Saturday, May 14, 2011

Confessions of a Nurse who Birthed in the System

© Christina Harris 2011. Christina is a registered nurse who shares the experience of being completely educated while still being uninformed about the birthing industry. She also shows us that the pain from birth trauma can resurface many years later. Christina now passionately protects mamas and babies inside the hospital and is an inspirational example of how people can take their experiences and use them to learn, grow and then help other people.

“To say that I suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from my first birth experience would be a gross understatement. Sadly, it’s taken me 9 years to realize why I’ve been processing recurring themes of depression, anger and sadness. Slowly, slowly, slowly it’s gotten better, and as I’ve been able to realize where these feelings have stemmed from, I’ve been able to begin the healing process. But I am only at the very, very beginning and I have so far to go on my journey.

But first I must step back...

I was born in 1971. Yes, this means I’m turning 40 this year! In the mid 1970s, I watched a television show called “The ABC Afterschool Special.” When I was just 5 or 6 years old, I watched one that was titled, “My Mom Is Having a Baby.” Even at that tender age, while watching that show, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to work with babies someday.

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by pregnancy and birth. All I ever wanted was to become a mother. Whenever anyone would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always answered, “A mother.” I remember being scoffed at for this answer and eventually began offering up other careers such as a child psychologist. It sounded better to people.

When I was 29 years old, I conceived my first baby. I was so excited that I found myself crying all the time at the sheer joy of knowing I was growing a sweet human being within my womb. As a registered nurse, I felt lucky because I worked in a big, metropolitan hospital that had all the physicians, modern medications and gadgets that would provide me and my baby with a safe experience.

I asked the nursing staff to name the best doctors and signed up immediately with the OB group that was most used by staff. They were located in a posh office in downtown Seattle and they were “the best.” I wanted nothing but the best for my baby, really and truly. I looked forward to my prenatal appointments, even though the wait times were often long and the appointments were too short.

I read “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” and joined an online pregnancy and parenting community. I felt well educated about everything. It should be noted that part of my PTSD stems from the fact that I felt “taken” and “duped” by the system. I had no clue I was reading all the wrong stuff. No clue at all, and I considered myself intelligent and well prepared.

Despite being deathly sick during the pregnancy, I bonded with my unborn baby instantaneously and would sing to him, read to him and talk to him. The day I felt him move for the first time (yes, I remember, it was August 19, 2001), I felt a joy and an elation that could never be adequately described using words. I picked out a name for him and could not wait to meet him.

Pregnancy was very, very hard for me to endure. I spent most of my time vomiting or dry heaving. When that finally stopped at 22 weeks, I had about 2 enjoyable weeks before the aches and pains set in. I had sciatica so badly that my knees would sometimes buckle on me without any warning. I had continuous, excruciating pain in my hip joints. Often, it would awaken me in the night and I’d scream out in pain. Nothing would take that pain away except my husband putting his full weight on the joint.

When I was 40 weeks, I had more protein in my urine than was acceptable. Other than that, I had unremarkable lab work throughout. I was asked to come to the hospital on Saturday for a NST. I did so and the triage nurse who administered the NST was surprised by my near inability to get up on the gurney. I was in way too much pain. I remember that my pubic bone felt as though someone had beat it with a baseball bat (in addition to all the other pains I had) and I had edema in my feet that was so bad I was forced to wear sandals in the snow because none of my closed shoes fit anymore.

She looked at my chart and declared, “Oh, I don’t know why I thought you were 36 weeks. You’re 40 weeks! We can induce you today and you can have your baby and feel better! Your doctor is on call this weekend. Let me call him and see if we can’t get things moving.”

Well, to this VERY uncomfortable mama, that was music to my ears. The thought that I could actually have my baby THAT day was a dream come true. I just didn’t think I could be pregnant a minute longer. I started to feel excited. She called my physician who gave her the green light to get things going.

And that, you see, is where the horror began.

They gave me a cervical ripener and told me to go walk. My mom was with me and we walked and walked and walked. Not much happened. In fact, if I want to be totally honest, NOTHING happened except that I was tired and really uncomfortable from all the walking. I reported back to the labor unit and I’m not sure how it was decided, but they admitted me and placed my IV.

