No birth story goes exactly as planned, but Quinn’s birth story is so different from what we ever could have possibly imagined for the birth of our second baby.
Before we even found out we were pregnant, I was already planning a home VBAC. I’d emailed local birth centers, doulas and midwives, researched VBAC safety statistics and strategies and I was determined to get another shot at the natural birth I so desparately wanted but didn’t have with Knox.
All of those plans came crashing down quickly when at 6 weeks pregnant we found out that I had isoimmunization. To make a long, detailed, heavy-with-scientific-terms-and-concepts story short, it meant our pregnancy was high risk, we needed to deliver at 37 weeks and that our baby might be very sick in utero and when she was born.
Our pregnancy was filled with ups and downs – at 18 weeks we were disheartened to find out through a free cell DNA test that our baby was definitely Rh+ and would be in danger. But, by 35 weeks my antibody titer levels were still very low and my doctor was so confident that our baby would be perfectly fine, he said he would even let us wait until 39 weeks to induce. We were cautiously optimistic, but we still weren’t comfortable going against the textbook recommendation of inducing at 37 weeks – I wanted our sweet girl to grow inside as long as she could but I knew I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if we waited until 39 weeks and my body harmed our baby during that time.
Though we needed to deliver a full FIVE weeks earlier than my failed induction with Knox, our doctor was still supportive of me attempting to birth vaginally. We were all set to induce the evening of Monday, June 5th. I went in for my very last NST and BPP scan the Friday before, expecting everything to be normal as usual. When the nurse began the ultrasound scan, she frowned. Hmm, the head must be way down in your pelvis, she said. She scooted the ultrasound wand around my belly once more. Oh! she exclaimed. The baby’s breech! Our baby had been head down for months, but with only 3 days until our induction, she had flipped.
We had intended to spend the weekend relaxing, spending time with Knox and attempting to encourage my body to be ready to labor – instead, we were scheduling last minute chiropractic appointments, acupuncture sessions and burning Chinese herbs over my pinky toes several times a day (seriously) in a last ditch attempt to make the baby turn on her own. If that didn’t work, our doctor agreed to try an external version first thing Monday morning so that we could avoid another C-section if possible.
We showed up at the hospital, our bags ready but totally unsure of what direction the day would go in. They admitted us into Labor & Delivery and our doctor came to check on us. The good news was that baby was head down. The bad news was that my cervix was high, firm and completely closed – I was about as close to going into labor as Ryan was. And with a prior C-section and no way to get a foley catheter in, the only option was to begin Pitocin.
And so, it began.
My contractions were consistent – spaced every 2 to 3 minutes – but even though they kept raising the level on my Pitocin drip, the contractions weren’t painful at all. We watched Netflix. We sent dumb Snapchats. I made Ryan smuggle me a few handfuls of Cheez-Its since I wasn’t allowed food. The nurses came in every hour or so and each time they were disappointed to find that the pain I was in had nothing to do with labor and everything to do with a really numb butt from spending all day sitting in a wildly uncomfortable hospital bed. With Knox, I spent 18 hours laboring with Pitocin and no matter how incredibly painful the contractions became, my cervix never dilated. Ten hours into our second induction, I had made no progress at all and we were certain we were headed for the same exhausting failed result.
We started talking C-section. If you know me, you know I’m extremely competitive. And stubborn. And I love any good physical challenge. Sitting in our hospital room discussing the possibility of requesting a repeat C-section made me feel like a huge failure. Already my body was failing us by attacking the baby growing inside me and now it was failing us by being incapable of laboring to bring that baby into the world. But more than anything, we wanted to finally get this baby out safely and something told me surgery was going to be the answer.
Once we made our decision, everything started to move at lightning speed. They prepped me, they outfitted Ryan in surgical scrubs, they wheeled me down the hallway into the operating room. My whole body was shaking as the anesthesiologist gave me my spinal block. I listened to the bustle of doctors, nurses and techs as I lost feeling in my lower body. Ryan appeared, camera in hand. Make sure they get her CBC, Coombs and bili from the cord blood, I said for the millionth time. And don’t forget my placenta.
Suddenly, the noise and the shuffling paused. One of the doctors announced that they were about to break my water (and then promptly commented on just how much water it was). From my side of the curtain, I heard her cry as they pulled her out.
I waited for them to bring her to my side. As the minutes dragged on, I got more and more anxious. As they glued me back together, the surgeons were chatting about which coworkers were currently pregnant. I heard a nurse call out for a pediatrician to come to the OR. My arms were shaking again but they were still strapped to the table. I thought I was going to throw up.
I tried to ask Ryan what was taking so long, what the problem was, and he said the baby had some trouble breathing but they thought it was fine now. Finally, they brought her to me and held her to my cheek. She was small, pink and sandy haired, our girl Quinn Elodie.
When we were all together in the recovery room, Quinn lying on my chest to breastfeed, I breathed a sigh of relief. My mind and my body were still hazy with pain medication, but I had the thought that finally the worrying was over.
It wasn’t very much later that they became concerned about her breathing again. She shouldn’t be wheezing. She shouldn’t be so sleepy. And she was whisked away from me again. This time, I watched as they wheeled her tiny little box out of the recovery room. I told Ryan not to worry about me and to follow her to the NICU.
