February 17 was a fairly normal day off of work. My husband and I slept in (though I had hardly slept the night before, or for several nights before that, so again it was fairly typical), made breakfast, and then went to the hospital for a routine NST. I had these weekly for a few weeks to make sure things were going smoothly with the baby. I was thankful they could get me in on a holiday; I had been using so much of my leave for appointments that I was going to have hardly any left by the time I needed to take time off post-birth.
While we were at the hospital, I mentioned to the nurse that I was having contractions about once an hour. This had been going on for two or three days. To some extent, I didn’t think much of it since I’d been having occasional contractions since November. It just seemed a little odd to me that they were getting so predictable and regular. She said it was nothing to worry about and “contractions like that won’t ripen your cervix.” We chatted about the weather since we mentioned we would be making the trek across the state on the 24th to start the induction process. She told us that the pass had been closed all day (unfortunately my sister was coming across the pass that same day and it took her many hours to get home due to this) so we should keep an eye on the weather the following week and make sure we had plenty of time to get over there. We assured her we had a flexible schedule since all we had to do was show up at our leisure and they’d get things started.
Or so we thought.
I had been wanting to get my hair cut before the baby arrived since I knew I would have a lot of wires and tubes to deal with and didn’t want my long hair getting in the way. I also needed something a little bit less maintenance for the hospital and afterward. After some searching, I found a place that offered haircuts at reasonable prices, but it had a long wait time. My husband and I decided to take a stroll through the cemetery a block away and I showed him my grandparents’ graves. (I should note we enjoy visiting cemeteries—they’re very quiet, beautiful, and peaceful, and we find it interesting to see all of those who have come before us and think about the lives they might have lived.) I found quite a number of infant graves, which made me involuntarily tear up, thinking about our own baby who would be born in the upcoming week and who might not make it.
I got my hair cut, which ended up being free (definitely a reasonable price!) because I wanted to donate it. I had about 13 inches or so taken off; it felt good to have something checked off of our list of things to do before baby arrived.
We went home, and I insisted on packing the baby’s bag. We needed the Theophany water for his baptism, his baptismal cross, a couple of pieces of clothing, and the blankets my mum had purchased for him. I suggested packing our bags, too, but my husband said we should do laundry first instead. Since doing laundry is a bit of an undertaking and we had little time, he said he would do it Tuesday while I was at work. I decided that was a good idea.
We went to dinner at a friends’ house as we always do on Monday nights, and on the way there, I noticed my contractions getting stronger and a little closer together. I was having about four an hour at that point, though I wasn’t quite counting them. I drank a lot of water at our friends’ house and hoped the contractions would go away, but then they became 10 minutes apart. I was trying to hide my discomfort because I was embarrassed, but one of our friends noticed (they are an older couple and have had a few kids, so they are familiar with these things). I told her I was having contractions and she said, “Ah! I thought so!” She encouraged us to go to the hospital just to get checked. I was reluctant to go to the hospital since I figured they would just tell me to go home.
I was right.
We left the hospital around 9PM. My cervix was closed and the doctor said the contractions would just go away. I hoped he was right and wondered how I would get through work the next day with so much discomfort. I had had a pretty painful pregnancy since November and just sighed that this was probably simply the next physical trial I had to face.
At 12:30AM, I woke up my husband because I could no longer sleep. He suggested returning to the hospital, but I was adamant about not going. I had an appointment with my doctor that morning and just wanted to wait it out until then. The contractions had to go away, and even if they didn’t, the hospital would probably just tell me to go home again. I was sick of going through the check-in process and wanted to avoid it at all costs. Around 2AM, the contractions were 5-6 minutes apart, so I called the hospital. They told me to not come back in; nothing could have changed in such a short period of time and the contractions were bound to ease up soon. I called the doctor on call at my local OB’s office and he said, “Just take some Tylenol, take a hot bath, and go back to bed. If you were closed a few hours ago, you will still be closed now. Just have your doctor check you at your appointment in the morning.” I think they just didn’t want to deal with me since I was only 35 weeks pregnant and they probably hear from tons of overreacting women at this stage who won’t deliver till 40 weeks anyway. So I figured I was probably just one of those women, too, and that this was just something that was going to happen and, frustrated, took his advice.
