Last week I had the honor to be a part of one of the most beautiful VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) hospital births I have ever witnessed. I would like to share that couple’s story with you today as both a feel-good tale of personal triumph and a story of inspiration for all those moms planning a VBAC out there that might stumble upon my blog. Since this is a blog about “a nurse’s view from the inside” this story is probably much different than any other birth story you might have read from the mother or father’s point of view. But then again, maybe that isn’t so bad! Enjoy!
It was ten to 11 o’clock am as I walked through the lobby doors of the hospital I work at, rushing towards the elevator so I could punch in on time. As the elevator doors started to close, a hand shoved through the crack, forcing the doors back open. “Please make room!” said the woman, a phlebotomist who works in the hospital, in a shaky voice, “Woman in labor here!!” Following behind was a very pregnant woman, huffing and puffing as she waddled into the elevator, followed by what looked like her husband and her mother. “Don’t touch any buttons!” said the phlebotomist, “We’re going right up to labor & delivery!” Since that was where I was headed too, I smiled at the husband and said, “Don’t worry, you’re here now and she won’t have the baby in your car! I work up on L&D so I’ll show you were to register.” Something told me that if this woman was truly in labor then she would be assigned to me since I was just starting my shift. But she had to “pass” triage first, so after helping the family to the registration desk, I hurried into the locker room to change into my scrubs.
Fifteen minutes later the triage nurse came to the main desk, “I’ve got a term mom, 40 weeks 5 days, who’s five centimeters,” she said, “We’re gonna need to put her in a room…. And she’s a VBAC with a ‘birth plan’.” “I’ll take her!,” I said excitingly, knowing that I have my best days when I can assist a woman through labor, as opposed to getting stuck on the OR team or in the high risk ward running magnesium. (Not that those women don’t need a lot of TLC too, it’s just that I like labor the most!) Birth plans, natural unmedicated labor, and getting my patients out of bed…those are my specialties! I quickly set up the room across the hall as the resident finished the patient’s history and physical in the triage room. Then I quietly knocked on the triage room door and let myself in. The patient, Alyssa*, was standing by the bed, rocking her hips back and forth, as the continuous monitors strapped to her abdomen traced the baby’s heart rate and her contraction pattern. It looked like she was contracting every 3 minutes, and the baby’s heart rate was beautiful and reassuring. Her husband, Jared, was leaning nervously against the wall and her mom, Deb, was sitting quietly in the corner. I could really tell that Alyssa was lost in “Laborland” and I wanted to make the transition to her room as seamless as possible as to not break her rhythm and concentration too much. I quietly introduced myself and with the help of Jared and Deb, moved all of their belongings across the hall as Alyssa waddled behind.
I could tell that Alyssa was coping well with the contractions while standing but a quick glance at her prenatal summary revealed that she was Group B Strep positive and would need IV antibiotics (our hospital’s policy) and hence, and IV. Now I feel that I am pretty skilled at starting IVs, but I have not yet mastered starting an IV with the patient standing and swaying! So in the two minutes between the contractions, I explained to the Alyssa what I needed to do before the admission process was complete: get 5 more minutes of continuous monitoring on the baby (to equal the “20 minute strip” my hospital’s policy requires before we can switch to intermittent auscultation), take a set of vital signs, draw three tubes of blood, start an IV, and ask a few more questions. “Give me 8 minutes sitting on the bed,” I said, “and I can have everything but the interview done. The rest of the admission can be done with you standing up.” “Okay,” she said, “I can do eight minutes.” Eight minutes later the IV was in, antibiotic running, labs drawn and sent, vital signs done, monitors were removed, and the patient was helped out of bed (Phew!! That was close!! J). And it wasn’t a moment too soon because Alyssa was having a lot of back labor and sitting in bed was just making it worse!
Then there was a knock at the door. Here’s how the subsequent conversation went down…
Me: “Who is it?”
Med Student: “It’s just the medical student,” (said as he walked right into the room)
(I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to ask Alyssa if she was okay with medical students so I just kind of looked over at her and Jared and tried to judge their reaction.)
Med Student: “Hi I’m Michael. I have to ask you a few questions.”
(Have? How about “Is it okay if I ask you a few questions? Sheesh!!)
Med Student: “Are you being induced today?” (asked as he stared down at his paper)
Alyssa: “INDUCED! DOES IT LOOK LIKE I AM BEING INDUCED!”
Med Student: “Okaaaaay. Umm, any problems with this pregnancy?”
Jared: “Do you really need to ask these questions right now? The resident already asked her that stuff.”
Med Student: “Umm yeaaaah, I do. There is a lot of repetition but we have to ask again.”
Deb: “Doesn’t her prenatal summary tell you all of that?
Med Student: “Ummmmm….”
Me: “With all do respect, Michael. But I think they are trying to tell you that they do not want any medical students. Or anymore residents for that matter. Okay? So I think we are done here.”
Med Student: “Ummm, what am I supposed to tell the resident?”
Me: “Tell her I said that the next induction that comes in is all yours.”
