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Why This Can't Be Happening

Updated on February 15, 2011

Non Fiction

All names changed.

It is night shift, and the lights are low. The labor and delivery unit is filled with the smell of Seattle's Best brewing, and slightly suspicious garlic hummus someone found raiding the fridge earlier. It's a mercifully slow night, and it is winter in San Francisco, though who can tell? It is nearly Christmas, and the unit looks like a well-intentioned, but drunken Santa Claus has paid a visit. The girls, the nurses on the unit, are celebrating the downtime by filling the empty hallways with our gossip, laughter, and stories that just won't end. The unit is suddenly an adult playground without patients, and managers. We are playing jokes, including one involving water balloons that we must swear an oath never to speak of again...but it was more than fun.

The phone rings, and it's a triage call, asking to speak with a nurse. I recall that, yes, I am a nurse, and I take the call. It is a man whose wife has been having contractions for a couple of hours, and they are about every 5 minutes apart...should they come in? he wants to know. It's their first baby, and I'm pretty sure that it's the typical false alarm of the first timers, but I tell him to bring her in. Just to check.

"Incoming," I say to the charge nurse. She's trying the hummus, nurses really will eat anything.

"It's their first baby, though," I say and shrug. She shrugs back, she's thinking a quick exam and a goodbye chat for the couple when they come.

"Em has a Spanish-speaking mom in the nursery. I'm going to go translate for her," I say, and head towards the nursery. It isn't my turn to take the next labor patient, and I need to stay busy to stay awake.

I return from the nursery and the man from the phone call earlier, and his wife are now in a labor room with one of our nurses. I am contemplating eating the hummus--now even more suspicious, but I reason that at least I am in a hospital if it tries to kill me. Again, nurses will eat anything.

Jackie, the nurse taking care of the couple, comes out of the room, and quietly, without urgency, asks me, specifically, for help. As I head to the room, my intuition, the intuition that I never asked for, kicks in, and I know that something is more wrong than I can fix. I can feel it, and I know to be afraid.

I see the woman in bed's face, and I know her right away. I'd met her months earlier at a health food store. We'd chatted about her pregnancy, and I had asked her where she was going to have her baby. When she told me she was delivering at the the hospital that I was on contract with, and that she was in fact related to one of my co-workers there, we were both charmed by the coincidence. I'd said, 'maybe I'll see you there!"

Now here she is--in a labor room that is too quiet, on a fetal heart monitor that is not making any sound.

"Baby seems to be hiding...wanna give it a try?" Jackie says to me, without meeting my eyes. She knows, just like I know, that I will not find a heartbeat.

My blood goes cold, as I pretend there is any possibility that I am going to find this baby's heart beating. Jackie has been a nurse 5 times as long as I have, and if she wasn't able to get a fetal heartbeat on a pregnant woman at term who is not obese--then there was no chance I would either. We both know this.

But here's the thing. When you're looking into the eyes of a hopeful and worried mother, and her hopeful and worried partner, devastating truth is not on your side. There's part of you that has to deny it for a minute or two, or you, the nurse, will flee the scene. You'll want to quit nursing, quit life, quit time, quit the world. Truth that painful needs buffering. And nothing is true until it's said out loud, and into the world where you can no longer take it back.

Here's why this can't be happening--she's young, healthy, and in a stable relationship. She's sweet. She is not one of our crack whore patients, spitting out a kid, thanking us kindly for the IV access, and rolling out of the door before we can finish putting the delivery instruments away. She took vitamins. She loves God. She went to childbirth classes. It's nearly Christmas, and while that celebration does not mean anything to me--it does to her. It can't be happening because it's her first baby, and it's a boy, and he has a name, and a decorated nursery, and a huge family who can't wait for him to be their's. It can't be happening because no human being should ever have to carry a child for nearly a year only to have a couple of nurses tell her that her baby is--that her baby doesn't have a heartbeat. Nurses can't pronounce death. It can't be happening because she's related to one of our co-workers, our family, she's ours. It can't be happening God, please hear me, a coffin should never be that small.

In my guarded, overly-sensitive teen years I wrote the phrase, "when a heart bleeds clear, it's called a tear." I didn't know anything. I hadn't yet heard the primal, soul-crippling wail of a mother's loss. Not until that night. Not until, there was no way to deny the loss of this child once a doctor, an hour later, pronounced the baby's death with an ultrasound confirming what we had pretended not to know.

Right before the doctor pronounced the baby, my co-worker,who was this baby's grandmother, had shown up in sequins, fresh from a Christmas party. She was asking questions, and I couldn't look at her. There's no book, no class, no anything that can possibly prepare a person, as a clinician, to face this scene. All you can do is to fight with everything the urge to run, and instead hold your ground while you fall apart inside. You say shamefully pitiful, and useless things like, "I'm so sorry."

