A metric ton of the unexpected: Eline Katherine’s birth story, Part II

Continued from Part I

Not long after Eline’s birth, Kathy began to have some concern over getting the placenta delivered. In fact, she asked Jon to pray as she worked. I did eventually deliver the placenta, but she and Gaylea both said they had never seen one in such poor shape.

Probably as a result of a badly degraded placenta, I ended up developing bleeding issues and severe cramping. Kathy administered several medications but felt that a hospital transfer was needed. The next couple hours were incredibly chaotic, and I was in excruciating pain. Jon called the ambulance, which arrived within minutes, and I was taken to the hospital where Corin had been born. Jon put Lina in her car seat and followed in the Jeep. Once I arrived at the hospital, they asked a lot of questions and got me admitted and prepped for a D&C. At that point, I just wanted them to knock me out and get things taken care of. I could concentrate on very little besides the immediate pain.

I got to see Jon and Lina for just a moment before they wheeled me into the OR for the D&C. Then… blessed relief, and waking in recovery feeling much, much better. After a half-hour or so, I was wheeled back to my hospital room. At some point, a nurse must have told me Jon had taken Lina to our pediatrician for evaluation. The information sank slowly into my still-foggy brain. As I lay quietly in the bed in the hospital room, exhausted and alone, things that had been lying dormant slowly began to register. Why had Jon taken our baby, who passed her post-natal evaluation with flying colors, to the pediatrician? I pictured her tiny face, and suddenly I was terrified. There in that hospital room, I was facing the realization that Lina had features that looked very much like Down syndrome.

I hadn’t been alone very long before our midwife Kathy arrived. She asked how I was feeling, and then I asked about the baby. Was she okay? Kathy said yes, she was fine, that Jon had taken her to our pediatrician for evaluation rather than having her admitted there at the hospital. I asked again: “But she’s okay?” Unspoken fears hung in the air. Kathy came around close to the side of my bed and gently asked, “You and Jon did not have time to talk about a potential chromosome issue, did you?” I said, “No…but I wondered.” Those fears no longer hung suspended in the air; now their full weight settled on me. I think I choked out, “Oh, Kathy,” and broke into sobs. Kathy hugged me close and said, “I know. I know.”

Things are a bit hazy after that. I remember telling Kathy that it didn’t seem fair, after all we’d been through just to get pregnant. I wondered if Jon had said anything to either set of parents. What was the doctor saying? In the chaos of the transfer to the hospital, I had not thought to bring my cell phone (or shoes, or anything except the gown they cut off me when I arrived). Thankfully, Jon had Kathy’s phone number, so he was able to call her and talk to me. He was still at the pediatrician’s office, and he was clearly overwhelmed. The pediatrician was fairly certain of a Down syndrome diagnosis and wanted Eline admitted to the hospital for better evaluation and observation. Jon was worried about her being separated from me for so long. I knew the hospital where I would be staying overnight was probably not the right place for the expertise we needed, though, so we ended up agreeing that we wanted her to go to Vanderbilt Children’s.

To make an incredibly long story a tad bit shorter, Jon spent six hours at the pediatrician’s office while they tried to sort out how to get our baby transferred from there to Vanderbilt. Usually, a transfer of this sort would happen from one hospital to another, and it apparently required quite a bit of extra processing for the Vandy NICU –on-wheels to make the trip to a pediatrician’s office. Frankly, Jon threw that doctor’s office into chaos when he showed up with our hours-old infant. No one really knew what to make of us and our confluence of unusual circumstances. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our doula, Gaylea, who went to be with Jon at the doctor’s office and stayed with him through that entire ordeal, all after having attended back-to-back births and with groceries spoiling in her car.

Vanderbilt’s Angel One NICU transport finally arrived late that evening, and Jon took the ride with Lina and arrived at the hospital around 10:30 p.m. Lina was admitted to the NICU, and Jon spent the night there with her.

Sweet friends came to my hospital room to offer support and to bring dinner and a few necessities from home. Jon had avoided telling our parents about Lina’s likely diagnosis until he had been able to talk to me, but by evening, he had made the calls and my parents headed to the hospital to offer their support. Jon’s parents live about three hours away and made plans to leave as soon as possible the following day.

