I was asleep when my first child was born. I awoke hours later surprised to discover I was still alive and that my family had already met my baby.
She was due April 7, just after Easter. My pregnancy had been difficult with a heavy business travel schedule and severe morning sickness, yet I relished in every minute of it. Those last few weeks were especially precious to me, knowing the private intimacy with my baby would soon end as she entered the world to meet grandparents and cousins so expectant for her arrival. Her name was to be Meredith Marguerite, for my loving and deeply spiritual mother and fraternal grandmother. Once my due date came and passed, we tried all the old wives tales to encourage our baby to this side of life. She wasn’t budging.
On Monday, April 16, 2007, my husband and I watched the news as terror unfolded at our shared alma mater, in a peaceful town where we had met a decade prior. A student walked into a classroom building at Virginia Tech and killed 31 students and professors. Any innocence left in our world was shattered that day. We were grief-stricken, but had only hours to process the tragedy; in the wee hours of the morning, I went into labor. We collected our belongings and headed to the hospital. The morning sickness that had plagued my pregnancy didn’t relent even then; we had to stop along the drive as nausea took over again. To this day, I pass that intersection with a familiar sense of emotional turmoil.
At the hospital, all went as planned. I was admitted to the labor and delivery ward, seen by a nurse from time to time, and mostly left to labor through the day. What I didn’t know, wouldn’t learn until weeks later, was that I was given a dose of Pitocin, the drug used to progress labor. What I did know was that my contractions suddenly became very intense. I had hoped to labor as long as possible without the intervention of drugs, but that desire was quickly eclipsed by searing pain. I requested an epidural, not knowing it would be the first of three in the next few hours. Each injection was administered in my spine and was intended to lessen the pressure on the lower half of my body. But, something went wrong, leaving only my left side numb. I was given a bolus, a boost of the epidural, and told to lay on my right side with the hopes gravity would encourage the medicine to relieve both sides. It didn’t work. So, a second epidural was administered, followed by a second bolus. Finally, the chief of anesthesiology was called in to administer the third epidural; with help of a third boost, this one worked to numb both of my legs. Finally, the OB was able to monitor our baby; with the prolonged labor, her heart rate was dropping for unexplained reasons. When were given the recommendation to proceed with a C-section, we agreed our only goal was to deliver our baby safely.
It was then a third anesthesiologist introduced himself. Randy would be taking over during my surgery. I kissed my husband goodbye for a moment and was wheeled to the OR. My parents, mother-in-law, and sisters waited expectantly just outside the delivery room while Frank put on scrubs to accompany me for the delivery. Inside the OR, I waited on the table as preparations were made around me. Within minutes, I felt a deep pressure on my chest. The newly administered epidural, the fourth dose of numbing medication, was working too well. Before I could speak, I discovered with horror I could not breathe. I tried to get the attention of anyone in the room. Randy realized I was in distress, handed the nurse an oxygen mask, and instructed her, “Put this on her; she is only having a panic attack.” When the mask was in place, I could feel the air brushing past my nose and mouth, but not entering my lungs. I knew then I was in deep trouble. I was suffocating, unable to communicate, and in the care of a doctor who wasn’t paying attention. Willing but unable to make my lips form the words “Intubate me,” I dug my nails into the nurse’s hand and swung my hands franticly until I knocked over a tray. It was the racket that caught the attention of another nurse. “Leslie? Leslie?!” I heard her yell, “What’s going on?!” It was at about this time my body succumbed to respiratory arrest. The last thought to enter my mind was one of surrender and despair. “I am finally going to have my baby, but I’m going to die before I meet her.”
Some hours later, I began to wake. My family was waiting for me. “Just wait until you see her perfect nose,” they whispered tearfully before my eyes were even open. As I returned to full consciousness, I was aware we had made it. My baby girl and I had survived after all!
The next few days brought torrents of conflicting emotions for both Frank and me. We were, of course, overjoyed with our precious little bundle, our Meredith Marguerite. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I sat in the hospital bed and undressed her carefully so I could gaze on the completeness of the perfect, tiny human we had made. We were grateful I had come through the ordeal alive, though shocked we even had to recognize survival as a victory. We were heartbroken for the tragedy at our alma mater. As the weeks and months passed, I would have to face the lasting scars left behind from PTSD – bouts of anger, resentment, ragged nerves. But it was in the hours shortly after her birth I began to grapple with the guilt. My immediate response in panic had been self-centered. Rather than cry out to God to save my life and that of my baby, I had felt despair at losing my life with her. I became ashamed for my lack of faith. Yet each time I closed my eyes during those days of recovery, the words of Psalm 23 were present in my mind. “The Lord is my Shepherd … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil … Thou art with me … Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” As I contemplated over the recent events and the steadfastness of the words, I realized I was repeating something I had heard when I was unconscious.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Psalm 23 (KJV)
When I had fallen into respiratory arrest, Code Blue was called. Doctors and nurses raced past my waiting husband and family, into the OR. The chief of anesthesiology was among the first; he immediately removed the epidural line and put me under general anesthesia so my baby could be quickly delivered safely. While I remained unconscious, my family prayed fervently just outside the room, begging and pleading with God to be present in the room, to save my life and that of my baby. It was during this time the Holy Spirit spoke words of life over me, filled my mind and heart with reassurance that even in the face of death, I had no evil to fear as God walked with me. He has made His presence known to me several times in my life since. So thin is the veil between this life and Him, I have felt Jesus close to me, heard Him speaking to me. The guilt and shame I felt have been replaced with praise and gratitude; His presence was with me when, even in my weakness, I neglected to call out to Him. When I hovered near death, He never left me. Daily, together with my family, I awake into new life with Him.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.”
Psalm 139: 13-18