.
There were still so many unknowns, and so many things were shifting daily, hourly, that I embraced the notion of knowing exactly what day my baby would be born. I spent my last week of pregnancy alternating between soaking up every bit of information I could and completely shutting down, avoiding anything but Project Runway and HGTV reruns.
Matt’s parents got to town on my actual due date, March 8th, and tried their best to distract us, but having them here made me feel like a watched pot that would never boil. Everyone still held out hope that I’d go into labor. Looking back, I think I hoped I wouldn’t.
My own mom got to town on Sunday the 15th, the night before my induction. As we were getting her settled in the AirBnB across the street from us, I got a call from the hospital. I answered assuming they were calling to confirm I hadn’t had a baby yet and would still require their services the next day.
They were actually calling to inform us that, due to the pandemic, I would be allowed only one visitor while in the hospital.
At first, I took that to mean that only my mom, or Matt’s mom, or Matt’s dad could visit us. The nurse clarified that Matt would be considered my one and only “visitor” for the duration of my stay. No other family would be able to visit us at any point.
That was extremely disappointing, but we all also completely understood. Plus, I was grateful that I didn’t have to designate just one of our parents to be *the* visitor.
After tossing and turning for a few hours that night, I finally accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be getting any meaningful amount of sleep. The best I could do was try to rest. I was, of course, nervous and excited, but most of all I was in a lot of pain. I may have gotten all of 45 minutes of sleep before our alarm went off at 4am.
We arrived at the hospital a little before 5am and were escorted to the room where I was to labor and deliver. It was very quiet and dark in the unit that early in the morning. As we walked down the hall, I heard a woman scream, followed by a voice saying “Come on honey, you got this!” That is the moment it hit me that I was going to be in actual labor soon, almost as if the thought had never truly occurred to me before.
A lot happened fairly quickly once we got to our room. I changed into the gown while Matt unpacked a bit. The night shift nurse came in to get my vitals, fill out paper work, start my IV antibiotics (I was GBS positive), and check my cervix. While she was checking me she asked how far the doctor said I was at my last appointment.
I told her that he said I was about three centimeters dilated. She chuckled and shook her head, “Oh honey… hate to break it to you but you are about a two if I’m being real generous. Closer to a one, I’d say.” I think my doctor knew this and was trying to give me hope at my last appointment.
Once that was done, the nurses had a shift change and it was quiet for a bit. My IV was going, and I was wide awake. At 7:30am, my doctor appeared at our door. I love my doctor for reasons I can expand upon another time, so seeing his cheery face made me very happy, in a sort of sentimental way.
It was like our teammate had arrived and we were ready for the big game. We discussed the game plan – once this bag of antibiotics was in me, we’d get the Pitocin going at a very slow drip to start, and after that we’d place the balloon. He left to go check on other patients and the day shift nurse arrived to get things rolling.
Before she started the Pitocin she remarked that I was actually already having some contractions according to the monitor. I may be wrong, but I have a sneaking suspicion they might say this to all induction mamas, just to make them feel a little better. It worked, I felt pretty good.
I had no real plan for my birth, other than I was pretty sure I’d want an epidural.
Once it became clear that I’d be induced, however, I knew there was no way I was not getting an epidural. The only preparation I did for my birth was binge listen to The Birth Hour podcast (shout out to Bryn Huntpalmer for crafting an awesome resource), and I had heard enough episodes to know that those Pitocin contractions are no joke.
Spoiler alert, it turns out Pitocin contractions are indeed no joke. Nary a joke to be had. No joke at all, sir.
At 9am, after being on Pitocin for about an hour, my doctor came back to insert the balloon into my cervix. We had gone over this at my 40 week appointment, and I had heard many a birth story involving this crazy contraption, so I was sort of prepared for it. Sort of.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s basically a catheter that is inserted into your cervix, then filled with fluid to inflate a small balloon on the end, forcing your cervix to start dilating. Having it inserted hurt like, for lack of a better term, an absolute mother fucker. But once it was in, I didn’t really feel any different.
At this point the nurse upped the Pitocin drip a bit, told me to call if I needed anything, and bid us adieu. I was still very much awake, but I knew that these hours were precious. I knew I really needed to take advantage of this “downtime” to catch up on rest. I was barely feeling the contractions, the antibiotics were going, the balloon was in, and the nurse didn’t need to check anything for at least a few hours.
Wanna guess how much sleep I got? Ha.
I will say, I had this fantasy in my head that I’d be walking around, moving, doing laps around the hospital while I labored. Because I had the balloon and was on Pitocin, they said I could get out of bed and use the yoga ball, but I couldn’t leave my room or take my monitors off. That was the most annoying part of labor – the effing monitors.
All the cords and tubes and doodads tethering me to my bed and the area directly surrounding my bed, needing to get disconnected and reconnected every time I had to pee. I tried for the rest of the morning to rest while I could. I listened to a few podcasts and attempted to doze.
