Here’s an extract from my newly published memoir, recalling my medical student days, when I first attended the delivery of a healthy baby. An awesome experience…
After six months of professorial scholarship and seat-of-the-pants emergency medicine, I escape to sunnier climes, assigned for the month of July to my “midder”—midwifery—rotation at the North Middlesex Hospital in Edmonton. The hospital takes all comers, so the midwives welcome me warmly.
“See one, do one, teach one, that’s our motto. So we get to put our feet up once we’ve shown you the ropes.”
I watch my first delivery over a seasoned midwife’s shoulder. No need for permission to attend my first intimate encounter with naked female beauty, it seems. Thank God my face is hidden behind the mask—at twenty-two I look seventeen. From Mom-to-be’s notes, she’s a G5P5, but I’m too shy to ask for interpretation. The midwife starts talking without turning her head.
“This will be Mrs Stafford’s sixth baby, and all her previous five went to term. You’ll see in her chart that she’s G5P5 —midder-speak for gravida five, para five—meaning she’s been pregnant five times and had healthy babies each time. No miscarriages, right, Polly? My name’s Ellen, by the way. What’s yours?”
“Polly, John’s a medical student here to learn midder. You’re pretty used to that by now, right? Okay if he calls you Polly?”
Polly is too preoccupied to answer, already up in stirrups and starting to push. Liquid runs down the inside of her thighs—amniotic fluid, urine, or honest sweat? I don’t know if I’ve missed her water breaking, but I have the hazy idea this is how the baby announces its imminent appearance. And if this is number six, it shouldn’t take long. I’m tense with excitement, about to witness my first birth from a front-row seat. Polly grunts and pushes under Ellen’s urging, winging a string of colorful curses her old man’s way for knocking her up once more. I wonder briefly where he is—probably in the pub with his mates. No doubt he enjoys the conception more than the delivery end of things.
The baby comes fast, pink and plump, squirming and yowling by the time Ellen suctions her mouth and nose. She passes her to me to lay on the scales by the bed.
“Weight? Apgar score?”
Apgar rings a faint bell. Our OB prof. was my favorite, so I’ve held onto a few gems.
“Er…seven pounds, eight…no, ten ounces.” She looks over to check my accuracy as I grab my stethoscope. “Er…pink-appearing = 2, lusty cry = 2, um…good tone = 2.” I grasp the tiny, slippery hands and draw her upwards. “Flexes actively = 2…” I listen in the region of the baby’s plump left nipple, that of a young woman’s. “Er…can’t count her heart rate, too fast…”
Ellen hands me a warm towel and unrolls a miniscule blanket from the radiator.
“Quick, get her wrapped up, don’t want her catching her death. And any heart rate over a hundred is a 2 as well. So what you got?”
Baby’s eyes are shut tight. I gaze entranced at her tiny pinkness.
“Apgar, John?” Mild irritation, but mostly amusement.
“Er, 10. That’s great!”
“Ever held a newborn before?”
“No, my first time.”
“Okay, Polly’s turn. Let’s try the baby’s suck.”
Ellen lifts the swaddled bundle out of my arms, lays her beside the already slumbering Polly, loosens the gown to expose her breast, and guides the swollen nipple towards the baby’s mouth. She roots briefly, latches on, then she too sleeps.
My exhilaration amounts to awe—to be present at the birth and first breath of this perfect human creature. The outcome of one brief act of procreation, and forty weeks of molding each autonomous organ and appendage. A sacred work of art.