My maternity rotation in nursing school was during the heat of a Mississippi summer. It was a relief to spend it indoors in a cool hospital.
Maternity was an exciting rotation full of life and promise that everyone had been looking forward to. Who does not love babies? The hope and wonder that permeate the labor and delivery makes it a joyous place. Most of the time.
With six more months of clinical’s to go I was competing with four other students for class valedictorian. And my nemesis was ahead of me with her GPA so I knew I had to knock it out of the ballpark with post clinical conference grades. So when we were all lined up with our instructor and she asked who wanted to scrub in on a “special C-section” I jumped right out of line with my hand raised. THIS was what I needed to get ahead in post clinical’s!
To my surprise our instructor just glared at me. I looked back at the line of students staring at the floor and thought, “I was the only volunteer, I should get extra points for this!”
My instructor grabbed me by the arm and waved the others off to the nurses lounge. She continued to glare at me and said, “Are you SURE you want this assignment?”
“oh yes Mam! I will do a great job!”
“This is not a ‘JOB’, your patient is a very dedicated nurse who happens to be a friend of mine.”
My stomach did that flip-flop thing that something was wrong but Professor X continued, “Her baby died in utero two days ago. There is no obvious reason why. Her doctor wanted her to labor and expel the baby naturally but she refused and is here today to have a section done.”
She paused and my heart began pounding, joining the party with my flipping stomach.
“You up and volunteered for this so here is your assignment. You are to provide comfort to her and her husband. Stay with her and provide physical and emotional care pre-surgery, during surgery and post op. After she is settled in her room you will be providing post-mortem care for the baby and taking the baby to her family for them to say goodbye. The grandmother has provided a christening gown and you will bathe and dress the baby in this gown to take her to her family.”
I was now in complete shock and GPA or not, I wished I had joined my peers and kept my big mouth shut.
Professor X continued glaring at me. “You asked for this. Life is not a game or even fair.” She looked down at her spotless white shoes and continued, “You do this and do not add to the family’s sorrow. It was a unique gift for them to allow a student nurse in on their personal tragedy. They are in room three. I will be watching you!”
I made my way to the OB nurses locker room to change into scrubs, I was in shock and decided my best approach was to be as professional as possible and keep quiet and stay out-of-the-way.
I went to room three and after taking a deep gulp of air and knocked on the door. To my surprise I heard laughter coming from inside. I was invited in and found a very pretty woman sitting beside the bed with her husband. “Oh you must be my student nurse! I am so happy to meet you!” I was completely taken off guard by how nice and how cheerful she was along with her husband. We all shook hands and introduced ourselves and I asked her if she was ready for me to help her with her hospital gown and getting ready. While I assisted her, she kept talking, cheerfully.
“I believe you know that our baby is not going home with us?”
“yes Mam, my instructor told me that you found out two days ago?”
I helped her get in the bed and to a comfortable sitting position. Then I pulled up the bedside table and laid out the supply’s to start her IV. Students were not allowed to start lines at this private hospital so I pressed the call light for the staff nurse to come in.
“Yes.” Mom continued, “we did a sonogram two days ago to confirm she had died…” Mom looked down and sighed, “There is nothing to indicate what happened, the placenta is attached and in place, the cord was not around her neck…She is just gone.” Another sigh from Mom. “my doctor wanted me to wait and labor naturally, but I told him I was not going through all that and not getting the prize at the end! No way!” she laughed now, “So here we are.” She looked at me expectantly.
I could not help myself. I blurted out, “I am so sad for you! How are you dealing with this? You and your husband?” I looked at him but he just shook his head. I noticed then that he rarely took his eyes off of his wife’s lovely face.
“I do not know. All I can tell you is that I was screaming at God that this is not FAIR! I cried till I could not breathe, then even though He did not answer me I felt peace.”