I don’t remember that nurse’s name, but I didn’t like her. I was hungry and I was eating something and she said, “And that, young lady, will be your last bite of food.” Really? That wasn’t nice. Later as she was going through admission paperwork, she said, “Don’t be afraid to take pain medication. Remember, this isn’t a contest.” Hmmm, and just who, pray tell, would I be competing against and for what?

They hooked me up to Pitocin to see what would happen. It definitely produced contractions. My doctor came in and offered to break my water. I distinctly remember him giving me a choice. He told me, “I can send you home and have you come back later or I can break your water. Just know that if I break your water, there’s no turning back and we will have a baby within 24 hours.”

That was the extent of my choices. He did not share with me the dangers of doing this with a cervix that he described as, “long, thick and closed.” He did not mention that cervical status could increase the risk of a c-section. No one told me about ANY of the risks, the pros or the cons. It wasn’t truly informed consent if you ask me.

Remember, I was a mama who had spent more than half the pregnancy puking and the other half in excruciating pain. Given the way my options were phrased to me, I of course chose the option that would give me a baby in the next 24 hours. Wouldn’t everyone choose that without any other knowledge?

They ruptured my membranes and cranked up the Pitocin. I did not want an epidural. I had a doula with me who supported me through a Pitocin labor without any analgesia. She was wonderful, even though the contractions were fierce. They kept coming and coming. They were powerful and I kept visualizing my cervix opening with each one. My doula helped me change positions, get into the tub, sit on the ball, and other things.

During the night, I had a horrific nurse named Juliette. She had a bedside manner that made me hate her. Not wanting to make waves, (after all I was a nurse from another department in that very facility) I said nothing. But she was horrible. At one point she needed to apply a fetal monitor to check the baby. I knew he was difficult to find and keep on the monitor and I was uncomfortable. So I said, “Okay, let me move over to my left side first.” To that she replied, “Well that’s good for you but it SUCKS for me!” I was dumbfounded, as were my husband and doula. Nonetheless, I obeyed.

Later on, while I was in the tub, my IV pump kept beeping because the IV was so positional in my hand. She would yell at me that I had to keep my arm and hand straight out so the IV would run. I just couldn’t. I was so far into the throes of labor that I couldn’t hold still. She finally threatened me and said, “If you can’t keep your arm straight, I’m gonna have to put a new IV in.” I said, “FINE! Here, put another one in. I DON’T CARE!” Eventually, I did fire her.

I can remember when the doctor came back in my room to check on me. It was very early morning and still dark. It had lightly snowed in Seattle and it was very quiet on the unit. After 17 hours of a Pitocin-induced labor, he checked my cervix and declared me to be 3cm dilated. The room was very quiet. I can still see in my mind where everyone was in that room. I was on the bed, my husband on a chair, my doula near me, the doctor sitting on the edge of the bed, and the nurse standing at my feet.

No one said a word. You could hear a pin drop. And in the silence of that moment, something in me died. A big chunk of my resolve went out the window and I began to quietly cry. I shook my head and said, “I don’t know what to do.” My doula, sensing exactly what I needed, said, “I think you want to have a baby.” She knew as well as I did that I needed the epidural. But consenting to one was as good as saying, “I FAILED.”

The last shred of hope I had of a “natural” birth left that room.. But I understood that I could not go another x-number-of-hours without pain relief. So I consented. And quite frankly, the minute my legs and belly went numb were a relief. I settled down on the bed and went to sleep. A few hours later I was fully dilated and they told me I could begin pushing. The sleep gave me a new sense of resolve. A little bit of deep sleep went a long way. I was determined to birth my baby and meet my sweet little boy.

Pushing was a fascinating experience. It wasn’t easy to do while being numb, but I was told that I was doing a great job pushing. So I continued to push... and push... and push... all while on my back with my legs pulled back. I pushed until I popped blood vessels in my face. I pushed until my legs and hips had severe cramps. And somewhere deep down inside of me, another part of me died.

I was beyond exhausted. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t even talk. I would try to say things but the words just wouldn’t come out. I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours. But instinctively, I knew that something was wrong and my baby was not coming out. I knew it. Each time I pushed, I could feel his head pressing against me, but not moving. Over and over and over... 4 hours of this... until I could take no more. The nurse kept saying, “He’s right there. You’re almost there.” And finally I called her a liar.