What would you do?


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    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 2 years ago

      OH MY GOD!!!! I just saw this!! Notifications from here go to an old email account of mine. You got me...I'm crying. Way too emotional these days. Nine??? December will be 9 years??? How can that be possible?? Your family is gorgeous starting with that extraordinary force of nature called true love that is so obvious between you and Nicole. A beautiful marriage is a really beautiful's fertile ground for bringing wonderful human beings in to the world. In and after trauma you both remained such incredible and inspiring people with just about the biggest hearts I have ever seen. I'm so happy to have been privileged to meet both of you and will never forget any of the 3 kiddos, you or Nicole. Permanent imprints. This blog is all but inactive now, just kind of a playground for me and sometimes my husband, but I can not tell you how happy it made me to see this!! Thank you so much!!!

    • profile image

      Jay 2 years ago

      I still read this every now and again. It hurts to read but is a great reminder of the true, raw emotions that were had that night. I really appreciate what you have written for us. We are truely blessed with all we have. Our Guardian Angel (almost 9, wow, 9 years ago already), our Daughter (7 next month), and our youngest Son (just turned 5 last week). It has been told to my Wife and I that an experience such as this will either 'Make you or break you". We broke down TOGETHER. We took turns being the strong ones foe eachother. We have formed a bond that will never be broken. We are stronger than ever. Our Little Man was needed by God. He is in the Best place possi le and we cant wait to meet him one day. - Dad

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Gosh, what a terrifying experience! I can't believe you had a heart attack so young, that's horrible. Sometimes when things are very bad we get to see the decency left in humanity, and it is definitely soul-stirring. Thanks for sharing's an excellent reminder how important it is to steal the microseconds you can to be a human and not a clinician. The egotism in medicine does occasionally reign--the glory goes to the olympically skilled, the faster, the robotically factual and accurate, and the otherworldly precise. It doesn't take much heart to do most of those things, and all of us have to be reminded not to just get things right, but to be human about it. Thanks again for reading, you made my day!

    • tnderhrt23 profile image

      tnderhrt23 7 years ago

      Let me tell you, sometimes God uses us all as angels...sometimes that little tender touch or shared tear means everything...and we are placed where we are needed most when we are needed most...I had a massive heart attach in 1996, at the age of 43, and came into the ER in arrest. When I came to, I was surrounded by about twenty faces I had never seen before and was scared out of my mind. I remember looking around that circle, from face to face, needing one single person to make eye contact with me, just one, to reassure me...and it was the last face, the face of a little Latino nurse who was on my right side, who looked into my eyes and saw my fear and my tears, who reached out and took my hand...and gave it a little squeeze...I will remember her as my angel ALWAYS! Nobody knew if I was gonna make it through that night or not but her compassionate care and touch made all the difference in the world to me. That is what I thought of as I read your piece. You are an angel in my book, Girl!

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Thank you so much tnderhrt23, but a myriad of angels just cracked up laughing...I'm no angel. But I definitely do care, and I appreciate the read.

    • tnderhrt23 profile image

      tnderhrt23 7 years ago

      God bless you for caring enough to share this painful experience. Compassionate caring nurses are God's own angels. Thank you.

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Thanks so much for the read, theseus. The losses are a significant part of what we all do in healthcare. I always want to convey that no one gives a doctor or nurse anything special emotionally, and that the majority of us are affected deeply by the losses of others. We don't study hard, lose sleep, and bicker amongst ourselves to lose. We play to win. When the best of our science fails us, we are pissed and miserable. But at the end of the day, what's most important is the people suffering the actual loss. They're the priority, and in this case it's no different. The depth of this for me goes back to what they were feeling. I really appreciate your comment, theseus, thanks!

    • theseus profile image

      theseus 7 years ago from philippines

      Two words-So poignant.This was written with such feelings that I feel like I was there, seeing what you have seen, feeling what you must have felt. Thank you for this.God bless you.

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Hi, Rusty. The couple this story is about are two of the most optimistic, hopeful, magnetic people it has been my privilege to meet. They are truly amazing and they now have an amazing little family. They've welcomed two children since losing their son this way, and as I'm working on a project with them, I can say the worst part of this is that little boy didn't have the opportunity to be a part of their family. If you met them, I swear to you, their energy and spirit would make your day.