I tried the hot bath, but I have to admit it was the worst suggestion possible. Every time I had a contraction, I wanted to jump out of my skin. The only semi-comfortable position I had found was leaning forward against a wall. I quickly abandoned the bathing suggestion and just took the Tylenol. That didn’t help either. Shortly after, I threw up—the first time since I was 24 weeks pregnant. That was a good sign to me that I needed to figure out something different.
Around 3:30AM, I called the hospital I was scheduled to deliver at, across the state. The nurse said, “You sound very uncomfortable. You need to go back to the hospital there and tell them they need to check you out. If you need to get over here, we need to know right away. You can’t drive here right now and we do not want you driving here if you might be in labour.”
So I returned to the hospital. I was 3cm dilated, and it was suddenly a medical emergency to get me to the other hospital. The pass was closed, so they could not take me by ambulance, and the clouds were too heavy to take the helicopter. They decided they would have to send me by airplane, which ended up being a Godsend because it was the one form of transportation that my husband could accompany me on (and with the pass closed, he would have never been able to make it over on his own in the car). However, we had not brought anything we might need for a hospital trip. He rushed home, threw things together, and got back just in time to get on the airplane.
In the meantime, the nurses had hooked me up to an IV with magnesium sulfate to stop the contractions. It didn’t work very well, and really just clouded my mind and made me confused and miserable.
We finally arrived in the big city at 8AM—just in time for rush hour. Thanks to being in an ambulance, we got to the hospital in just 7 minutes. I had no idea it was possible to get anywhere around there in just 7 minutes, no matter what time of day!
As the medics wheeled me into the hospital, we passed the specialist OB in the hallway. She exclaimed to my husband, half-jokingly, “I thought you guys weren’t coming until next week!”
As I was getting unhooked from the magnesium sulfate, mercifully allowed to finally use the restroom, outfitted with a new gown (the other hospital’s gown had enormous holes for breastfeeding and my breasts were embarrassingly hanging out for everyone to see—I was glad I wasn’t the only one who thought this was an issue) and rebranded with the new hospital’s tags, my OB came in and announced that I was getting an epidural and there was no choice in the matter. I was reluctant for pain medication—not because I wasn’t in pain because I was! but because I don’t do well with medications and feared having an adverse reaction. Birthing this baby was too important to risk that, but she made it clear her decision was final.
The epidural wasn’t too bad, except for the part where they had trouble getting the bleeding to stop, and then my blood pressure plummeted to 80/40. I stared at the monitor in disbelief since I had never seen my blood pressure so low. I urgently asked about the baby’s heartbeat, and the nurse assured me that it was still pumping away at 120 bpm. In 10-15 minutes my blood pressure was finally stabilised. The baby never suffered. He had a strong heart.
By 10, it was obvious that the magnesium sulfate had finally done its damage and the contractions had subsided too much. I was given Pitocin as two doctors struggled with trying to figure out if my water had broken. They never could figure out if they had broken it or if it had ruptured on its own. They declared it AROM eventually, but no one knows for sure. Once they had determined it was broken (one way or another), they worked on inserting a tube for the amnioinfusion. This was the reason my doctor had insisted on the epidural. It took nearly a half hour for them to thread the tube through my cervix, during which I bled enough to make my husband pale.