A the new doctor walked in, one I’d never met before but who had taken over since my own doctor had gone off call, and she said, “This is enough. I’d like to try a vacuum to get the baby out.” I must have consented to this. I should have known what was going on when they took me to the operating room to do it. She tried the vacuum. It did not work, though my baby’s head would bare the scars from that experience for a long time.

Then she got out the forceps. And this is the hardest part for me to write. I am having a mini panic attack and bawling, even as I am typing the words. She put the forceps on my sweet baby’s head and pulled. She pulled hard. She pulled REALLY hard. Then she did something that will scar me for the rest of my life. She put her foot up on the edge of the table for leverage and yanked again. How could I allow this to happen? Something in me finally woke up in response to her treatment.

She said she wanted to try once more and I FINALLY found my long lost voice. I screamed, “NO!!!! JUST CUT ME OPEN! JUST CUT ME OPEN ALREADY BUT DON’T PULL MY BABY’S HEAD AGAIN!!!” And that’s just what happened. I was cut open and while everyone else in the room seemed lighthearted, I was laying there, flayed open and totally traumatized and nobody seemed to notice or care.

I remember them saying, “Oh, he was posterior and he’s big. That’s why he didn’t want to come out.” They held him up briefly over the curtain and said, “Hi mom!” And then I watched them take him away. They took him to a warmer. I could see him from across the room. Through my tears, I watched them treat my baby roughly. I watched from far away as he began wiggling around and rooting for something in his mouth. I watched from afar but that was it.

The rest is a blur. I was on parade after that. I was taken back to my room and I was so exhausted that I fell asleep. And while I was a disgusting mess from the hellish battle I’d just been in, people came in to gawk at my baby when I wasn’t even aware they were there. People passed around my baby while I snored from extreme fatigue. The whole experience was a complete nightmare.

My baby’s head was damaged. The skin on the top part of his scalp was open and bleeding. He had scabs there for months before it finally healed completely. Even after it healed, he was sensitive to having his head touched for a long time. This injury led to jaundice. He had to have his little feet poked over and over and over again to check bilirubin levels. My heart died each time they did this. When the phlebotomist came to draw the PKU, they would not swaddle him and they would not let me hold him.

I allowed them to continue anyway and just put my face next to his and cried and tried to console him as he flailed and screamed. I had no idea I could say no and I had no idea it didn’t have to be that way.

As I said at the beginning, I’m only just now, 9 years later, beginning to scratch the surface of healing. I went on to have another baby via c-section, despite wanting to have a VBAC. That’s a story for another day. I’m thankful that I breastfed him exclusively and that he wasn’t circumcised. Otherwise, I would be a bigger mess than I already am now.

We have a special bond and I only hope that his little spirit can forgive me for what I ignorantly put him through. He is the most beautiful child, inside and out, and I’m so thankful to be his mother. I just wish I had made better choices surrounding his birth.

Reiterating what I said earlier, I feel “taken” by the medical system. I was a registered nurse who took education very seriously. I was a victim of brainwashing by the system.

I was brainwashed to believe that women who birthed at home were neglectful and didn’t really care about their own babies. They only cared about themselves and what THEY wanted, not what was best for their babies. I was brainwashed to think that they were irresponsible.

I was also duped into thinking that my doctors saved my baby’s life. And I guess to some degree, they did. After all, he may never have come out alive if they hadn’t cut me open. But it took me several years to figure out that they saved my baby from what they did to me in the first place.

This is why I talk now. This is why I’m passionate. I wish I had met passionate people before I ever conceived my dear baby. Sadly, I cannot change the past. I can only look forward and do my best to help others avoid my own experience. Because believe me, you don’t want to walk in my shoes... they hurt... a lot.”


  1. *CRIES* I'm so so sorry for this mama's pain. It's amazing what we endure and because of our experiences we find the strength and the voice to help others.

  2. That is a very touching story; thank you so much for sharing. It took me two horrible hospital experiences before I could convince my husband to go the homebirth route. I had originally planned to be an RN, but I simply cannot stand back and watch the way that women and babies are treated in a hsopital, so instead, I plan to study to be a midwife someday :)

  3. Molly UncensoredMay 15, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    I'm sickened by the violence you and your son were forced to endure.

