Not every labor nurse can care for a mother who will have a stillbirth. Some nurses just can’t do it, some just don’t want to do it, and some just aren’t good at it. Frequently, the same nurses are chosen over and over again to care for a mother who will not get to take their baby home. I knew early on that I would be one of the nurses chosen to care for these families. The first time I ever triaged a woman whose baby did not have a heartbeat, so many things happened at once. My hands trembled a bit. It wasn’t that I was afraid, they trembled because I wanted that bad to find her baby’s heartbeat. Disappointment, injustice, and heartbreak were immediate feelings that bubbled up from my stomach and washed over me. It took me a few moments to say anything. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what to say, but because I didn’t know what I was allowed to say. Over the years I’ve realized that waiting those few moments to speak confirms what the mother already knows, and somehow that is also part of the process. But then I felt this overwhelming motherly surge come over me. It strengthened my hands and gave me back my voice. I knew I had to be strong for the woman in front of me. I knew I had to guide her through the process, because I knew what was coming and I knew what would happen next and no matter how much support she had around her, I knew she would need me. The privilege to care for her felt like my responsibility. So I always knew I would be one the nurses that would frequently be called on to care for these families. And I have always been okay with that.
But I will never forget the last woman I took care of that had a stillbirth. It was while I was pregnant with my son that I took care of this woman, and although I did take good care of her, I suddenly found myself as one of those “other” nurses. When I was pregnant, I was blindsided at a routine ultrasound appointment when I was told my baby had a brain bleed while inside of me. I spent every day after that wondering if it would happen again, or if he would succumb to complications from the bleed. Every moment of every single day I wondered if I would become one of those mothers…if I would go to the hospital and be told that my baby no longer had a heartbeat.
When I put her on the monitor, my hands shook so violently my knuckles turned white from holding the monitors so hard. Panic and fear and embarrassment bubbled up inside of me, so fast and sudden and unexpected that I was afraid I would break down right there in front of her. I bit my lip and focused on her belly, moving the monitors around, pleading to God in my head to provide us a heartbeat. I brought an ultrasound to the bedside, and a physician on the unit offered to do the ultrasound so she wouldn’t have to wait for her own provider to get there. None of us wanted to delay her unknowing. And as we all visualized the still and stagnant heartbeat, the patient let out a cry that I can still hear if I close my eyes and think back to that day. Staffing didn’t allow me the option to say “I don’t want to do it this time.” Unable to hide my own pregnancy, every time I walked into her room I felt as if my swollen belly tortured her, taunting her of everything she was losing with each centimeter of progression. Staffing didn’t allow me the option to say “this time, I can’t handle this.” Anxiety weakened the support I normally provided. I guarded my emotions that day, crippled by the fear that I would be in her place the next day.
My patient and her family did not seem to notice that I was handicapped that day by my insecurities. They didn’t seem to notice how uncomfortable I was in my pregnant body as I cared for someone that was losing theirs. When I left at the end of my shift, I was so thankful she had still not delivered. For the first time ever, I did not stay past my shift to be with my patient that was so close to delivering. I hugged her goodbye, kissed her head, and told her I would pray for her family. I remember her looking at my scrubs, tight over my belly, as I shamefully tried to pull them down. And when she asked me when I was due, I pretended that I didn’t hear her, because I couldn’t answer her. I couldn’t tell her that we were due on the same day.
Driving home, I thought my scrubs were strangling me. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart thumped so loud and my head pounded so hard that I thought I might pass out. That night, I climbed into the bathtub and cried enough tears to fill the entire tub. I kept hearing her cries over and over in my head, giving voice to my own inner struggles. Now, almost two years later, I still think of her and wonder about her delivery. I wish I would have been strong enough to stay and help deliver her baby. And although I delivered five week early, I still think about that family when my son’s given due date approaches. I’m so thankful my baby survived, and my heart still hurts that hers didn’t.
For any family out there that has suffered, for any family out there who did not get to take their child home, know that nurses and physicians and midwives and all of us hurt for you. Every single one of us wants to hear the strong beat of a baby’s heart every time monitors are placed on your belly. But sometimes everyone forgets, sometimes we forget that we’re not invincible to what’s before us. The truth is, nurses are human. Some days we’re better at dealing with things than others. Not all of us know what words to say when “sorry” doesn’t even begin to describe how bad we feel for you. Please forgive us. And to the mother who I took care of almost two years ago who did not get to take her baby home, I still think of you. And I’m sorry that my hands shook, and that my voice wavered, and that I acted like I didn’t hear you when I was trying to hide my own pregnancy because I was so sad that yours was ending so suddenly . If I could go back, if things had been different—I would hug you, and kiss your head, and I would tell you: October 10th. I think of you all the time.
Until my next delivery ❤