Between 10:30 and 2:30, not much of consequence happened. The hours passed exceptionally quickly. At 2:30, my contractions started coming much harder and closer together. I realised later that I was in transition. (Interestingly, I’ve heard that women tend to get sick at the thought of food at this stage, but I am pretty sure the only way I got through it was because I was eating a lemon Italian ice. It kept me just distracted enough and kept my queasiness at bay.) As luck would have it, the head neonatologist decided that then would be a perfect time to come in and talk with us about important information regarding what would happen once the baby was born. I was trying to hide the discomfort of my contractions but was unsuccessful, so he decided to politely wait through each contraction. They were two minutes apart at this point, so this became one part ridiculous and two parts exhausting on my part since I had to devote all of my energy during the resting period between contractions to listening to him. I honestly remember almost nothing he said. One important thing we wanted to address was baptising our child after birth. He was quick to say they would of course make religious accommodations, but then couldn’t figure out how such a thing could happen since he was unsure when there would be 10-15 seconds of time to spare. I asked how long they would wait to cut the cord, and he said it would be about 30 seconds. Exasperated (partly because of the contractions), I asked, “Well then can’t we do it then?” He agreed to that.
Panicked, I looked at my nurse and asked, “You put a catheter in my bladder right? Is it draining all the time?” She said it was continuously draining, and I replied, “Really? Because it feels like I have to urinate really badly right now.” She went to get a doctor, who confirmed that I was 10cm dilated (I had gone from 6-10cm in just 30 minutes, hence the pain) and ready to push.
Shortly after I started pushing, the rain stopped (a rare occasion in that city) and the sun came out gloriously. I felt much happier that my baby was going to be born into sunshine instead of rain.
Within 40 minutes, the baby was ready to be delivered, which surprised everyone (including me). The doctors nearly needed to run to be ready for him to arrive. I was surprised that pushing was much easier than I thought it would be. I had always imagined that to be the absolute worst part of labour. It felt much more controlled and bearable than most of the rest of labour had been. At the end, though, I could absolutely not rest and insisted on continually pushing. I panicked slightly, thinking about the baby potentially being in distress in the birth canal and pushed a little too forcefully without relaxing. I paid for that mistake with some stitches later on.
The two doctors delivered the baby, declared him a boy, and placed him on my stomach. My husband baptised him quickly as I held onto the baby’s head and stared in amazement at how big he looked. He flopped like a fish and his skin was a greyish-blue hue. I had no idea what to expect his face to look like and I couldn’t believe I was looking at my baby. The doctor handed my husband the scissors to cut the cord (he hadn’t wanted to do it because he was scared but I guess they insisted!), and then one of the waiting neonatologists scooped little Seraphim off of my stomach. He cried a little at being separated from me.
As 10 doctors inspected Seraphim and began intubating him as four nurses rushed around to help them, the two doctors and a resident worked on assisting me in delivering the placenta. They seemed to be in a race against time because they expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction that it wasn’t coming immediately. This was a much more painful process than I had been led to believe it would be, quite honestly. Once it was out (the resident showed it to my husband, who found it very interesting—I didn’t want to see it), my doctor explained that I had a “very small tear.” I asked, “Small? So you won’t have to fix it?” She replied, “Oh, we’re going to have to fix it.” Nervous, I inquired, “How many stitches? Like two or three?” I had assumed these things were like getting a cut in your arm—the number was dependent on the size, right? She told me, “I can’t quantify how many stitches we’re going to give you…” Then it sounded like she was instructing the second doctor in repairing a tear since I heard a lot more detail about the process than I really felt like hearing at the moment. (I also learned that no matter what people tell you about epidurals, they do not take away all of your pain. In my experience, only the contractions were numbed; I felt every needle prick during the repair.)
Around the time I was delivering the placenta, the head neonatologist came over to let me know, “I may have been mistaken about your baby’s gender. We’re actually not sure if it’s a boy or a girl right now. We don’t typically have this problem.” This was probably the last thing in the world I wanted to hear about my baby, especially then. (He was actually a boy, for anyone concerned. They took blood tests to determine that—he had some physical anomalies though that the doctors had not anticipated. I had read in other studies that sometimes they had observed problems with genitalia in babies with BRA, so I had actually expected some issues, though not that severe; apparently these doctors had not seen it in the past.) While I was being stitched up, he came back (his timing was not impressing me at this point) to let me know something was “wrong” with the initial blood tests they were running. I had no idea what he was talking about, though I assume now that it had to do with Seraphim’s ability to process oxygen.