    One thing that I need to suggest is reading Birthing From Within if you haven't already, and even if you're done having children. There are exercises in there that deal with healing from birth trauma. Also there's a chapter about the epidural and reading it made me realize that epidural =/= failure. There ARE times with the epidural is needed to help the labor progress, and your labor really sounds like it was one of those labors. Exhausted, not very dilated, you needed a break, your body needed a chance to take a breather and get its second wind.

    I hope your experience and your passion help save other mamas and babies from going through what you went through. <3

  4. I can totally relate! Thank you for sharing your story. Hopefully, a woman who sill soon give birth will benefit from your story and not have to go through what you or I did.

  5. cathiwim@hotmail.comMay 15, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    I am so sorry you went thru all that pain, however, WHY don't docs/nurses in L&D check baby's position? Had you known he was posterior, your doula probably could have shown you some positions to get him turned around! Hugs to you, you are a real trooper, and I am glad you are sharing your experience (which is pretty typical, I'd say) to help other people avoid it, if possible...I second reading Birthing from Within, and I applaude you for helping other people despite your own pain...Hugs to you!

  6. thank you so much for sharing. I hope you can begin healing.

  7. Oh my gosh, our stories are so similar and I feel exactually how you feel and what you went through. No one talks about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Its the most aweful thing to go through. It took me a year before i could even look at myself, could even bear my reflection, could even sleep without waking in sweats. I found the hardest was healing from other mother's harsh words. How pain like that is all in the mind, how they were able to sail through it because they had a higher pain threshold, how i was in the wrong frame of mind, or how i was ignorant or unprepared, how they didnt even so much as wimper because they were so great. "They" will never know that true ripping torturous pain - and finally i am PROUD of myself for surviving it. Hugs to you.

  8. I highly respect what you wrote and am on the same page with you. I, too, am an RN who works in a major hospital system L&D. It's getting harder and harder to tolerate and keep my mouth shut when I see things occur that are not for the benefit of my pt., but yet the pt is told by their physician that the procedure is safe and okay. I am 21 weeks pregnant and have chosen a Certified Nurse Midwife and birthing center to deliver in. This shocks my coworkers, but is also teaching them alot as well. I, too, have had to go through my own healing as my first delivery was quite difficult as well. I will never recommend to a pt. to be induced or membranes stripped unless there's an absolute medical reason to do it and not for convenience. My opinions do rub some physicians wrong from time to time, but I can't stand back and see a young primigravida agree to a test or procedure that she really doesn't understand. Because I have seen so many homebirth disasters that have gone wrong sent to our facility, I will not support home birth. I will support delivering with a supportive CNM in a supportive facility that will allow you to birth your baby how you want in a setting that does have emergency staff/equipment available if needed and quickly. That's what I'm doing. Thank you for your transparency. It's helping alot of women.

  9. Oh goodness... thank you all SO MUCH for the kind words and hugs and thoughts. It means so much to me that people are so kind about this because you really, really put yourself out there when you post a story like this. You open yourself up wide and are so vulnerable and people could use that as another opportunity to mock you and tell you to "buck up" and "get over yourself". So the fact that you all have been so kind means the world to me. And GUGGIE... your words at the beginning of this are so appreciated. I found myself crying as I read them. That really has been a part of my healing... to help others in a broken system that sometimes women are just at the mercy of. Thank you for the suggestion of reading Birthing From Within. It's funny because I haven't read that book in years. In fact, I don't even own it anymore. I gave it away to a mother who had had a horrible hospital experience and was looking for something better the second time around. It's time for me to invest a new copy and use it for healing! Writing this story (it's the first time I've really written anything about it in all these years, other than just sharing bits and pieces with people), has really helped me begin to acknowledge things and accept things I can't change and let go of feelings I've been harboring that have really, REALLY kept me pulled down. I'm feeling freer everyday! THANK YOU!