As the med student left, Jared, Deb, and Alyssa all looked at me simultaneously and said “THANK YOU!” “I don’t think he was getting the hint,” said Jared. “Yeah,” I said, “I figured he needed it spelled out.” In hind sight, I think this was one of the moments that really helped me to bond with this family because after all, I understand how difficult it must be for families to come into the hospital and have to work with a nurse that they have even never met during one of the most intimate experiences of their lives!
I spent the next fifteen minutes finishing up the patient’s admission assessment as quickly as I could. I told Alyssa that if she was having a contraction to just ignore me, and asked Jared to help answer any questions he knew the answers to. (Unfortunately, our hospital’s pre-registration does not include performing an admission assessment and hence, it has to be done on arrival to the hospital. Usually, if a patient comes in for false/early labor a time or two, it gets done then but Alyssa had not been to the hospital her whole pregnancy, which is great, but it meant that I did have to bother her with some silly questions during labor. Kind of a bummer, but with the help of Jared, it went pretty smoothly.) It was during the admission interview that I found out some of the details of Alyssa’s pregnancy and prior cesarean section. Alyssa had an unremarkable health history and a normal, healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy. She was a G2P1, but since her first baby was born by cesarean section, she technically was considered to be a “primip” (healthcare slang a woman who is about to deliver her first baby) regarding a vaginal delivery.
Jared told me that when their son was born two years ago, Alyssa was persuaded into an induction at 39 weeks for “LGA” (a.k.a. large for gestational age, which by the way is NOT recognized as an appropriate indication for induction of labor by ACOG), was first given a few doses of misoprostol to “ripen” the cervix, followed by pitocin to stimulate contractions and continuous external fetal monitoring to monitor those contractions, then given a couple doses of Stadol and eventually an epidural for the pain, followed by artificial rupture of membranes to place a fetal scalp electrode after the epidural dropped Alyssa’s blood pressure and caused a prolonged fetal heart rate (FHR) deceleration, then an intrauterine pressure catheter to assess if the pitocin induced contractions were “adequate”, and eventually a cesarean section after 1 hour of pushing in a back-lying position for “failure to descent & cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD).” Thirty minutes later baby Kevin was born at approximately 2:00am, weighing in at 7lbs, 5 oz.
In my opinion, Alyssa was a victim of the “cascade of interventions.” Many maternity interventions, including elective induction, pain medication, artificial rupture of membranes, epidural anesthesia, back-lying positions for labor or for birth, etc. have unintended effects. Often these effects are new problems that are “solved” with further intervention causing a domino effect that ends up creating yet more problems. This chain of events has been called the “cascade of intervention” and unfortunately often leads to vacuum extraction/ forceps delivery, episiotomies or 3rd or 4th degree tears, and even cesarean section. Many of these women are often also then mislabeled with diagnoses like “CPD,” “failure to progress,” “failure to descent,” and at the end of it all, the obstetricians turn around and say, “Thank God we were in a hospital; look at all the technology we needed! So when will your repeat cesarean be??”
This time, however, things were different. After the birth of their son, Alyssa and Jared started to research more about labor and birth, VBAC, and natural birth. They interviewed and chose a doctor (Dr. Z) that was supportive of natural birth and VBACs, with the statistics to prove it! And here they were now, at my hospital, ready and rearing to go! Alyssa said that for the past few days she had been having contractions “on and off” but that they really started to get going at 8:00 am. When the resident had checked her on admission, her water spontaneously broke during the vaginal exam at 11:15am. It was now 11:45am and Dr. Z’s midwife entered the room. Although it had only been 30 minutes since her last vaginal exam, the midwife decided she would check Alyssa again since she seemed pretty active. And boy was she ever! The midwife’s exam showed that Alyssa had progressed to 7-8 centimeters! “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” Alyssa softly whimpered to the midwife. We all reassured her that she was doing so well and that things were getting more intense for a reason and to stick with it!!
The midwife then offered to help Alyssa into the shower to help alleviate her back pain. Alyssa seemed skeptical at first but we assured her that if it wasn’t helping, that we could get her right back out. So Alyssa agreed and the midwife and I, along with Jared, helped the patient into the shower. What happened for the next hour was one of the most beautiful displays of love, perseverance, hard work, and dedication I have ever witnessed. Alyssa turned her back to us and rested her hands on the grab bar on the shower and her head on the shower wall. Her cadence was this: Between contractions she would sway side to side, as if she was slow dancing. During contractions she would squat up and down, up and down, moaning in a low tone as she carried out her ritual. She just moved with the rhythm of her labor, listening so instinctively to what her baby and her body were telling her to do. Jared used the hand held shower head to spray Alyssa gently with a stream of warm water up and down her body, concentrating mostly on her lower back. I quietly entered the bathroom a few times that hour to check the baby’s heart rate with the portable doptone, trying hard not to disturb Alyssa’s concentration. Mostly, however, the midwife, her mother, and I stayed outside the bathroom door as to give Alyssa & Jared the privacy they needed to facilitate the progress of her labor.