As soon as the stitches were tied off, my baby was rushed back into my arms. One of the doctors was using a hand respirator to keep his breathing going. I got to hold him for about two minutes before he was placed into an enclosed plastic box for the NICU. As the doctors were closing the box, Seraphim turned his head to look at me and opened his eyes. My heart nearly broke.
My nurse informed me I would need to stay in my room for an hour and a half (my husband went with Seraphim to the NICU) and then the doctors would come get me to take me to the NICU to see my baby. She encouraged me to order something to eat since it would take an hour to arrive; since I assumed I would be leaving soon, I didn’t order anything. Besides, I was only hungry for cold things, so I ate a second Italian ice and drank some juice instead.
On the way to the NICU, my husband ran into a priest who our priest had contacted to come see us, so they went together to watch the baby as long as they could. In less than a half hour, the doctors had started sterile work and needed everyone else to leave. My husband and the priest returned to my room. The priest prayed over me the prayers for a woman after giving birth and gave me relics from St. Nicholas Planas to borrow for our stay.
The hour and a half passed with no word about our baby and I was transferred to the postpartum floor. I waited until about 6 before ordering any food because I kept thinking they would come for us at any moment. I was afraid if I put it off any longer, I would get nothing to eat and I was starting to get hungry since it had been 24 hours since I had eaten. K and I were both starting to feel encouraged that if the doctors had not summoned us to come yet, then they must be making progress with our little one. Maybe his lungs were going to be strong enough after all.
Shortly before my food arrived, two of the neonatologists came to my room and told us we needed to come immediately.
“We thought we could overcome your child’s lung deficiency, but we have tried almost everything and we are not having success. His oxygen levels are dropping and we think he might not have much more time. We have one other thing that we can try, but it will either inflate his lungs or rupture them, and then death would occur very quickly after, so we want you to be there.”
I immediately got out of bed and into the wheelchair. The nurse asked if I wanted to use the restroom first and I said no. I just wanted to see my baby right away. (This was a mistake I later regretted.) Getting to the NICU seemed to take forever. My head was spinning. I had no idea if we had a few minutes left with our baby or a few hours. It sounded like minutes. I had spent only a couple minutes with him and I was definitely not ready to say goodbye so soon.
The nurse stopped me in the doorway to Seraphim’s room, right in front of an X-ray. I stared at the X-ray blankly, trying to make sense of it. I saw a rib cage and some organs, but not much else. The neonatologist saw me staring at it and came over to us. My husband asked, “So, there’s nothing there?” The neonatologist pointed to an almost unperceivable section of very light grey tissue, “Here are the lungs. They were far less developed than even we expected. His body is processing carbon dioxide well but is struggling with oxygen. It doesn’t matter that we are breathing entirely for him right now; if he doesn’t know what to do with oxygen, his oxygen levels will just continue to drop.”
The baby had so many tubes and wires hooked up to him, I was afraid to see him at first. I had been warned that he would have all of these things, but everything seemed more frightening in the moment. My husband was crying; I could hardly bear to see that.
I touched Seraphim’s face and stuck my finger into his palm. He immediately wrapped his tiny hand around my finger. This was comforting to me, and I assume it was comforting to him. I tried to talk to him constantly since I know he recognises my voice. Kevin took his other hand.
The doctors administered the horrible medication to my baby, and I could almost not breathe. I wasn’t sure what to expect if it did kill him immediately. Thankfully, it didn’t. However, it also didn’t help at all.
