“There is absolutely nothing feminine about me!”
I hurl it like an accusation at my mother who sits across from me placidly folding laundry.
“I’m a big girl,” I say, in despair. “I’m so tall, and I’ve got bigger hands and feet than any other girl I know.”
My mother looks at me like she doesn’t quite know what to say. Unusual for her, especially since I am her third teenage daughter and nothing much rattles her at this point. She nods. She knows what I mean. We live in Korea, and next to the Korean girls my age, I do indeed look gigantic.
My mother puts down the laundry, takes my hand, and examines it thoughtfully.
“They look like strong, capable hands to me, Phebe,” she says.
I roll my eyes. Small comfort at sixteen.
My patient is only sixteen. She looks small and scared in the big delivery bed. I try my best to appear calm and confident, but the truth is that I am a very new labor nurse and not much older than she is.
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell her, but inside I am praying dear God, please help us both come out of this alive.
When she is in so much pain that neither of us knows what to do anymore, she decides to get an epidural. I hold her steady while the anesthesiologist inserts the long needle, and she leans on me and sobs and sweats into my scrub top. I brace my legs and hold her with all my strength. I stroke her head and talk softly to her, like she’s my baby sister. And she makes it through. We both do. I am as surprised and excited as she is when a beautiful baby girl is born screaming and very much alive. We are all alive, and life is good.
Later the young mama brings me some flowers at the nurse’s station.
“These are for you. Thank you for getting me through the pain.”
The card on the flowers says “congratulations on your baby girl”. She gave me what she had.
I give her a hug and it hurts because my arms still ache from holding her. It’s then that I decide I love being a labor nurse.
“How can you do that?” my patient asks, tears streaming down her face.
I look down at the preterm baby cradled in the palm of my big hand. The baby is perfect, but too tiny to live. Her skin is translucent, and she lies motionless except for the occasional gasp.
This is not the first time I’ve met death on the labor ward. I’ve been a labor nurse for a few years now. People often tell me that I have a happy job. They forget that sometimes babies die and mamas have their hearts wrenched out right before my eyes.
And what can I possibly do about it?
Be there. That is all. Be there with my hands and my heart and my physical presence. Be with the mama through her pain.
I dress the baby carefully, and the grieving mama holds her, and I hold them both. The mama clings to my hand, and I don’t mind that she sees the tears on my cheeks. I lost a baby too once, and I know a little of her pain.
A baby’s heart rate drops suddenly. An emergency cesarean section is called and we are all running. Somehow before I know it, I am about to assist the doctor because there is no one else to do the job. I scrub quickly in the sink outside the operating room and walk in with my sterile hands held carefully in front of me.
“What size gloves, Phebe?” the circulating nurse asks me.
“Dang, girl! Even the doc’s hands aren’t that big!”
I blush, but don’t have time to think about it. Before I know it, those size eight hands are holding retractors, pulling apart muscle, sopping up blood…and bulb suctioning a nine pound screaming baby boy.
Another labor, another mama. She’s progressing slowly. I examine her and find a head wedged forward, with too much room behind. A slight concave under her navel and severe back pain mean that the baby is probably turned face up instead of face down. Together we work through positions to turn the baby—hands and knees, modified lunges. She is getting tired. She settles on a birth ball, leaning forward into the bed, while I press my fist into her lower back to relieve the pain. My arms ache as I lean over her and push her hip bones together again and again as she moans through contractions.
And now she’s crouching in the bed, the top of a curly black head bulging through her stretching vagina as she bears down. Suddenly she arches back and screams.
“I can’t! I can’t!”
I cup my hands around her face.
“You can. You will. You are.”
She’s at that moment. We all get there at some point.
I put my hands on her shoulders and speak calm and low.
“Mama, look at me. Look at my eyes. Breathe with me. You are a strong, beautiful mama. You can do it. Push.”
And somehow she summons the strength, and the baby is born in a gush of amniotic fluid and blood. She sinks back, crying, sweating, shaking, and I place the screaming infant on her naked chest.
She looks up at me, triumph in her eyes. The warrior returned from battle, victorious.
“I did it,” she says.
Later the new mama calls me to come help her get up to the bathroom.
“If you start to fall, fall on me,” I say, gently helping her to her feet. “I’m a big girl. I’ll catch you.”
She smiles. A trail of blood runs down her leg and she looks at me, concerned.
“No worries. We’ll get you cleaned up as soon as we make it to the bathroom.”
I walk behind her, one leg placed strategically to catch her if she falls. I help her settle onto the toilet, and begin explaining about how to take care of herself and prevent infection after birth. She looks at me, her face sweaty and exhausted, and I realize she needs a minute. Satisfied that she isn’t going to faint, I start the shower and get some towels. While she showers, I clean up the room—mop blood off the floor, change soaked linens. It’s a messy business, having a baby. A few minutes later, I help the new mama back into a fresh bed, give her some Motrin, instruct her to drink up the juice I give her, and leave her breastfeeding her pink newborn.
I rinse the delivery instruments and start the first disinfectant soak. Then I pour another cup of coffee and sink into my chair at the nurse’s station.
Size eight hands.
Hundreds of mamas. Hundreds of times.
“I’m a big girl. I’ll catch you."