Returning home from the hospital was brutal. But Claire Colleen was our bright light, which was fitting, given the meaning of her name (clear and bright).
Even with the tremendous help of our mothers, and meals arriving from wonderful friends, caring for five kids while being mostly helpless myself was overwhelming. For Mike, he was caring for five kids and a post-operation wife. We coped moment-to-moment.
(I insert cute, happy pictures because everyone was not as miserable as I was. It might be my blog, but navel-gazing flatters no one.)
Our moms came by each day and helped with the kids, ran a load of laundry, got lunch on the table. My dear friend, Kay, came by to take or pick the kids up from school (remember those days?). Mike had to be present to help me as I could barely stand up, much less take care of a newborn on my own.
It’s incredible the mental effort it took just to move through the day. I had to watch the clock for feeding Claire, for taking three medications, for school schedules, for nap schedules, for meal times, for bedtime. When I wasn’t nursing, talking to a child, changing a diaper, taking a pill, I was keeping time for the next necessary action to keep our lives together. There was also the regular, gross postpartum realities: postpartum bleeding, bleeding nipples that must continue to be in use, pumping several times a day, three feedings a night, total exhaustion.
Twice our sainted friends Jenny and Heather took our four oldest for two hours to feed them dinner and let them play with their kids. Mike and I would collapse on the couch with a sleeping Claire and watch a show and eat takeout. It was all we could do to zone out and rest to prepare for the next round.
It’s funny how something perfect and something unbearable can occur simultaneously. Claire was heaven, a baby that made me cry every single day from nothing except my overwhelming love for her.
At the same time, I had never experienced physical misery at that level. I was in pain, I was exhausted, my body was stripped of vitality. I kept flashing back to Hunter’s arrival, and thought, “It can’t happen twice. Everything is going to be fine, it has to be fine.”
But my head had been throbbing for two days. I’d tried to ignore it but every time I sat up, I felt a rush of pressure and it wouldn’t subside. I looked at the “Post-Birth Warning Signs” paper they’d sent home with me and read: “Call your healthcare provider if you have a headache that does not get better, even after taking medicine.”
Ding ding ding. I was on Tylenol, ibuprofen, and OxyContin. Any typical headache would’ve been wiped out by one of these, let alone all three.
I reluctantly called my OB, and the nurse recommended I go to the hospital.
An hour later I was lying on a bed in the maternity center triage area, and an anesthesia resident came to assess me. He was tall and thin, with dark brown hair under this surgical cap, dark rimmed glasses, and an incredibly pensive and thorough approach. He asked me two dozen questions at least, all with one hand under his elbow and the other cupping his chin thoughtfully. It was exactly the interaction one would hope to have in this situation.
He concluded that my spinal fluid was leaking from the point where the anesthesia had been administered for the c-section. The fluid supports the brain, so when it leaks from the spine, the brain loses its cushion from the skull and it creates pressure, causing the headache.
“Is this a fairly common consequence of a spinal tap?” Mike asked.
“It occurs about one percent of the time,” he replied quietly.
We burst out laughing, rolling our eyes at the odds that I’d be both the never-before-seen bladder rupture patient AND the one percent spinal fluid patient. Naturally.
The lead anesthesiologist joined us and gave us our options.
We could do a blood patch, which meant drawing my blood and then reinserting it back into my spine to patch the hole. It would be a lot of blood and I’d be wide awake. It would create a great deal of discomfort and pressure in my back while it was happening, and it wasn’t guaranteed to work.
I am notorious for having invisible veins. The guy with the vein ultrasound machine and I are practically on a first name basis. At the description of this procedure, I could already hear the squeak of the wheels on his cart coming at me for the multiple pokes to draw my blood. I dropped my forehead into my hands and took a deep breath.
Normally, I’d have the fortitude to move forward with whatever needed to be done. But I’d just returned home from the hospital after major surgery, I’d just been poked with too many needles to count, and I’d just been told I might go through another hideous process only to have it not work.
The doctor added, “Because the blood patch isn’t guaranteed to work, most people only do it if the headache is so severe and life-impairing that they can’t take it one more minute, they’ll do anything to stop it.”
“I don’t think I’m there yet,” I said. “What’s the other option?”
“We wait it out,” she said, with a resigned half-smile. “But you’d have to firmly commit to laying down 24 hours a day. That’s the only way the hole will heal.”