Since this was the last thing they could try, they placed the baby in my arms—still attached to the monitors and respirator. I caressed his beautiful little face, touched his down-like red-brown hair, and squeezed his tiny fingers. I talked to him as much as I could, wanting to comfort him. With a little coaxing from me, he eventually opened his eyes and looked at me for a long while. I was surprised that his eyes were dark brown like mine and not dark blue like brown-eyed babies usually start out. He seemed to be doing very well, keeping his eyes open and being attentive even though the room was harsh and bright. My nurse came in and said she needed to check me, and the doctor said they were going to take Seraphim off of the respirator shortly. I felt panicked, not knowing how much time was left. I also realised I badly needed to use the restroom. After a process, I transferred the baby to his daddy’s arms, and almost immediately, Seraphim’s health deteriorated. I still feel a huge amount of guilt over that, thinking that maybe I hurt him in some way when I was handing him to K. It was probably coincidental, but since I will never know for sure, I will always feel badly about it. My husband of course felt upset that Seraphim was doing so well in his mama’s arms, but quickly began slipping away in his arms.
I followed the nurse out, she checked me, and then she rushed me to the closest bathroom. It was very quick, but I kept berating myself for not having gone earlier. I was terrified to potentially come back to my son having passed.
When I returned, Seraphim was still alive, but not doing well. He was looking calmer and calmer (although he always looked very peaceful throughout the short duration of his post-birth life—I only saw him scrunch up his face twice as if to cry) and his oxygen levels were quite low. K’s dad and grandma arrived just in time to see Seraphim being removed from the respirator. He lived about 20 minutes after that, then it seemed like he was gone. I didn’t want to say anything even though I was sure he was gone, but about five minutes after that, K asked the doctor if his heart was still beating. She checked and said it was not.
Around this time, our priest from home contacted K. He said that they had arrived in the big city from a trip they had taken but since the pass was closed, they were stranded there for the night and could come see us. The priest and his wife arrived about 15 minutes after Seraphim’s official passing.
“He died about 15 minutes ago,” my husband explained as they entered the room. Khouria immediately teared up and whispered, “He didn’t make it…” The priest took out his prayer book and prayed a prayer I had never heard before over our little one. It was specifically for a departed child. It was beautiful and made me cry all over again.
We discussed with the priest our predicament, now that it was final. We were stuck on that side of the state without a car and unsure how to get home now that our child had died. We needed the coffin that we had ordered that was still in our hometown at the house of the man who had made it for us. We had to figure out when we could get home and how to transport our child—and where he would be buried afterward.
Eventually, they left and K and I sat together in our son’s room holding his tiny body. We had wrapped him in that duck blanket I had come to abhor so much because it kept making me cry in the weeks leading up to his birth. It was perfect for him since we had said he had soft “duckling” hair.
A few minutes later, the priest returned. He told us the man who had made the coffin was taking it to our spiritual father (45 miles from our hometown), and that our spiritual father would bring it to us and take us all home as soon as the pass opened and I was released from the hospital. He added that Seraphim could be buried at the monastery—something few people can even hope for.
The nurses put Seraphim into a bassinet and covered his face with a blanket. They wheeled me back to my room in the wheelchair, toting the bassinet along in a sad procession. We had to go through a long corridor in the NICU lined with rooms of other babies with significant problems—but these babies were living. I glanced at the windows and suddenly felt disgusted at the cards and banners taped across the windows proclaiming things like “Happy due date!” and sports teams’ signs. These babies were not only still alive, but had lived for quite some time, and in all likelihood would continue to live for quite some time. Despite my efforts not to, I began weeping loudly.
About an hour after Seraphim had died, the head neonatologist came to our room for a few last remarks to us. I don’t remember much of what he said; I think he was mostly apologising that nothing could be done and reiterating that they had tried everything possible. Then he added that our baby might have had a genetic disorder, which they hadn’t anticipated, and we should consider not having any more children. I was nearly enraged that he had the nerve to say this to us when our emotions were so raw. We had definitely not anticipated any genetic basis for our baby’s disorder (and we still don’t know if there was any since the tests are extensive) and I felt like right then was probably not the best time to be telling us things that were only going to make us more upset. And telling us that we should rethink having other children after our first-born had just died was perhaps one of the most insensitive things he could have even thought to say. Our love for our child does not change because he had some physical abnormalities, and it will not change no matter why it happened.