  10. Oh mama I am so heartbroken to read your story. Thank you so much for posting. I agree with one of the above commenters; epidural does NOT equal failure. I went through 13 hours of pitocin induced labor (which I regret; he was 2 weeks late but completely and totally healthy, placenta was working, fluid levels were good, etc etc, but I agreed to be induced because of that magical week #42 *sigh*), and I went backwards from 8 to 6 cm, then finally several hours later was back up at 8 and stuck there for several more hours, and my midwife said something that really resonated with me - sometimes you need an epidural, not for pain relief, but so you can REST! Anyway thank you again for sharing your heartbreaking story to help others...It's so traumatic being taken by the system like that, but through your experience you can help others to heal. ((hugs))

  11. My grandmother was a nurse-midwife. My aunt and mother were nurse-midwives. So I come from a long line of Good Girls who don't question patriarchy. During my nursing training, my mother was a hosspital midwife. During that training, I saw enough to decide that NO WAY would I ever let anyone talk to me or treat me like that while I was trying to have a baby. I would run away to a cave in the wilderness, just to avoid that. 4 safe homebirths later ... I learned nothing about sex, fertility or normal birth at all during my training, which was considered "wholistic". What I learned was the mechanics of the menstrual cycle and the mechanics of childbirth from a purely 'wisdom of the masculine', neo-scientific paradigm. I learned about "vaginas" and not about "vulvas" or "yonis". I learned to use the tools given to me and to do the interventions and tasks I was told to, and how to justify them using the "scientific rational" of the "Nursing Care Plan". Everything I learned about women and normal birth I learned outside of the system, after I had 'unlearned' everything I learned there. And the biggest thing I had to unlearn was "be a good girl and do as you are told." In tears reading Christina's story. I know, in some profound way that I can't explain, that had I been in a hospital when I had my first baby at the age of 30 (what they reckon is an "elderly" primigravida), that her story would have been my story, I would have had 'the works' and been left feeling that my body is a lemon that doesn't work and I know I would have internalised rage and contempt at myself and my body that would have been expressed as extreme defensiveness towards anyone who had "nice" natural births, especially those who would ever try to explain to me that there was a better way that I could have too, if I chose to. I am another ex-nurse like Christina who is passionate about empowering women to really be NOT-Good-Girls in a broken system has a "corporate model" approach to processing birthing women in a way that has to be profitable and legally risk-averse, and blind to the trauma being proliferated to women, babies and families as a result of such a dehumanising system. So all those things you were always taught growing up, that earned you the approving pats and smiles and good grades? Be polite, don't keep people waiting, don't cause inconvenience, apologise, don't argue, don't answer back, do you think you know best!? obey, submit, cooperate, trust, respect authority, be compliant, don't rock the boat or buck the system, don't give attitude ... when in fact, for any woman, to give birth safely and under your own power, in such an anti-woman construct, you need to do the exact opposite of all we've been taught and preached at and socialised to be: Rebellious. Suspicious. Non-compliant. Independent. Willful. Stubborn. Argumentative. Combative. Assertive. Insistent. Controlling. Counter-cultural. Wild. Not tame. Wary. Mistrustful. Selfish. Inquiring. Thinking critically. Questioning. And we need to be clear-eyed about the fact that there are forces out there who do not like 'their' women to be this way, because when we are, we come between them and their profits, between them and their privilege, between them and their control. So we have to wean ourselves off "approval".

  12. Hi Christina. Thank you SO much for sharing your story. Its stories like these that drive me to educate and support laboring women... to inform them that they DO HAVE CHOICES! There is another way! So thank you for your honesty and willingness to share.

    On a different note, I wanted to share with you about a form of therapy called EMDR. I realize you have no idea who I am but when I read your story, I thought that this therapy could be REALLY helpful for you. Like you I was diagnosed to PTSD stemming from sexual abuses I experienced as a child. I had anger, sadness and weird quirks like an EXTREME! fear of the dark. EMDR completely changed my life and I am a much better woman for it now. Again, I apologize if this feels intrusive, I just wanted to mention it in case you hadnt heard about it before. (Admittedly, it sounds a little weird but so incredibly effective. You can read more here )

    Thanks again for you story!

  13. Christina, my friend, thank you for sharing your admirable strength and having the courage to open up your soul. You dug deep girl, and I admire you so much. Stay true to who you are and what you know is right. Others will gain so much from you. I know I do, always. Love you.


  14. I am sending you so much love. Your story hurts me so badly. I want to take it all away from you. Thank god you're so strong!