I spent a lonely night in the hospital with IVs running antibiotics and two units of blood. I was released in the morning around 10:30, and my mom was there to pick me up and drive me straight to the Vanderbilt NICU.

Vanderbilt’s NICU team was able to begin answering some of our big questions very quickly. The diagnosis of Down syndrome was certain. A chromosome karyotype run a few days later would confirm that Lina had the most common form of trisomy 21 – three copies of the 21st chromosome in every cell of her body. The medical team ran diagnostic tests and immediately ruled out several very serious health conditions that are common with Down syndrome. We are incredibly grateful that Lina’s heart and all other major organs are perfectly healthy.

The one remaining issue, which would keep us in the NICU for eight days, was making sure Lina was able to feed well enough to get the nutrition she needed. Because of smaller mouths and lower muscle tone, feeding challenges are common for newborns with Down syndrome. Lina ended up with a feeding tube for a few days to help her get the volume she needed to build her strength. I stayed with her to nurse and pump on a three-hour schedule around the clock. Jon was able to make periodic trips home to be with Corin, who was enjoying time with Jon’s parents – Mimi and Grandpa – but was also clearly struggling with the very uncertain state of affairs.

My mother-in-law – Mimi – cuddles Lina in the NICU.

I will say this: I have a new respect for any parents who have endured a NICU stay. It is not an easy experience, and I honestly have no idea how parents of preemies survive those months-long stays before they are able to bring their little ones home. I struggled with feeling terribly isolated in that NICU room, even with frequent visits from family and friends. The steady cafeteria and restaurant fare did a number on my digestive system, sleep was almost non-existent, and worst of all, I desperately missed my sweet boy. Jon’s parents brought Corin out to the hospital several times so I could see him, and saying good-bye left me in tears every time. Children under four were not allowed in the NICU, so Corin wasn’t able to meet Baby Sister until we brought her home.

Oddly enough, the feeding issues we have faced with Lina are ridiculously familiar. In fact, Lina has been a better eater than Corin was in his first few weeks of life. We were grateful the NICU staff worked with us to make sure she was getting enough to eat, but by the end of our stay, we were beginning to feel like getting her home was going to require a jail break. I started joking about having checked into Hotel California.

Eline was released from the NICU late in the day on Friday, September 21. The discharge process was painstaking, but we finally walked up our own stairs just in time for dinner, and Corin finally laid eyes on the phantom Baby Sister we’d been talking about for so long. (He promptly attempted to poke her in the face. Things have improved from there, although there was also the “accidentally beaning in the head with a toy truck” incident. Overall, he has been curious and very gentle.)

Look ma, no wires! Headed home…

Finally meeting Baby Sister

I cannot tell you what a relief it has been to be home. Jon’s parents were able to stay with us through the weekend, and then we were on our own: our family of four. We are terribly sleep-deprived, but so thankful to be settling into a more normal routine. It is so sweet to change diapers and snuggle our newborn without tangling wires and setting off sensor alarms. Corin is definitely still adjusting to the major changes in our lives, but he has settled down a lot over the past few days. Our fantastic circle of friends and family has organized a meal rotation to provide us with dinners for a MONTH. How amazing is that?! I am finding satisfaction in resuming the mundane tasks of laundry and housekeeping, although I admittedly cannot even begin to keep up with all the things I’d like to get done.

Of course, I know the bigger question on everyone’s mind is: How are we feeling about all this? How are we coping? The answer deserves its own post. Bear with me as I try to snatch a few more free moments in the coming days to share our continuing journey. {Follow-up post here.} For now, I will say that God is good. Even when I cannot find the words, or perhaps even the faith, to ask for what I need, He is here. I am certain today, as I was 16 days ago, that our family is safe in His care.

Two weeks old

A metric ton of the unexpected: Eline Katherine’s birth story, Part I

I thought, when I began this blog a few months ago, I knew where it was headed. I was chronicling our experience with infertility and embryo adoption and would document our continuing navigation of that path, along with our everyday experiences of parenting and transition to life as a family of four.

I titled my blog “A Dash of the Unexpected.” It did occur to me as I typed in the title that I hoped I wasn’t setting myself up for…something.

And now, here I am, sitting in front of my computer, attempting on a very few hours of sleep to document for you the last two weeks that have rocked our world and reshaped much more than the direction of this blog.