I waited and waited under the fluorescent lights of that stupid recovery room while one of the nurses struggled to input my information into the computer beside me so they could admit me to our postpartum room. I was burning up, sweat pouring from my forehead and droplets hanging on my upper lip, but she kept covering me with blankets. Finally she raised my bed to wheel me out of the room. Before we made it to the door, I was throwing up over and over and my recently cut open abdomen felt like it was quite literally being ripped apart. The nurse offered me medication to control the nausea but I declined, as she also said it would cause more drowsiness – I had this idea that Quinn would be able to leave the NICU later that night and I wanted to be awake to see her.
It was midnight when they got me to our room. I was still vomiting. Ryan was still gone. Still dazed, I ate a few ice chips, laid back in the bed and eventually fell asleep alone.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Ryan came back to the room to sleep. I wasn’t allowed to get out of my bed to visit the NICU until 9AM, twelve hours after our baby was born. She was lying in her clear, enclosed box – there were wires connected all over her body, an IV in her arm, oxygen tubes in her nose, a drainage tube in her mouth. A white mask covered half of her face, protecting her eyes from the bright phototherapy lights all pointed at her tiny exposed body. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch our baby. Timidly, I opened one of the tiny windows and stuck my hand inside the box. She gripped my finger and held on tight.
Quinn was born with hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN), meaning the anti-D and anti-E antibodies from my blood were in her body, attached to her D and E positive red blood cells and killing them off. Her hemoglobin (a protein molecule that makes up red blood cells) was low and her bilirubin (the waste product of dead red blood cells) was very high. If your hemoglobin gets too low, it leads to heart failure. If your bilirubin gets too high, it can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause brain damage.
I could give you a day by day account of Quinn’s fight with this disease, but we’re already on day 26 and still battling the barrage of antibodies. Instead, I’ll give it to you in numbers:
18 – The number of hours Quinn was alive before she was allowed to eat. Because of her breathing problems, we had to wait before beginning to feed her, and then we had to feed her with expressed breastmilk from a tiny cup.
1 – Quinn was just one day old when she received an IV infusion of IVIG, a donated blood plasma product. Thankfully, this saved her from needing an exchange transfusion, where they would have drained all of her blood and replaced it with donor blood.
80 – The number of blood tests Quinn has had so far in her short lifetime.
3 – Quinn was three days old before we got to see her eyes and hold her for the second time.
16 – Sixteen days Quinn had to spend on bili lights. During this time her eyes were always covered by a mask so she wasn’t able to see anything at all.
2 – The number of blood transfusions Quinn has received so far. She needed her first transfusion when she was 6 days old. It was late Sunday afternoon and Quinn was still in the NICU. Everything seemed stable and they were planning to discharge her that evening with a home phototherapy unit as long as her 4PM bilirubin test came back with a result showing progress. Ryan and I had come home to eat dinner and put Knox to bed. It was a breezy evening and we were outside playing with Knox. For the first time in a week, I felt hopeful. Light. Unburdened. When the doctor called, her tone was strange – one step above concerned and one step below panicked. She said the bilirubin was okay but they’d run another blood count as well and Quinn’s hematocrit and hemoglobin were so low she needed a transfusion immediately. The doctor said she couldn’t believe they’d dropped so far so fast – they ran the test twice in a row because she was so surprised at the results.
I didn’t cry during my C-section. I didn’t cry when they took my 45-minute old baby from my chest and wheeled her off to the NICU. I didn’t even cry when we left the hospital 3 days later without her. But sitting in the car on the way to the hospital where our anemic newborn was waiting for a life-saving blood transfusion, I couldn’t stop crying. I had been living in survival mode and distracting myself by focusing on facts, numbers and all the research I could get my hands on. But Quinn’s first transfusion took us completely by surprise, and 9 months worth of worries and emotions came crashing down.
Quinn has been in this world for almost 4 weeks now. She has the longest little toes, she loves to be held and she poos so noisily you can hear it from across the room. By all accounts, she’s a totally normal newborn. But my antibodies are still circulating in her blood stream and can live in her body for up to 3 months. She may need more treatments and she’ll at least need weekly blood tests until we can confirm the antibodies are gone completely. And then she WILL be a totally normal baby – hemolytic disease of the newborn is serious and stressful while it lasts, but as long as it’s monitored and treated carefully, it should have no lasting effects.
Our sweet girl’s pregnancy and birth has been such a bittersweet experience for me. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that her birth story has left me with a weight on my heart. With isoimmunization, each pregnancy is riskier than the last. I’m mourning the fact that I will likely never get to experience the feeling of going into labor on my own or know what it’s like to push a baby out of my body. I’ll probably never again get to spend my baby’s first days of life by their side. I will be putting our future babies at risk just by trying to bring them into the world, and I’m not sure anything could make me feel more inadequate as a mother.
But right now, I’m focusing on the sweet part of the experience. The part where I get to hold our little girl in my arms and just look at her blue eyes and her chubby cheeks. I’m thankful Quinn needed no treatment inutero. I’m so thankful for her strength and for the doctors who delivered her and helped keep her healthy during her first few weeks on Earth. And I’m beyond grateful for the blood donors who have literally saved her life.
Our Quinny girl is writing an interesting life story already and I’m so lucky I get to be her Mama and watch the rest of it unfold.
*Also, just in case you’re wondering what happened to that placenta…we DIY dehydrated it and encapsulated it to eat. And when I say “we” I mean I did while everyone else in the house cowered far, far away in fear and disgust.