Friday, October 30, 2020

A Series Of Unfortunate Events: Part One

Three days after giving birth, I dragged my feverish, aching body through the double doors of the emergency room. Because of coronavirus, patients weren’t even allowed into the waiting area; screening had to be done first in the entryway.

“I just had a baby,” I explained, then enumerated my symptoms to a man in a face shield and full PPE. “It feels similar to when I had mastitis (a breast infection) with my first daughter, but with worse cramps.”

He went through a checklist of coronavirus symptoms, most of which I didn't have. I explained that I’d tested negative for the virus a few days prior and the only places I’d been since were the hospital and home, but he didn't seem to care. He took my temperature and led me into the “red zone” of the ER, which was eerily empty and littered with warning signs. 

In a curtained room, I changed into a gown and lay down on a bed. A male nurse came in to do a COVID-19 nasal swab and draw blood. After that, another male nurse who looked like he belonged in a 7-11 parking lot smoking weed came in. He was going to “cath” me because they wanted to rule out a bladder infection (I have never had a bladder infection in my life and was pretty sure this wasn’t that). Suffice to say he didn't know his way around the female anatomy very well and it hurt.

In stark contrast to my wonderful birth experience surrounded by women, this excruciating ER visit was almost all males tending to me. They treated my body like it was a car at the mechanic. I cried throughout the entire assessment. The male nurses seemed terrified of my emotions, as if they were as contagious as coronavirus. They had no idea what to say to me – other than remarking that I had my gown on backward (I’d left it open to the front because I thought there would be a breast exam at some point). One of them tossed a sheet over me so I could cover up, like I was a corpse already.

The only woman I came in contact with in the ER was a sonographer, tasked with checking my uterus for any “remnants of pregnancy.” She did her job with a detached stoicism and didn’t talk throughout the entire procedure. Then she left without any indication of what she’d seen on the ultrasound.

At one point, I had to pee and paged one of the male nurses to tell him so. (Gone was any sense of modesty I arrived with.) He came in and pointed to what was essentially a bucket lined with a garbage bag on the floor. No explanation. Apparently patients weren’t allowed to use a regular bathroom because of coronavirus? Then he handed me a box of Kleenex. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. I had just given birth. Going to the bathroom was messy business, and Kleenex wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily, I found half a packet of baby wipes in my purse.

Hours passed. Medical personnel came and went. I curled up in a fetal position and tried to sleep but couldn’t because of the fluorescent lights. It was taking forever for a doctor to come, even though the ER sounded like a ghost town.

Finally, one of the male nurses popped his head in.

“Have they talked to you yet about admitting you?”

“Oh, no...” I moaned.

He realized he'd spoken out of turn and awkwardly started to back out of the room. An emotional outburst was coming and he didn't want to be there to witness it. “The doctor will be in to talk to you about it.”

The doctor, also a man, finally arrived. He’d reviewed the bloodwork and the ultrasound and had consulted with Dr. Cranky at Dr. Baby-Maker’s office.

“We suspect endometritis,” he said. “There’s no definitive test for it, so we can’t be sure. But the recommendation is to admit you to the hospital for IV antibiotics.”

“Can’t I just take oral antibiotics at home?” I asked.

“They might not be effective. You’d be putting yourself at risk for sepsis, which can result in death,” he said. ('Cause that’s not a terrifying thing to say to a new mom.) “You need to stay. It’s only for 24 hours.”

“Twenty-four hours?” I gaped. It was morning now. My breasts felt heavy. I needed to nurse. My pump was at home. What would happen to my milk? What about the baby’s pediatric appointment? How would my husband get through the night with the baby? It was unsafe for him to co-sleep.

“They’ll transfer you to a room shortly,” the doctor said.

I couldn’t process any of this. I was devastated. I cried and prayed and waited and stared at the ceiling. I called my husband but I didn’t have my phone charger so I kept it brief since I didn’t want to burn through the battery.

Finally, a nurse came (yet another man!) and hooked me up to the IV antibiotics. He pushed me in a wheelchair to the elevators. But we didn’t stop at the postpartum floor. We went to the ambiguously-named “medical floor,” and then swerved to the coronavirus ward!

“I don’t have coronavirus,” I informed a (finally female) nurse who was waiting at the hospital room door. She, too, had the full PPE getup on: scrubs, face mask, face shield, gloves. “I just had a baby. I have an endometrial infection. I should be on the postpartum floor.”

“We put everyone with coronavirus symptoms here until the coronavirus test result comes back,” she said.

“How long will that take?”

“Anywhere from three to 24 hours.”

In other words: I was potentially stuck on the coronavirus ward for the duration of my stay. If I didn’t have coronavirus yet, this seemed like a very good way to get it. 

Because of all the PPE and all the COVID-19 protocols, nurses were reluctant to come into the rooms on the ward. I could see the hallway from my bed through a window on the door and watching the nurses enter and exit rooms was like watching a costume change backstage at a play. Every time they entered, they had to put on fresh scrubs and gloves and sanitize everything they touched. When they exited, they had to take it all off and dispose of it and sanitize again.

To reduce contact with patients, they had iPads in each room. When you “called” the nurse, someone would appear on the screen and take down your request – for water, for pain relief, for whatever. Then they’d wait until it was time to take your vitals before bringing whatever you needed.