Our precious Eline Katherine was born last Thursday, September 13, at 11:27 a.m. She weighed 6 lb. 12 oz. and was 19 in. long. She was born at home, just as we planned.

Eline Katherine Sharp

My labor began around 10 p.m. Wednesday night. Jon and I were watching an old episode of Law & Order. Jon was working from his laptop, as he usually is in the evenings. I’d had plenty of Braxton Hicks contractions for months, but something about these made me take notice. I didn’t say anything at first but just kept an eye on the clock. The contractions were coming about 10 minutes apart. Around 10:30, I casually asked Jon, “So… How’s your work load?” He looked at me for a moment and said, “It would be very inconvenient if she came now.” I said, “Well, that was probably inevitable.” I told him I wasn’t sure what I was feeling was labor, but it was a strong possibility.

Just before heading to bed, I sat at the computer for a minute to catch up on emails. The last one I read was from our donor mom, telling me she had been thinking of me and that it felt like it was TIME. She talked about how certain their family was they had made the right decision in donating and about all the people who had gone into making our baby’s arrival a reality.

Before I drifted off to sleep, I told Jon the contractions seemed to have eased a bit, and it was probably a false alarm. He stayed up for quite a while longer, working from bed. He finally put the laptop away and settled in for the night at around 1:30. I woke up as he draped his arm over my belly. I lay still as his snores began, riding out contractions I realized were much stronger and closer together. I still had an internal debate as to whether this was really labor, but the questions faded further with every contraction. I hoped to be able to get a little more sleep, but the nervous excitement and the increasing strength of the contractions made it impossible. I tried to rest and decided to let Jon sleep as long as possible.

Around 4 a.m., the contractions began requiring active management and were consistently four to five minutes apart. I decided it was probably time to wake my husband. He went to work bleaching out the tub in case I wanted to labor there. I called our midwife, Kathy, to let her know where things stood. I told her we had things well in hand for now, and she could get some more sleep before heading our way. Jon ate a small breakfast, and I had a cereal bar (that I later threw up). Jon got a shower. Our bedroom was lit with candles, and I danced to a Jason Mraz song playing from our birth playlist. I plucked, because who knew when I would have time for that kind of maintenance again? At some point in those wee hours, Jon climbed in bed with me and we prayed together, for a safe labor and for our precious baby.

Laboring, sometime around 5 a.m.

I called my mom shortly after 5:30, when I knew she would be up, to tell her she would be watching her grandson rather than going to work. We arranged for her to come by at 7:00, about the time Corin would be waking up. When she arrived, my contractions were strong and about three to four minutes apart, and I had the shakes, which happened several times during labor. Corin was still sleeping, so she rubbed my back as I lay in bed.

Once Corin was awake, Jon and mom got him dressed and ready to go, and I came out between contractions to tell him good-bye and that Baby Sister would be here soon. He seemed a little confused, but as usual, he was more than happy to go with Grandma. I, on the other hand, fought back tears. In the days ahead, I would think back on that moment and wish I’d had more time with him. As it was, I had to run back to the bathroom to ride out another contraction before sending him out the door.

We called Kathy to let her know it was probably time to head our way. Gaylea, our doula at Corin’s birth, was apprenticing with Kathy, and we texted her, as well. Kathy arrived at around 8:00, and Gaylea pulled up maybe a half-hour later. By then, I was laboring in the bathtub. Kathy checked the baby’s heart rate, and all was well. I remember saying something to Kathy like, “It really seems like there should be an easier way for babies to arrive.”

Nearly complete, with full support from Kathy and Gaylea

I labored in the tub, on the toilet, and eventually in the bed, where I could rest more completely between contractions. Jon, Gaylea and Kathy took turns providing support, allowing me to squeeze the blood out of their hands with each contraction. Gaylea applied heavenly-smelling cool rags.  I’m not sure how long I labored lying on my side, nestled in the pillows, but maybe an hour later labor began to change, and the pushing urge arrived with full intensity. Kathy confirmed I was fully dilated and effaced. Now the real work began.