I nearly choked.
“I have five kids,” I said, incredulous. “One of which is a newborn. I’m nursing her. I can’t lie down for more than an hour at a time, and even that’s a stretch.”
Her eyes widened and she let out a sigh. “I have two kids who are older, and I’d find it hard to do this, but I could do it. I don’t know if you could do it with five kids. Maybe you could sit up at a slight angle when you feed her, or roll to your side.”
I was immersed in defeat.
“I had a c-section,” I said. “I can’t even roll to my side, and sitting up at a slight angle is brutal on my abdomen. I don’t know what to do. I really don’t want to get the blood patch — what if I go through that and it doesn’t even work?”
I looked at Mike and he didn’t know which way to go either.
“How many days will it take to heal if she lays down consistently?” he asked.
“Probably 5 to 8 days,” they both said. In other words, every last day of Mike’s paternity leave. I couldn’t imagine the workload he’d be under with me completely laid out. I couldn’t imagine the burden on our moms to support us.
He said it was up to me. I couldn’t deal with it being up to me — these were doctors. I just wanted them to tell me what would make me well and then do it.
“Fine,” I conceded. “Let’s do the blood patch. I don’t know what else to do. I know I won’t be able to lay down for days and days. There’s just no way.”
The anesthesiologists left to gather supplies, and I gingerly shuffled down the hall with Mike for a moment, because I had no peace about the procedure. We tried to discern what the right choice was, and it was arduous because we knew either one held painful consequences.
I prayed and asked God to make it clear — which one was right? What did I need to do?
I didn’t feel a clear answer. Sometimes the absence of peace is the answer, so I changed my mind.
We approached the doctors and I said, “We’re going to go home, I’m sorry, I just can’t do this. I’ll take my chances.”
The anesthesiologist looked at me for a moment, and I thought she was going to argue. Then she said, “You know, as I was prepping, I thought about what I would do if I were you. I’d probably not do it either.” The peace settled over me like calm air over still waters.
The resident promised to call me the next day to see how I was, and offered to do the blood patch if my headache worsened.
We returned home and told Mike’s mom what had happened, and I felt terrible knowing she and my mom would continue to help at such a high level. I was so grateful to them and also full of shame for my high needs.
I climbed into bed as Colleen and Mike hustled the kids through their nighttime routines, and clouds of fear came rolling into the room.
The darkness whispered that it was happening again. “You’re going to be ill for your baby’s newborn days, just like you were with Hunter. You’re going to miss this precious time, you’re going to be useless to everyone except to nurse, and you’re going to be physically miserable.”
It wasn’t postpartum depression. It was a specific grieving of what could have been, and the uncertainty and misery of what lie ahead.
I prayed prayers that night I never thought I’d pray. My wellness felt lost and all I wanted, all in the world I could ever conceive of wanting again, was to be restored to my family. I always knew I loved being their mother, but that night in the darkness, a surge of desire stronger than any I’ve felt rushed through me and brought me to desperation and a stark clarity of my priorities. I prayed and prayed for healing.
The next morning I woke up without a headache.
Mike helped pull me upright out of bed and I walked downstairs, and my head felt normal. I had texts asking how I was and I felt foolish replying that it was gone because how could that be? Would we all doubt I’d ever had a headache?
Isn’t that what we do when a little miracle occurs? Instead of accepting it with a grateful heart, disbelief leads us to doubt we had a problem to begin with. At least that’s how I function. I beg God for an answer to a problem and when He takes away my pain, instead of awe and gratitude, my first instinct is to wonder if I really had the pain.
But that prideful moment passed quickly. I started telling my family I’d been healed and was utterly overjoyed. No laying down for a week! When the resident called to check on me (let’s clap for doctors who really do call you at home) I told him the good news and he was so happy with us. It was lovely.
Four days later, on Feb 8 (nine days after giving birth), I got a fever in the evening. It was low-grade and we’d had Mike’s sister and family over for dinner, so I just thought I’d overexerted myself.
The next day, I felt substantially better than I had since the birth — I told everyone ten days must be the magic number for recovery. Late that afternoon, the fever was back. I put on my puffy coat and laid shivering on the couch, dreading each nursing session since I’d have to remove some of my clothes to feed her.
The fever rose overnight and then broke, and I woke up drenched in sweat.