I just nodded as I felt tears welling up. I did not know what to say. Twenty eight years later I type this and still don’t know what to say…
The moment was broken by the staff nurse coming in to start the IV. After she expertly popped it in she surprised me by leaning over and kissing Mom on her forehead. I realized then that this woman knew the entire staff and they were all friends. What I didn’t know was that they were all sisters, in the society of nurses that one day I would join myself, but at the moment was still an outsider.
We are supposed to comfort, not need comforting. We are the one’s who care, not the one’s who need care. Role reversal is uncomfortable. The staff nurse swiped angrily at a tear sliding down her face and glared at me, “take good care of her!” she hissed at me on her way out the door. “yes Mam.” I whispered.
All we could do now was wait. I got Dad his scrubs for the OR and showed him where to go change and then I just stood there, scared, afraid to say anything. It seemed Mom felt my angst and she started talking to me about her three-year old son and what a joy he was. I smiled and nodded and tried to look less miserable for her sake.
Then it was off to the OR. Mom cheerfully chatted up the anesthesiologist as he put in her epidural. “Give me some extra!” she joked, ” I am not willing to feel any discomfort today!” But despite her joking the mood in the room was subdued and sad.
Mom’s OB doctor came in and shook his head. “It’s okay J.” she assured him, “lets just get this over with. Please be quick.” The doctor nodded and the surgery began. I was on the right by the anesthesiologist and Dad was on Mom’s left by her head. I heard murmured prayers and “I love you’s” Mom then popped her eye’s open and said, “Its okay, I am okay.” She then demanded her doctor take down the screen that prevented her from seeing her belly. The doctor refused and she sighed and glared at the ceiling.
In what seemed like seconds the baby was out and handed to a nurse who wrapped her in blankets and set her in a warmer. Mom was sewn up, cleaned up, curtains down. I was to wheel her back to a room. My instructor was outside the OR and directed me to a room away from the post partum unit. “We don’t want her to have to hear or see the new baby’s. This will be quiet and peaceful.”
Again, I could only nod. It seemed I had developed a growth in my throat that prevented me from talking but wanted me to start crying. I could not do that, so nod I did.
We got to the new room that was a nice suite just off of post partum. Mom and Dad’s family were already there, with beautiful flowers arranged on the table. I got the bed locked, call light in place, checked the IV, pump settings, fresh water, coffee for Grandma…Then it was time for me to complete my assignment.
I took Mom’s hand and told her I was going to the nursery and I would be back with her daughter.
She bit her lip and squeezed my hand and smiled at me.
I trudged back to the nursery. My instructor was waiting by the door and put in the top-secret security code for me. The warmer with its still wrapped bundle was off to the side, away from the window where new family’s were smiling, pointing and taking pictures. I picked up the silent bundle and followed my instructor to a side room with a large sink. Professor X had a beautiful white lacy gown in a plastic wrapper she laid to the side. “Bath her and dress her in here, then take her in your arms to the family. Since she is deceased there is no need to push her in a cart of supply’s that won’t be needed. This is a more personal and caring way to do it.” She fixed her mouth in a straight line and glared at me, “Are you okay?” I barely managed to croak out, “Yes Mam” over the painful lump in my throat.
I saw the nursery nurses watching me in the side room as I unwrapped the bundle. In the blanket was a perfect little baby girl. It did not seem possible that she would never open her eyes, cry or grow up. She was so beautiful…I was thankful for the water coming out of the faucet to mask my gulped sobs and the tears that were now pouring down my face. I bathed this gorgeous baby in warm water, put a diaper on her and then the christening gown. I brushed her scant brown hair to dry it and it curled on top of her little head. Her skin was as white and soft as alabaster and there was not a mark on her tiny body. What I could not stop staring at was her mouth, it looked like a perfect rosebud in miniature.