    • Rusty C. Adore profile image

      C Levrow 7 years ago from Michigan

      A powerful piece. My heart broke just from seeing the picture you included. I felt that I knew what was coming, but I can't even imagine what that situation would be like for anyone involved. So heartbreaking and tragic. I know a couple that went through a very similar situation and I cried for them. Thank you for writing this with such grace and compassion.

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Hi, Right Black! Thanks for coming back.

      The Jews had 3 primary festivals: The Festival of unfermented cakes (Exodus 23:15), The Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34:22), and the Festival of Booths (Leviticus 23:34-36). These festivals were in relation to the harvest with greater spiritual significance but were not about "the coming of Jesus." Prior to his death, Jesus instituted a replacement celebration for Passover, with the message that a more significant deliverance was taking place. He used the scriptures, with which they were very familiar, as evidence of his being the Messiah, quoting most often from Isaiah. There is no scriptural record of Jesus celebrating his, or anyone else's birth. But really, I invite you to look up the origin of Christmas. It isn't just on the wrong day, it's in reverence to the wrong God.

      Also, not to worry, I'm happy to hear what you have to say. I try for open honest discussion about any topics about God.

    • Right Black profile image

      Right Black 7 years ago from Huntington Beach, California

      SJ, just a thought, Christ celebrated all of the other festivals and events which were meant to point to His coming, how much more should we celebrate His real coming. Yes, it isn't celebrated on the "correct" day but any day would do for me. Remember, abuse does not rule out proper use. Just a thought.

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Right Black, great to hear from you! Nursing is...crazy. When I first started as a nurse I used to have to be sedated to watch shows like "House" or "Grey's Anantomy." Those shows should be cartoons. Doctors running around, drawing their own labs, starting their own IVs, giving correct orders, pushing their own meds, heck, even knowing where the meds are, always being around when something goes wrong, diagnosing their own patients, not ever sexually-harrassing nurses. Where are these hospitals? Mars? Are they hiring?

      In all seriousness, nursing opened a lot of doors for me, it's part of the very full life that I lead, and it's challenged me, humbled me, and brought me a lot of joy. It's part of who I am, and my guess is your sisters have probably arrived at a conclusion something like this...or they would be bankers by now. ;-)

      To be honest with you, I don't think the Christ would celebrate Christmas. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the origin of Christmas, but today, during the holidays, suicide is up, our ERs are over-crowded, drunk-driving is up, and the people who are celebrating the hardest are the higher-ups in retail. And scripturally, it just doesn't fit.

      Thanks again for reading! Very good to hear from you.

    • Right Black profile image

      Right Black 7 years ago from Huntington Beach, California

      Wow SJ, all of my sisters are nurses and courageous women as I am sure you are. Thanks for relating this experience and lifting the shroud that covers the sometimes thankless job of nursing. And to think there are those who would say it's not a baby, my God.

      Just curious, why doesn't Christmas mean anything to you?

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Hi Lis, have I called you a fruit loop, lately? I don't want to get off schedule. We parking-lot discussed this moons ago. Now everything makes sense? I can't wait for launch either! I decided I want to to try for some anonymity now, though. I can't un-ring the bell if it becomes what people think it will and I have to claim it. Dude, can you see me running a company? That will be so hilarious!! I just had to get this attorney used to me today. Definitely got the, "who is this girl?" vibe from him. But the whole thing is a gift, I can tell. In the scriptures it is written, "every good gift, and every perfect present comes from above." This is a no-brainer.

      Hope I use it the way I'm supposed to. Hope it's a lot of fun and doesn't get on my nerves.

    • profile image

      lisa 7 years ago

      Hey, I promised I would read and then promptly went home after my shift and passed out. It was, as I knew it would be, wonderful to read about this tragedy from your point of view. Thanks for sharing and for being one of the writers in my life that keeps me smiling. I can't wait for launch and always want to be kept in your loop. I can't remember what I used for my user name, etc. before so this is what you get. Thanks for sharing, they are an amazing family and it was a blessing to me to be with them for the next go round even though I missed the first. Love you and appreciate reading you...

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Thanks so much, Eiddwen. If you could know this family now, they would blow your mind with their strength. When this baby's dad and mom read this they cried, and then he said, "ok, let's wash our faces and go for a walk." They are amazing people.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 7 years ago from Wales

      A beautifully written hub. Carry on with the good work and I often think that it's amazing what we do actually cope with when we have to. I have only just found you on here and I will be back in a bit to read some more of your work. Thank you for sharing this with us. Take care and God Bless.

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Took me a minute to realize who this was! It was an honor to write this. When this little guy's mom told me how much she loved this, I knew I would cry when I got the chance ;-). I never wanted her to read it, but when she found out, she asked where to find it and actually liked it.