I wouldn’t say I ever slept, but I did get some rest. Every hour or so the nurse came in to increase my Pitocin, and by noon I was definitely feeling contractions. It was starting to get uncomfortable. Around 1pm she tugged on the catheter in my cervix to see if the balloon would fall out. It’s supposed to just slip on out once you’re dilated to about 4 or 5 cm, so the fact that it was still very much stuck in there was a little discouraging.
At 2pm-ish (my best recollection) the contractions started requiring my focus. At first just being aware that I didn’t hold my breath or tense my body up was all I had to do to get through them. They quickly became more and more intense, though. By 3pm I was really having to focus all my energy into breathing.
The nurse came into check on me, watched me have a few contractions, told me I was doing a great job breathing, and asked if she could check on the balloon again. This time it came out with no resistance when she tugged on it. I took comfort in the fact that although it was starting to get painful, I knew I was at least 5cm dilated. Half way there.
Little did I know, that balloon was the only thing standing between me and the big boss contractions. Immediately they started coming harder, faster, and lasting longer, and this is where I entered the time warp that is LaLa Labor Land.
It’s not that time stood still. It did not.
When I was in between contractions time was warp speed, but while I was in a contraction time slowed down so that each second was a minute. I breathed and moaned through another hour or so, Matt tried his best to squeeze my hips and put pressure where it would help. I think I ultimately told him to stop. touching. me.
(Did anyone else give their partner the “I‘m going to say really mean things and you cannot take it personally” talk?)
The nurse came back around 4pm to increase the Pitocin and hang another bag of IV antibiotics. I knew it was time to start thinking about an epidural. I wasn’t quite there yet, but I also knew better than to wait until I hit my wall to ask for one. I’m glad I brought it up when I did.
The nurse gave me two options – she could give me some IV pain meds now (as in, NOW or never), or she could order the epidural, BUT… before I could have the epidural I would need another entire bag of fluids. Also, the anesthesiologist was about to head into a C-section and wouldn’t be available for another hour and a half or so.
I opted for the pain meds to see how far they would take me, but I told the nurse to definitely get the fluid started because I wanted an epidural.
At 4:30pm she administered the IV pain meds. I’m not entirely sure what it was she administered, fairly certain it was an opiate though. It did all the things that opiates usually do to me, except make any real dent in the pain department. So I was basically a little high, a little fuzzy, very sleepy, but still very much feeling every second of each contraction. It did give me the ability to snooze in between contractions.
Around 5pm, however, whatever that fun stuff was wore off, and this is when I lost it. I wasn’t screaming, but I was crying. I kept telling Matt between each contraction,
“It’s bad, it’s getting bad, it’s getting really bad, I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not ready.”
My focused breathing became terrified panting, and I kept telling him, “That was a bad one, that was a bad one.” That’s all I remember saying, over and over.
Finally at 5:30pm, the nurse came in and I pleaded with her to get the anesthesiologist, even if my fluids weren’t finished, or if I couldn’t get the epidural soon, for the love of God, please stop upping the damn Pitocin. She said, “Let me go see where she’s at. She might still be in surgery, honey. You might have to wait for a little bit.”
And at that moment, I made a pact with myself that I would never, ever have another baby as the next contraction came.
By the grace of the labor and delivery gods, though, the anesthesiologist was actually on her way to my room when the nurse went to find her. The nurse came in and said, “Good news! We’re gonna get your epidural going now!” And that was indeed great news, but now I faced the seemingly impossible task of sitting up on the edge of the bed and staying still enough through a contraction to actually have it done.
The nurse and the anesthesiologist were great, though. I was so out of it at this point that I don’t think I ever opened my eyes. I could hear everyone’s voices, but I had my eyes clenched shut, taking directions as best I could. The nurse sat me up and remarked, “Ooooh, girl, you got that labor hair going!”
I began the day with a braided top knot that quickly dissolved into a tornado-stricken bird’s nest from all my rolling around in bed while breathing through contractions. I get it now. I get why women do the french braids.
The nurse held me in a sort of hug while the anesthesiologist talked me through what she was doing. Do not ask me where Matt was at this stage in the game, for all I know he was in another universe (but he assures me he was right beside me). It was all I could do to remain upright as we waited for a contraction to pass.
When the anesthesiologist (omg, typing anesthesiologist this many times is tiring, her name was Pat, we’re gonna call her Pat from here on) when Pat was done placing the epidural, they swung me back around and laid me down just in time for another big contraction.
My epidural was not instant. I felt every second of this contraction. I felt it from my throat to my pinky toes, like it was getting one last really good dig in, and it was the worst pain of my entire life.
Slowly, the epidural began to take effect and everything from my belly button down became numb. Wait, did I say everything? What I meant to say was everything on the left side of my body became numb. My right side still had feeling.
Pat told me that it might take a few minutes to even out, so as the next contraction came I had this surreal experience of feeling excruciating pain on just one half of my body. Then another contraction, and another, and still, my right side was fully aware of every wave of pain.