Later that afternoon, I spiked another fever and called the doctor, who said I might be experiencing “menopausal-like symptoms that sometimes happen postpartum.”
After five days of fevers, I called the nurse and she said I needed to go the ER. My body was alerting us to something and we needed to find out what it was.
As my mom drove me in so Mike could stay with the the kids, I remembered Dr. Brothers. Dr. Brothers is an ER doctor who helped us when the kids had emergencies a couple of times. I was 99% certain he was the brother of a friend of mine from college, because he looked exactly like him and shared his unusual last name. In those instances I couldn’t tell him I knew who he was because I was so focused on the kids But as we neared the hospital that night, the thought flashed through my mind that if I could have Dr. Brothers, I’d know God was present and working on this. The thought left my mind as soon as it entered, because there are dozens of ER doctors, and there was such a low possibility of him working this day and being assigned to my room.
Once we were settled, the nurse gave me a mild med for the pain and fever, and then we waited. We realized we might be there awhile so my mom suggested having my dad bring food to the hospital. Five Guys Burgers was the comfort food solution. We could taste it already.
Moments later, the curtain whipped back and in walked Dr. Brothers. I could have fainted.
As he started to chat with us, I stopped him and told him he’d helped us before with our children. He was pleased, and then I told him about knowing his brother for several years and he suddenly looked at me like a friend. Few things are as powerful when you’re as vulnerable as I felt.
Mostly, though, I just squeezed my eyes shut in gratitude to God that He showed up so obviously. His comfort set my soul at ease.
Dr. Brothers ordered a CT scan and a friendly nurse came and wheeled me down the hall. She was incredibly upbeat and warm, reassuring and jovial. The technician put some dye into my IV so they could create an internal contrast for the scan. The friendly nurse told me I was about to feel like I had peed my pants, and she was right. Then they sent me into the scanner.
Back in my room, we prayed for answers. I told my mom my biggest fear was they’d find nothing, deem me insane, and send me home. I told her I couldn’t go on shivering on the couch with a 101 degree fever, pretending I was fine but crying myself to sleep. I had to have answers. I had to get better. My family needed me back on my feet, and I needed to move into wellness and be with Claire.
When another nurse came in and saw the burgers had arrived, she looked reluctantly at me and said, “I’m so sorry, but you can’t eat until we know your diagnosis and treatment plan, in case it involves surgery.” Burger and fries, I hardly knew thee.
A kind, older nurse named Vern took care of me the rest of the time, and he came in and out many times adjusting tubes and chatting with us more than is common with busy ER staff. He had definitely earned a beef patty with all the fixings. When we offered it to him, he froze like, “please don’t be joking,” and when we handed him the still-hot food he bounced out of the room like it was his birthday.
Half an hour later, when Dr. Brothers pushed the curtain aside, he walked in holding a folder and I could tell by his eyes he had an answer inside it.
I could also tell by his eyes that we were both mortified; I was fully bare-chested, pumping milk for my young. His professionalism was impeccable and my swift covering attempt was earnest, so we made a full recovery, but it was touch and go there for a moment whether this patient would die of embarrassment.
He sat down next to me and said they’d found an abscess on the top of my uterus, an infection that can happen after birth, especially after a c-section.
I squeezed my mom’s hand with joy — an answer. All I’d wanted.
I sighed with relief. I could get an antibiotic and head home. It’s over!
“…so you’ll need to be admitted and we’ll perform the procedure likely in the morning…” he continued.
“Wait, what?” I stammered. “Stay here? Overnight?”
“Yes, we need to monitor your condition and after the procedure – ”
“But Claire!” I was crushed.
I laid my head back and thought I’d feel low, but realized immediately that I didn’t. The peace remained. Jesus answered my prayer of an answer and a solution; I wasn’t insane, and this was the beginning of healing. The beginning of the end. I was strangely, solidly happy.
“Oh and you can eat and drink tonight, since we won’t perform anything until tomorrow,” he added.
My mom and I burst out laughing, knowing Vern had long since annhiliated that sack of deliciousness.
“The doctor in charge of your care will meet you upstairs in your room, once it’s ready,” he added. “I can’t remember his name, hold on, it’s something unusual, let me check,” he opened his folder.
I braced myself. “Could it be Dr……Not My Doctor?”
“That’s it!” he smiled. “You know him already?”
OH, I do, sir. I do indeed.
Part Three coming soon! Ish.