At first, my pushing was not terribly effective. I was wearing myself out and beginning to hyperventilate. It felt a lot like the point at which my labor stalled with Corin, and I was scared and exhausted. Kathy and Gaylea both proved their worth so MANY times over that day, but it was at that point in my labor that my midwife knew just what to say to change my approach. She told me not to work so hard, but to allow my body to bear down and simply work with it. With that instruction, my approach changed, and immediately the pushing began to bear results. The work was HARD, and it was a bit frightening for me, since I’d never successfully pushed a baby out before. I badly needed the encouragement and soothing confidence of my midwife and doula. They gently reminded me that God had designed my body to do just what it was doing, and that I was fully able to deliver my baby.

My labor with Corin began with my water breaking, but this time, as the baby began to move down with each push, the amniotic sac was still intact. The midwife showed Jon the baby’s hair swirling inside the protective barrier, and I was able to reach down and feel the protruding sac. A few more pushes, and the baby’s head emerged, carefully guided by Kathy’s skilled hand and still protected inside the intact amniotic sac. Kathy pulled the membrane away as the rest of Eline’s body emerged. Our baby girl was born “in the caul,” a rare occurrence that historically was fraught with superstitious meaning. In our case, we believed it was a direct answer to prayer. I had tested positive for Group B strep, a bacteria that in rare cases can cause a dangerous infection in infants exposed during delivery. Kathy would have been able to administer antibiotics during labor if it was necessary, but because Eline was fully protected in the amniotic sac throughout the entire labor, she was never exposed to the bacteria.

Moments after birth

I was able to hold Eline immediately after birth. She did not immediately cry, but Kathy and Gaylea rubbed her down and her wails filled the room. I was incredibly relieved and overwhelmed as I held her to the breast and marveled that our precious baby girl was here. Jon kissed me, and together we counted fingers and toes and looked at baby Eline’s thick, dark hair and chubby cheeks.

We drank in those quiet moments together after Eline’s birth, thanking God for her safe arrival as we held her close. Kathy weighed her and did her newborn assessment, which Lina passed successfully. As it happened, that precious hour or so was the calm before the storm.

The story continues: Part II

Ready or not

I am 36 weeks pregnant. One week from full-term. One-and-a-half weeks from the point at which Corin made his appearance. It’s getting REAL over here, folks.

Midwife visits are weekly now. The infant car seat is strapped into its spot in the Jeep. The lovely cradle loaned to us by a friend is assembled next to our bed, cushioned with soft linens. Newborn clothes are washed and waiting in the nursery closet. Newborn-size diapers (good grief, do they really start out that tiny?!) are stacked in the changing table. Some sweet friends have planned a shower for me next Saturday night, and I think after that I’ll be able to say we’re pretty much ready.

But are we?! I am so excited about meeting our baby girl, holding her close, breathing in that helpless newborn sweetness, watching her change almost hour-to-hour. But oh, man. I’m also remembering the very long, sleepless nights, the constant feedings, the jaundice worries, the copious amounts of spit-up, and then I’m imagining tackling all that while also managing a very busy toddler. The only thing that keeps me from truly panicking is remembering that our mothers will be here to help with this transition. I was discussing with a friend the other day that bringing home a new baby really seems to be about a four-person job.

I’m also hoping that with a little experience under our belts, we’ll be a bit calmer and more equipped to handle the ins and outs of newborn parenting. Surely it will come back to us…?

Corin proudly lining up his Matchbox cars (pants-less, because that seems to be how we roll since potty training began)

This week Corin and I have spent a lot of quality time together. I took him to the mall, and we rode the carousel and treated ourselves to cookies. We went to Babies R’ Us, and Corin picked out a stuffed toy to give Baby Sister when she arrives. We joined friends for a fun play date at an indoor playground, and we spent time on the floor (much more a feat for one of us than it used to be) assembling elaborate webs of train tracks. I feel the need to soak him in, to store up these last moments of just us. A part of me is mourning the end of all this one-on-one time.

But ultimately, this transition is such an incredible blessing for our family. We’ll soon have another little person to love, with that priceless front-row seat to unfolding human development. Corin will learn important life lessons about adapting, about caring for someone smaller and weaker than himself, about sharing attention and possessions.

As I get physically more uncomfortable, I try to stay focused on absorbing every moment of this final stretch of pregnancy. I remember what a miracle it is that we are here, that this is happening, that the squirming and thumping that rocks my belly is really, truly a baby, our daughter, the answer to so many heartfelt prayers. What a gift!