At 12:35pm Alyssa told me that she was starting to feel a strong urge to push. The midwife entered the room and as Alyssa knelt in a hands and knees position in the tub, the midwife checked her cervix. To everyone’s surprise Alyssa only had an anterior lip of cervix left to go (this means she was about 9 ½ centimeters dilated)! After the next contraction, Jared and I helped Alyssa out of the shower to the toilet where we both used warm towels to dry her off. Then Alyssa walked over to the bed, “Can I kneel on my hands and knees?” she asked. “Sure!” we all said in unison, as we helped her up onto the bed. “I feel like I have to push!” Alyssa said convincingly and when the midwife checked her cervix, the anterior lip was gone…Alyssa was fully dilated at 12:45pm, only 1 hour and 55 minutes after arriving at the hospital! “You can start to push anytime,” said the midwife.
One of the best things about being a part of this experience was the fact that it was one of the only times that I have been present at a delivery where that a birth attendant has allowed the mother to use spontaneous or mother-directed pushing, as opposed to directed pushing. I knew that Alyssa was interested in using a variety of pushing positions for the second stage of labor from her birth plan and for the next hour and a half the midwife, Jared, Deb, and I helped Alyssa get into a variety of positions including right/left side lying, squatting, hands and knees, and kneeling.
(Side Note: I would like to digress for a moment to point out how important it is to be physically fit during your pregnancy whether you are planning for a natural birth or not. Many a woman I take care of blindly fills out a “birth plan” they find online where they can click on the boxes for options that sound “good” to them, without actually researching or thinking over what they are writing down. For example, they say that they want to try squatting during labor and birth, but couldn’t even do a squat at the gym pre-pregnancy. Although it is definitely true that a woman can sum up and realize an incredible amount of strength during labor and birth related to not only hormones but also sheer will power, it should also be known that labor is HARD WORK and pushing out a baby is HARD WORK which both require a great deal of physical strength and stamina. This is yet another reason why it is so important to follow a modified exercise plan and eat a healthy well balanced diet rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids before, during, and even after your pregnancy.) Let’s continue with Alyssa’s story…
What was so amazing was that although there were plenty of times during the labor and pushing phase that Alyssa would doubt her ability to go on (“I can’t do this anymore!” “The baby isn’t moving?” “Is the baby moving?” “I am so tired!”), she never gave up on herself. Each time she made a comment like that, we all took it as a request for more support. And every time we gave her more encouragement, cheers, and reminders of her progress and goals, (“Keep going!”, “You are doing so well!”, “We can see so much more of the baby’s head!”, “She has lots of hair!”, “Just a few pushes more”, “You are so strong, you are going to do this!”, “You can do this!”), she found the ability to keep going! Towards the end of the pushing stage Alyssa was (understandably) exhausted and was pushing in a modified lithotomy position while Jared and I supported both of her legs. Then all of a sudden Alyssa popped up and said (and I quote) “I need GRAVITY! I need to be UP!” as she sat upright into a full squat and pushed her baby’s head out with one gigantic roar! “Whoa, whoa!” the midwife and I said almost simultaneously, “Easy, easy, baby pushes.” “Blow like you are blowing out birthday candles,” I said. The midwife checked for a cord around the neck (which there was none) and cleared the baby’s mouth and nose. And with only a few more “baby pushes” Addison Joy was born at 2:27pm!
The room erupted into cheers of excitement and tears of happiness J! I put the baby skin to skin on mom as I dried her off with warm blankets and cleared her mouth and nose with the bulb suction. A quick palpation of the baby’s cord revealed that her heart rate was nice and strong and she was pinking right up! Jared and Alyssa kept hugging and kissing each other and talking to their new baby girl, “Hi Addison! Hi baby girl! I am so glad to finally meet you!” The midwife waited until the cord stopped pulsating before she cut it (per mom and dad’s birth plan) and checked Alyssa for any tears. Except for some swelling, she only had a small tear on her right labia that didn’t even require any stitches!! We kept mom and baby skin to skin for a full hour after birth and baby Addison nursed almost the whole time. When she was an hour old, I weighed her to satisfy mom’s curiosity and to everyone’s surprise the baby weighed 9 lbs 3 ozs!!! So much for “cephalopelvic disproportion” huh!!
And it was as I handed baby Addison back to Alyssa that she looked up at me and said softly, “I needed to know my body could do it. I knew my body could do it! I really needed this. Thank you.” So as you can imagine, I started to well up. I have never felt so honored to be a part of something so special. What a privilege to have a job where I witness the miracle of birth and the miracle of motherhood every week!
So let’s recap shall we. Alyssa, after having a cesarean section for her 7 lb 5oz son two years earlier for “CPD” and “failure to descent”, pushed out a 9lb 3oz baby after a 6 hour and 27 minute labor, including 1 hour and 42 minute of mother-directed pushing, without any pain medications or an epidural, monitored by intermittent auscultation, needing not a single stitch to her perineum! Her tools included good and relevant labor & birth preparation, appropriate and helpful family support, sheer strength, determination, and will power. The midwife’s arsenal included extensive knowledge of and experience with natural birth and labor support, a doptone, a trust in birth, and a belief in Alyssa’s ability to do it! No medications, no vacuums, no scalpels, no scissors, and no doubt!
Boy how I love my job sometimes J
*As always, names and any identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.