My brain stopped working when the words Neonatal Intensive Care Unit came out of the doctors mouth. I sat on the exam table in my paper gown, strapped to monitors spitting out ticker-tapes, and tried to unhear those words. This is not an eventuality for which I had prepared myself. All those nights I stayed up worrying about things that could go wrong with this pregnancy, and I forgot to worry about preterm birth. The pregnant brain does funny things.
Terrible back pain had kept me up the previous night, I thought I must have a doozy of a pinched nerve. After that sleepless night, something told me I had better double check my list of warning signs, and sure enough back pain warranted a call to the consulting nurse. The nurse didn’t seem too concerned about it, but I was 33 weeks pregnant and, since it was the weekend, she thought I should stop in to Labor and Delivery to have them take a look, rather than waiting till Monday for a regular doctor visit.
I truly thought we would go in, wait forever to see the doctor, they would pronounce me a hypochondriac, and we would go out for dinner before going home.
Well, we did wait forever to see the doctor. When we got there, they got us right in to a triage room. They attached two monitors to my belly, one for the baby’s heartbeat, and the other for my contractions.
“Hey look, you just had a contraction.”
I did? I didn’t feel a thing. That’s right, sometimes labor sneaks up on you.
The nurse’s aid showed me how to read the tapes, the line with the spikes was my daughter’s heartbeat, the rolling hills were the contractions. And then she left. And we waited, and watched the spikes and rolling hills draw across a growing pile of paper. Until an alarm went off – my little one had moved away from the monitor. The nurse came in and repositioned the monitor and left. The alarm went off this way several times, and even went off once because the monitor ran out of paper. Finally, the doctor made her appearance.
She talked to us for a while, asked a lot of questions, then she did an exam. I was one centimeter dilated so she wanted to check me again in an hour to see if there was any change. So we waited and watched the ticker-tape some more. By now I had already learned how to move the monitor myself to chase my baby as she made her rounds of my womb. After an hour and a half, the doctor returned to check me again and see if we could get out of there and finally get something to eat. That’s when she started dropping words like preterm labor and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In 90 minutes I dilated an additional 2 centimeters.
This baby was trying to make her appearance seven weeks early.
The plan was to give me a shot of steroids today and another tomorrow. This would strengthen her lungs to help improve her survivability if she was born in the next couple of days. They started me on niphedipine to help slow down the process of labor, and they hooked up an IV of antibiotics to help guard against infection. In addition to the drugs, I was to stay flat on my back. Gravity, they have learned, has a role to play in moving labor along.
We were given plenty of time to digest this information as we waited for a room in the antepartum unit. I stayed in the hospital for eight days. In that time, I met several other expectant mothers with complicated pregnancies, most in much more dire circumstances than mine. One mother’s water broke at 20 weeks, another young woman had been airlifted to Seattle from Yakima, she didn’t speak English and had been in the hospital for over a month. Each mother’s story was heartbreaking and terrifying.
I know how lucky I am. Once things stabilized and my daughter reached a gestational age at which her birth would not be life threatening, they sent me home from the hospital with strict orders for bed rest. And bed rest, in this case, means flat on your back. I stayed pregnant, and in bed, for another 3 weeks. My daughter was born at 37 weeks, three weeks early, but perfectly healthy.
Amazing advances have been made in techniques for for saving the lives of infants born too soon. My daughter did not need to take advantage of them because of the amazing advances that have also been made in helping to prevent preterm birth. Thanks to the care we received, my daughter was born strong enough to breathe on her own.
For all these advances we’ve made, the United States still has a deplorable rate of preterm birth, birth defects, and infant mortality as compared to other nations around the world. This situation is particularly bad in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. We’ve made amazing advances, but there is so much more to be done.
Today I’m taking a moment to thank the March of Dimes for everything they do to help prevent birth defects and preterm birth.
And if you’re pregnant and your back hurts, talk to your doctor right away.