Childbirth Is No Place for a Fever — or Fear

“Are you feeling ok?” my ob/gyn asks me.

I’ve been in labor for 26 hours with my first child. My water has broken in dramatic fashion and I’m preparing myself to start pushing.

“Am I feeling OK?” I ask myself. “What does ‘OK’ even mean in this context?”

I am tired in every sense of the word. But I guess I feel OK. She keeps asking, though, and I don’t understand why.

“You have a fever of 103.5. Are you sure you’re OK?”

I emerge from my epidural haze and finally register what she is saying. I arrived at this hospital fever-free. I had had a normal pregnancy. Actually, it wasn’t normal — it was very easy. No vomiting, minimal nausea. The labor has taken a long time, but that’s not unusual. Now all of a sudden my temperature is rising and alarming everyone around me.

This moment in 2009 is the very peak of the swine flu pandemic; by the time it run its course, it will claim nearly 15,000 lives around the world. And right now my doctors are worried that I might be its next victim, and that my daughter could be in danger as well.

I try to keep up with all of the questions and commands that the doctors and nurses are pelting me with, but I’m distracted by the devices being attached to me — fresh IVs, heart rate monitors, and yes, a vacuum extractor. My doctor, six months pregnant herself, a string of pearls around her neck, decides the baby needs to come out now.

Finally Sadie arrives in the world, this moment I’ve imagined for so long, but I get only a few fleeting minutes, just a bit of skin-to-skin contact, not even long enough to try nursing. Because of my fever, she is born with an elevated temperature as well.  The nurses whisk her away. Then they give me Tylenol, and I immediately fall asleep, dozing off to hazy images of a nurse methodically cleaning blood off my body and the floor.

My doctor was long gone —she couldn’t risk infecting her own baby. All I can remember of her now is that string of pearls.

When I come to consciousness, my husband and nurse help me into a wheelchair to visit the NICU. Sadie is 7 pounds 6 ounces, making her easily the biggest, chubbiest newborn in the unit.

Preparing to spend time in the NICU is not something that I had included in my birth plan. It was supposed to be a positive experience full of affirmations and comforting lower back massages. Wearing a face mask to see my daughter in the NICU was beyond comprehension. I do my best to stay focused. I try breastfeeding Sadie, but it doesn’t work. I’m sitting in a stiff metal chair, surrounded by premature babies surviving on feeding tubes, and there’s a hospital lactation consultant here helping Sadie latch. We keep trying. Finally I give up and tell the nurses to just give her formula. Nothing is going the way I’ve pictured it.

My fever settles back down to normal after the dose of Tylenol — I almost certainly don’t have swine flu — but the doctors aren’t taking any risks. I am quarantined.

Two days later I am discharged, but my baby has to stay in the NICU for another 48 hours. While I am signing my discharge papers, the nurse is reading through her checklist of standard questions. Suddenly, I find myself lying to her.

“Do you feel sad?” she asks. “If you do, we need to talk about the baby blues.” Nope, I tell her with a shaky voice. I’m good.

I’m not quite lying. I assume showing any weakness may result in more hospital time. That absolutely cannot happen. I need to go home and my baby needs to go home.

As I exit the NICU with my new, sweet baby carefully and safely fastened into the car seat, my eye catches a glimpse of a woman sobbing into a tissue. Her shoulders are hung so low, as if gravity is driving her into the ground. I wonder how many weeks she has been coming here, how sick her baby must be, how scared she must feel. I look away. I have to. It’s too much to consider any longer. I push down all the doubt, fear and grief I’ve been feeling realizing the matter at hand — I have to get my baby home so we can finally start our lives together. I push my free hand to the door, and leave the hospital for good.

Photo: Stocksy/Miguel Llonch

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