Her lips were a perfect deep dark pink, almost scarlet. There are no words this side of heaven to describe the perfection of her lips, the shape of her mouth and the extraordinary color that seemed to grow deeper the more I looked. Rosebud, what a perfect name for lips like that…It seemed to me that her lips were perfectly shaped for an eternal smile, even as her eyes were eternally closed in an expression of peace.
Finally I was satisfied that I had her hair perfect, the gown just right and was ready to go. I picked up Rosebud in my arms, got her positioned and fluffed out the gown so she looked just right. I grabbed a scratchy paper towel and swiped at my tear-stained face then headed out into the nursery.
The nurses seemed to be standing at attention waiting for me to walk out with her. The curtain had been pulled down so visitors could not see in and every nurse inspected the baby in my arms. I felt the silent approval that I had done a good job. Rosebud looked like an angel doll. One of the older nurses patted me on the shoulder as I left the nursery.
My instructor was waiting. She too, inspected the baby doll in my arms and nodded. We walking silently down the hall to the room where the family was waiting. Professor X knocked for me then pushed the door open but did not enter with me.
There was a collective gasp as I walked in and Mom, who had been so stoic, so cheerful, so accepting of this horrible situation threw her arms out towards me and finally started to cry…
I laid little Rosebud in her arms and she wept. “She is so beautiful and so perfect… OH God! She is perfect…”
I had not been dismissed so I just backed up a few steps and stood there. I honestly did not know what to do. Then a man in a suit came forward from the corner and said, “Let us pray.” Everyone grabbed hands and gathered around the bed. Now I really did not know what to do, this was a very personal, private family moment, do I disturb it by trying to sneak out? Do I flatten myself against the wall and try to be invisible? My dilemma was solved by Dad who grabbed my hand and pulled me into the family circle. I held hands between him and a grandmother as the Pastor led this lovely family in prayer. I do not remember what he said, I do not remember feeling comfort, but I do remember feeling confident and sure Jesus was present and listening.
After the Pastor prayed and Mom had stopped weeping, everyone was exclaiming how perfect and beautiful Rosebud was and taking pictures for keepsakes. I still had not been dismissed but the clock on the wall told me I was already late for clinical conference. After a few minutes of indecision I decided to slip towards the door.
“WAIT!” cried Mom.
I turned and ran back to the bedside, crying opening now. “I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t know what to say, but I will always be grateful to you for letting me be your student nurse today.”
Mom hugged me, tears rolling down her face. “Thank you, you took wonderful care of my daughter. You will be a good nurse.”
Still crying I hugged Dad and the grandma’s and slipped out. In the hallway I could actually let the sobs out.
I still could not go to clinical conference without giving report to the staff nurse so I went to the nurses station, let them know Rosebud was still in the room with the family, Mom was stable, left to claim on her IV. The staff nurse gave me the “nod of approval” and I headed to the conference center.
I did not bother to change back into my uniform, I was already late so what difference did it make? All I wanted to do at this point was get out of there, go to my mother’s house, let her comfort me and have a good cry.
Professor X saw me slip into the back of the auditorium and glared at me then the clock. “I’m doomed,” I thought, “she’s going to give me a clinical U for sure.”
After all the other students finished presenting their patient’s and care plans for the day I heard my name. “Alana had a very interesting case today, come up here and present please!” Professor X bellowed.
I walked to the front hanging my head. I had no notes prepared, no care plan, no idea what to say.
I looked out at my fellow students who stared right back at me. I was a mess in OB scrubs that were wrinkled and still wet in spots, what little makeup we were allowed to wear had long since been cried off and my eye’s were red. I took a deep breath and said, “I took care of a mother today whose baby died in utero. She elected to have a C-section rather than labor with a stillborn.” I wanted to go on about how beautiful Rosebud was, how perfect. But I needed to present the facts of the case and the nursing care involved, but at that moment the tears started again. With no thought to GPA or valedictorian or even a clinical U I just said, “And I learned it’s okay to cry with and for your patient’s.” Sometimes that is all you can do for them.”
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Matthew 5:4