They were completely unprepared for the neediness of a new mom. I lacked basic postpartum supplies like disposable underwear, pads, witch hazel wipes, a peri bottle, and nipple cream. The room was hot, which seemed counterproductive given my fever, so I asked to have the thermostat lowered. I needed to sleep, but couldn’t, so they tried offering me melatonin (ha!), then an anti-anxiety med, then Unisom, which I dropped on the floor by accident. When I asked for a new one, the nurse got on her hands and knees to find the lost pill (as if I were going to OD on Unisom). Machines beeped loudly and flashed incessantly and no one came to turn them off. It was one frustration after another.

Throughout all of this, my breasts were getting very full. My milk was coming in. But I didn’t have anywhere for it to go.

A nurse brought me a breast pump, but it wasn’t the kind I was used to. I tried to pump but didn’t get more than a couple of drops of colostrum out, which was odd because I pumped easily with my first two daughters and had so much milk I had to buy a storage freezer to keep it all in.

“I’m having trouble with this pump,” I said to a nurse over the iPad. “My breasts hurt so much but nothing’s coming out.”

“I’ll call the postpartum floor and see if they have any suggestions,” she said.

“Can you send a lactation consultant in?” I asked. “I really need help with this.”

“I don’t know if they’ll come because of coronavirus,” she said.

“I DON’T HAVE CORONAVIRUS!” I wanted to scream.

Instead, I said: “If I don’t get some help, I’m going to get a breast infection in addition to what I already have.”

Half an hour later, the nurse appeared on my iPad screen. “They said to Google ‘reverse pressure,’” she said.

Oh, I should just Google my own health care solution? In a hospital? On my almost-dead cell phone? Nice.

“Can you at least send in some clean pump parts?” I asked.

“You only get one set. You have to wash them.”

I had to wash my own fucking pump? From where? My hospital bed? I was so weak I could hardly stand up.

That was when my mama bear fierceness came out. I texted my husband. He and I both barraged the head nurse at the hospital and Dr. Baby-Maker’s clinic with calls. Even though Dr. Baby-Maker’s clinic wasn’t the attending OB practice, she called us both back, listened to our concerns, and promised to contact the appropriate people to make sure I received the help I needed.

“I keep wracking my brain to figure out how you got an infection,” Dr. Baby-Maker said. “I can’t explain it. You had such a beautiful birth. I’m so sorry you have to be separated from your baby right now. If you were at our hospital, I’d be treating you.”

I couldn’t talk too long to her because her kindness made me cry. I was so angry that Dr. Cranky didn’t insist I go to the bougie hospital’s ER instead of this shitshow of a hospital. If Dr. Baby-Maker were my attending physician, I knew I wouldn’t be stuck in this hellish situation.

The postpartum floor finally sent an OB nurse who we’ll call Angel because she was one. She helped me get into a hot shower (not easy with an IV pole and postpartum bleeding) and massaged my breasts. Then I sat, leaning forward on a chair, holding the pump and a pair of hot packs my breasts as she rolled her fists down the sides of my painfully swollen breasts. This was a two-person job. And even with all that assistance, only one breast was cooperating. In the end, I only had 4 ounces of milk to show for it. (For the uninitiated, that’s the equivalent of one feeding. One.)

Angel seemed proud of our progress, but I informed her I’d have to dump the milk because the pump parts were dirty. Before she left, she found a plastic tub, sponge, and sample-sized bottle of dish soap, then washed all the pump parts for me.

“All set,” she said. “Do everything we did – hot shower, massage, pump – every two hours and you should be OK.”

I wanted to grab her by the ankles and beg, “Please don’t leave me!”

Pumping is labor-intensive under the best of circumstances, but I was so depleted because of the fever, sleeplessness, and endometritis that it was impossible to do on my own, much less with the added hot shower and massage elements. Despite my solo attempts, by dinnertime, I hadn’t been able to pump any more milk and my breasts were painfully engorged. Angel came back and we did our routine again, but barely got any milk out.

The one bright spot was that my fever was under control. As long as it stayed that way, I would be discharged in the morning. My husband dropped off a bag at the entrance to the hospital, including my laptop and phone charger. I was the kind of sick where you don’t even want to watch dumb TV, but journaling kept me from going out of my mind.

At 7 p.m., I was finally able to FaceTime my family.

“How are you doing?” my older teen asked.

“I have never cried so much in front of so many strangers,” I said.

Everyone laughed, but there was really nothing funny about it. 

They showed me the baby, all wrapped up and sleeping in her swing. I would have given anything to hold her and breathe in her new baby scent. My husband said she was doing OK, though the pediatrician noted that she’d lost some weight since birth. Even if I hadn’t been in the hospital, we would have had to supplement with formula. I reminded my husband not to co-sleep with the baby and to put her to bed without blankets in the bassinet. She probably wouldn’t sleep much, but it was safer that way.

After I hung up, I felt crummy again. At first, I thought it was just because I’d cried through the whole FaceTime call. But then I felt a warm flush spread throughout my body. When the nurse came in to take my vitals, my worst fears were confirmed: my fever was back. The 24-hour discharge clock wouldn't start over until it was under control. I would be in the hospital indefinitely.

When I was admitted, a nurse had asked, “Would you like to speak to spiritual care?”

At the time, I said, “Thanks, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Now, I felt like all I had to cling to was faith. Medicine was no longer working...

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