That night, my nurse helped us clean Seraphim’s body and dress him. She said he would stay in my room that night so we could still be close to him, but I was afraid at first because I wasn’t sure how his body would change post-death. I was also afraid to wake up next to a dead baby. It seemed like I might mistake reality and dream and be very frightened to realise he really was dead upon waking.
We placed a white sleep sack that looked like a baptismal gown on Seraphim and I pinned his baptismal cross to the gown. The hospital gave us a yellow and white hat that matched his duck blanket. I was afraid of how his soft spot looked and thought it might sink more, so I wanted the hat on his head. I think I overreacted at how his body would deteriorate, and I was not as scared as I thought I would be at having my deceased child sleep next to me, but at least his hat looked adorable on him. That night, the nurse took Seraphim away for a little bit to make hand and foot prints and moulds and to take some pictures for us. She also cut a little bit of his beautiful hair for us to keep. I wouldn’t have asked for these things if they hadn’t been done for us since I thought some of them were strange beforehand, but now I am thankful she did them—especially the hair since so few people got to see his hair and I like to show it off.
I hardly slept that night. Around 4, I woke up and asked my husband if I could sit next to him on the uncomfortable little daybed he was sleeping on. In his sleep, he told me, “No. There isn’t room for you here.” I ignored him and sat next to him anyway (his legs were curled up). It helped to be close to him. He doesn’t remember any of it, of course. We’ve been married long enough that I’m used to him saying nonsense, semi-rude things in his sleep in response to my inquiries.
As soon as 8AM hit, we had no more time for rest of any sort. It became a revolving door of doctors, nurses, social workers, and others. Trying to transport our baby home with us was much more difficult than we had anticipated. Since a funeral home was neither transporting nor receiving him, we had a number of obstacles to overcome that we knew nothing of until then. I was scheduled to be discharged around 4, and if we wanted to leave that day, we had to have everything taken care of by 4, when the morgue closed. The pass opened around noon and the priest who was coming to pick us up came over. As he arrived, my husband was returning from the medical examiner’s office with transportation paperwork and the death certificate. Together, he and the priest worked with the social worker and the morgue to have the baby’s body released to us to take to the church for services. It turned out it was essential for us to have burial arrangements before leaving the hospital, so I was thankful that others had already figured out all of those details for us.
Right at 4:00, we were leaving the hospital with our baby’s body in his tiny little coffin. As the social worker waited with us outside for the priest to pick us up in his car, she indicated that she was quite surprised that we were actually able to get everything figured out in such a short period of time. “I really didn’t think you’d be able to do it, but you did.”
We made it home right before the pass closed again.
We arrived at the church and since it was Wednesday night, choir practice was happening. It seemed like everything happened just as it should have: the choir was there to greet us on the steps with candles and the trisagion hymn as we brought the coffin into the church to place on the holy table—the same table K and I had taken our first steps as husband and wife 9 months ago. The priests said a brief prayer over Seraphim and I found myself crying almost uncontrollably. The day had been so long and stressful, I had not had even a minute to myself to weep until then.
After the prayers, I stood there touching my baby’s face for a very long time. I was eager to show off my little one to everyone. I wish so much it had been under different circumstances.
I felt very peaceful, though, when I could look into the coffin at the angelic face of my sweet baby. I don’t fear for him now. I don’t have to worry for his health or for the decisions he will make or for accidents that might befall him. I know now that he’s looking out for us, and that we can’t be physically close to him, but when we pray, we are praying with him and with all the saints in heaven. I miss him desperately, but not despairingly.
Life will always be different now that Seraphim was in our lives, even if it doesn’t appear like it has changed to others. Our job as parents will look much different than it does for other parents. Most people won’t understand it, which will probably make it a lot harder for us, but that’s all right. I hope that my husband and I can have a stronger marriage and love for each other and for others and for God because of little Seraphim’s life and death. It could tear us apart or bind us together, and I’m pretty sure Seraphim would want the latter.