      It IS time for vacation! October has GOT to be calmer at the hospital, or I really will lose it. I'm considering going to Santa Barbara before launch date. I just realized I'm going to have to spend a good amount of this weekend content writing for the site, and last night I was told I should hire a lawyer. Can I just say that I'm completely plugged in on what happens on this site, and have not even the slightest desire to run a company? The idea of leaving labor and delivery literally makes me queasy, I don't think I can do it. Enjoy the Caribbean, my friend, you sooo deserve it! I love you.

    • profile image

      DAM 7 years ago

      Yes, there are tears of pain and sorrow but, thankfully, also tears of joy and hope. Thank God our profession has more the latter than the former. The perspective is what makes the joy the brightest. I don't think you can have one without the other. Our job demands an understanding of both. And you have such a perspective of caring and compassion that you can be therapeutic for both. (By the way, don't give up on those vacations for re-fueling.) Wonderful and soulful writing. Thanks for sharing.

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 7 years ago

      Hi Lorie! I didn't know I wanted to be a nurse until I was one, and I'll admit that it is one very demanding job. But you'd be surprised what you will do, or can do when you're facing tragedy. I bet you could handle tough circumstances in nursing better than you think.

      What I lack in courage I compensate for with acting skills. ;)


    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Hi S.J. I thought I wanted to be a nurse, played nurse-all of it. But as I grew older I realized that I do not have the strength it must take to handle situations such as these.

      What incredible courage you must have.

      Great writing, as well!

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 8 years ago

      Always exploring, thanks, most of my days are not like this, and btw nowadays they wouldn't even think about doing a circumcision without lidocaine. I'd have a doctor's head for trying a circ without pain meds, that's ridiculous. I've seen babies sleep through circs, things are different. Maybe we have the Joint Commission to thank?? Thank you for reading!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 8 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Very sad, when i was in R.N. training, labor and delivery was the part of nursing i would avoid if possible, your story is the reason why.I didn,t like the nursery any better, once the Dr. came in to do a circumcision snipped off the fore skin, the baby lost his breath from the pain, when i said oh that hurt so bad the Dr. said," oh he didn,t feel it " i,ll take surgery any

      Great hub

    • ahostagesituation profile image

      SJ 8 years ago

      Hi Kristin. Thanks for your comment, and, while I certainly don't know what it is to be apathetic, I think anyone would feel compassion for this woman if they'd been there for this. It doesn't get much worse then that. But that said, most of my days are not this day. They are dramatic, chaotic, stressful, challenging, sometimes uneventful, they are many things, but usually not this. When they are, we support each other. Life is a team effort. I do what I do because I love doing it. I wouldn't and couldn't do it otherwise...but I should also mention that I usually don't vacation less then 3 times a year. ;-).

      This story could easily be 10 pages long, but I wanted to cut it short so that it isn't anymore painful a read then it needs to be. I write mostly in the light-hearted voice in writing, because one, I LIVE in the light-hearted voice, and two, life can be hard enough without constantly reading dark and draining things. But even so, sometimes it's just completely necessary to say the difficult things.

      As far as what you'd do in this situation...who knows? You'd be really surprised what you can do if you have no other choice. That is the essence of childbirth. I hear "I can't" more often then any other phrase at work...but of course they do. What choice do they have? Women are stronger then they think they are. So are men.

    • ilmdamaily profile image

      ilmdamaily 8 years ago from A forgotten corner of a dying empire. OK, it's Australia :-)

      What a terrifying recollection. It hurt to read.

      I have the greatest respect for what you do, SJ. You've made compassion your profession - a noble act in itself. But more than that, you expose that compassion - to complete strangers even - to the most ugly, wrenching moment of people's lives. It's easy to care when the news is good. But when the news is that bad, your true quality, and the depth of that commitment, is known.

      I often wonder how healthcare professionals cope with situations like this. I guess the answer - for the good ones at least - is that they don't. I look at my friends who are doctors or nurses, and their work exacts a terrible toll on them psychologically and emotionally. I don't know how they do it.

      What would I do? I'd react. Collapse. Be completely useless. I don't have the sort of courage in me that you do to face a situation like that. But I have all the time and respect in the world for those who do.

      You're right - coffins should never be that small.

      But burdens should never be that big.

      Can words make this type of thing better? I'm not so sure. While you might feel that your words were "pitiful" or "useless" - that you were there is surely what counts.

      Maybe a loss like that is a burden we should all share, and by sharing it in some way we lessen it for those who must bear it most. Maybe that's the most we can ever do.

      What you do matters - in the most profound way. Don't stop caring...


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