I told Pat and the nurse, and they seemed a little perplexed. Pat gave me a booster of meds in my epidural right as the doctor came in to check on me. He too assured me that it would even out soon. He checked my cervix and I was at 9cm. I was in transition and half of my body could feel it.
This was not the plan.
The nurse helped me roll over on my right side in the hopes that the epidural would take effect if I was in a different position. Two or three more contractions came, and still nothing. I was still crying, still panting in terror, it somehow hurt twice as bad on just half my body.
Finally, the nurse said, “I’m gonna cath you and empty your bladder. Didn’t you say you had to pee before you got the epidural?” As soon as she placed the catheter and my bladder emptied, the right side of my body went completely numb in mere seconds.
So heads up pregnant people, make sure you pee before you get your epidural! She helped prop a peanut ball between my legs and rolled me onto my left side. I was fast asleep about 20 seconds later.
I slept for two hours, but it could have been two days or two minutes. This is where I had to go back and look at Matt’s text message history with our family to get a timeline of events.
At 8pm the shift had changed, and a new nurse came to check on me and hang yet another bag of antibiotics (I was getting a new course every four hours). She lifted my blanket and said, “Oh, I think your water broke! Let’s check ya!” I must say, I much prefer cervical checks when I can’t feel them.
I was fully effaced and dilated. I was so excited to hear that, of course, but part of me really, really wanted to go back to sleep. Just five more minutes, please. Soon there were three nurses, a table full of equipment, and the stirrups came out. I was hoisted into a semi upright position and the nurse told me that she had called the doctor. He said to start doing some “practice pushes”, he’d be there shortly.
Any hopes I had had for a “walking epidural”, the kind where you still have some sensation, went out the window.
When Pat gave me that booster to try to help my right side, it just made me extra, extra numb all over. It’s really odd watching people lift your legs and move your hips and grab your feet and not feel it.
Time To Push
Anyway, the nurses directed Matt to stand on my right side and showed him how to help me hold my leg, and we were ready to start “practice pushes”. I don’t know if it was the position I was in, or if I was cutting off some major artery by leaning forward, but before I ever started pushing I began to feel faint. A wave of nausea hit me, then a hot flash, I started sweating, and the tunnel vision set in.
I told the nurses I was going to pass out.
I have fainted several times in my life, each time totally out of the blue and for no real reason, like while standing in line to order seafood, for example, or while waiting at a car dealership. I knew this feeling all to well. I was going to faint. They brought some cold rags, and leaned me all the way back. Mind you, I hadn’t even gotten to the pushing part yet.
I slowly recovered and asked to sit back up, then felt faint again. This happened a few more times until we found a happy compromise between sitting up and laying down that let me maintain my blood pressure. That’s when my doctor arrived. He was all smiles.
We exchanged pleasantries, as ya do before someone starts massaging your perineum, and I began pushing around 8:30pm.
Pushing with an epidural is difficult, and I knew that going in.
The nurses were great coaches, and Matt was very quiet but supportive, letting me know each time a contraction was coming. I think I got the hang of it after the first three or four pushes, but I could be wrong. I pushed for half an hour, and my contractions slowed down a bit.
Scary Stuff Started Happening
Between contractions my blood pressure was dropping, I was dizzy and faint, and the doctor and nurses had to remind me to take deep breaths. I was breathing so shallowly that the baby’s heart rate was also dropping.
It got to the point where I actually felt much better while I was pushing, because it was the only way I could keep my blood pressure up. As soon as the contraction ended, I got dizzy and my respiration became slow and shallow. I felt like I was slipping in and out of consciousness at that point.
Another hour passed of pushing like this. I kept asking if I was doing it right, was the baby coming down? They assured me I was making progress… at first. Matt could see about a quarter sized spot of the baby’s head eventually, and there was a lot of hair! Hearing that invigorated me. I wanted to meet this baby with tons of hair already!
I kept pushing, but my blood pressure and the baby’s heart rate kept dipping between contractions. Then came a break between contractions where I remember the nurse sort of shaking my shoulder and saying sternly, “Kelly, you have to take a deep breath. Take a deep breath, Kelly. You have to breathe, the baby needs more oxygen.”
I felt like she had woken me up out of deep sleep when I came to. I looked down and caught the doctor exchanging a somber glance with the nurses. He leaned over and said something to one of them quietly and she left the room. I’m pretty sure at that moment he had sent her to see if the OR was ready, but he never said anything to Matt or me about it.
He did, however, want to check the position of the baby, and after a few moments of watching him go wrist deep into my vagina without feeling any of what he was doing, he sighed, “Ahh… the baby is in an odd position. It’s sunny side up.”
I asked if that was okay, and he said yes but it would take a little extra work on my part to get its head to come down in the right position. He said if the baby would come down a bit, he could at least get the vacuum on and be able to help it rotate to an easier position, but as it was the baby was too high to use the vacuum.
I was the first one to bring it up – “If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to do a C-section?”
Listen, if this seems long, it is because this was the longest day of my life. So click here to read part 2 of my COVID birth story.
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