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Rachel Somerstein

How to Survive a Vivisection

Getty Images, Collage by Homestead Studio

Rachel Somerstein | Longreads | October 2019 | 12 minutes (2,917 words)

Birth stories have that inexorable narrative drive, borne from the tension of knowing what’s going to happen, but not how you’ll get there. I thought I knew how my story would go.

I never could have predicted what happened: my OB performed a C-section on me without anesthesia. Go on, read it again. Because of the anesthesiologist’s mistake, and the OB’s desire to get it done, I had major abdominal surgery without anesthetic. In a hospital, in the United States, in 2016. It’s more common than you’d think.


The first red flag was that the anesthesiologist had to re-up my epidural three times. Ultimately, it worked; despite back labor and what a nurse described as “monster” contractions, I felt comfortable enough, as a friend had put it describing her epidural, “to serve a meal.”

Hours passed. I labored, confined to bed, wondering whether my daughter would ever come out. I did all the relaxation things I was supposed to do: I pictured a sea anemone opening. I did the lion breath. Despite the pain, my cervix was not dilating much. It would turn out the baby’s feet were tangled up in her umbilical cord, and that her head was cocked to the side. In the parlance of labor, I was not progressing.

Eventually the doula and midwife went to dinner and told me to rest, dimming the lights. When they returned, my water had broken. I was almost fully dilated. Then the room became very busy. Someone turned on the baby warmer. The midwife told me to push, and I did, though I couldn’t really feel my lower body. It was just after midnight, my due date. I felt excited that, as a chronically late person, I’d finally be on time for something. My husband and I had long joked that our family crest would show the White Rabbit mid-flight, worriedly consulting his pocket watch.

I pushed for what seemed like a short time — but what doesn’t seem short when you’ve been in labor for 24 hours? — when the midwife whispered into my ear, “I think it’s time to call it. To do a C-section.” She explained that, amid the pushing, the baby’s heart rate wasn’t returning to levels that seemed safe. Also, she said, I’d been in labor for so long. The baby and I were exhausted.

I must have known something was going to go wrong, because I asked if I was going to die, if my baby was going to die. Oh, no, the midwife said, you’re going to be fine. I signed papers, things I couldn’t read because it was too loud in my head, which released the medical team from indemnities that would actually happen, but that I had never dreamed possible.

Then I waited. It took 40 minutes to pull together the surgical team. Some emergency!

Later the midwife would tell my husband, “I wonder, if we had just waited, if the baby would have slid out on her own. I wonder” — and, he told me, she didn’t seem to wonder, but to be pretty certain — “if maybe we didn’t need to do the C-section at all.”
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