Labor (Pains) Day: ‘My Pain On A Scale Of 1 To 10? What Kind Of Question Is That, Anyway?’

It all started at 2:30 AM on a Monday morning when my water broke. Unfortunately, I had stayed up until midnight watching South Park, so I was not feeling particularly energized. I awakened my husband to tell him that my water had broken, and he sleepily replied, “Seriously?” I said, “Um, I’m pretty sure,” as my water broke again (apparently, this happens repeatedly throughout later). Within an hour, I was at the hospital, connected to various tubes and machines, and my husband was standing by with ice chips. Soon after I arrived at the hospital, my younger sister entered my room, equally tired, but thrilled that she would be missing her last class before Thanksgiving break.

The first eight hours weren’t so bad. We watched Saturday Night Live clips on my husband’s net book; I called my two best friends to tell them that I was in labor; I emailed people at work as though the day were completely ordinary. Then the doctor decided that my labor wasn’t progressing quickly enough, so she decided to put me on Pitocin. I had heard pretty terrible things about Pitocin, so I asked if I could have my epidural before my pain got unbearable. I got my epidural relatively quickly, and thought to myself, “Now it doesn’t matter how long labor lasts, since I won’t have to feel anything! Let’s make a 1980s New Wave playlist. I’m feeling festive!” Except… did you know that epidurals don’t always work? Sometimes they wear off; sometimes they only work on one side; sometimes they don’t work at all.

Within an hour, the epidural had completely worn off on my left side. Utter panic. I had never deluded myself into thinking I could get through labor without pain medication. The plan was: Get epidural. Continue existing until baby is out. There was no Plan B. The doctors tried to give me a second epidural, but the pain in my left side persisted. And it was getting worse. A lot worse. And I was only maybe three centimeters dilated. How would I rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10? What kind of question is that, anyway?

I’m proud to say that I never screamed or yelled at anyone, although I was completely unprepared to deal with full-blown labor pain. I couldn’t watch TV anymore after about five in the afternoon. My sister started writing a paper for one of her classes, and I tried to help her with the wording, but I couldn’t even make any conversation after about seven in the evening. I was only four centimeters dilated, so there was no end in sight to the pain. The nurses neither believed nor cared that my epidural was not working. They gave me zero props for not yelling and screaming. They did nothing to help or support me, and were rude to my husband and sister. All I could do was breathe and think “One squared is one. Two squared is four… …19 squared is 361. 20 squared is 400. (I was a math major in college.) Okay, I survived that contraction. Here comes another one.” I was at five centimeters at 10 PM. Only halfway through in 19.5 hours?!

By some miracle, I went from five centimeters to nine centimeters in two hours. Maybe, just maybe, I was actually going to give birth this decade. I had reached 10 centimeters by 2 AM. Finally, I was ready to push. I pushed with all of my might for an hour-and-a-half. Somehow, the pain lessened when I was pushing, and I felt revived. I was actually going to do it! The nurse could see the baby’s head! Unfortunately, every time I stopped pushing, the baby’s head went back inside of me. “I’m going to give you a break,” the nurse said. “I don’t need a break,” I told her, “I can still push! Let’s keep going!” But no, the nurse disappeared. About a half-hour later, she returned with the doctor who recommended a C-section. After all I had been through, I felt utterly defeated, so I agreed.

The doctor vanished to set up the operating room. She returned to ask, “You’re allergic to penicillin?” I replied, “Yes, I am.” “How allergic?” she asked. Were they going to ask me to rate this on a scale of 1 to 10, too? “What happens when you take it?” the doctor asked. “I don’t know,” I replied, “I think I got a rash when I was a baby.” “We’re having trouble finding another antibiotic,” the doctor informed me. I said what anyone in my position would say: “Look harder.”

Around four AM, I was taken into the operating room, and I’m pretty sure I had a shower cap on. They were going to give me a spinal block through the same catheter that my epidural was in. “Is this actually going to work? Because, you know, my epidural didn’t work?” I asked. “Yes, this will definitely work,” the doctor assured me. Soon after I was given the spinal block, my eyes BURNED! What was in this thing? “I’m going to throw up!” I announced. I was connected to a bunch of tubes and there were doctors everywhere, and before I knew it, I was barfing over my shoulder, all over the anesthesiologist.

The curtain of mystery was put between me and my abdomen, and the doctor decided to test my sensitivity with clamps before cutting me open. “I can feel that,” I told her. She didn’t believe me and continued testing. “Still feel it. Still feel it. I know you don’t believe me, but I can tell feel it.” The doctor assured me, “This spinal block will work.” Finally, I told her, “I distinctly feel the clamp on my left side right now. Please do not cut me open, because I can feel everything!” Miraculously, the doctor believed me before cutting me open, and my C-section was performed under general anesthesia.

I woke up… somewhere. My throat hurt because I was intubated. I was covered in random suction cups. My stomach hurt worse than when I was in labor. “The morphine is on its way,” a nurse told me. Wonderful. Then my family appeared out of nowhere. They had all seen my baby before me and were gushing over how adorable she was. I was in and out of consciousness, but I managed to read on the nurse’s clipboard that my baby had been born at 4:50 AM. The clock read 6:30. I felt like an eggshell, cracked open, robbed of anything valuable, and thrown into the garbage disposal.

If I could go back to when I first got pregnant, I would tell myself this: Don’t expect the hospital to protect you from a bad experience.

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  • Jen

    That is totally awful. I was also given pitocin and it is totally the worst thing in the world. Mine was for a medical reason, but it does seem like it was invented solely to torture pregnant women. And doctors/nurses can be and often are completely unprepared for anything out of the ordinary. It is unfortunate and there should be stricter rules regarding women in childbirth. By the time you go through the necessary channels required by the Patients Bill of Rights your baby is going to college.

    • Beth Anderson

      Agreed. I don’t know what the answer is. I wish there were consumer advocates for pregnant women.

  • Rebecca

    Next time get a doula! I’ve had two kids and dealt with rude nurses, horrible lactation consultants that made me feel like crap, and invasive questions about why I wouldn’t breastfeed my second child and my birth control plans for the future. With my second child the nurse was actually mad at me because when I called to tell them I was coming I “didn’t sound like I was really in labor” and arrived with contractions a minute apart. Then the dr came in and yelled at me for not following protocol and calling my dr before coming even though I had asked the nurse if I should call my dr during the hour drive to the hospital and was told “not to bother”. Luckily my labors were very short and easy. My sister had a 30 hour labor and a doula to coach her through and act as a go between with the dr and nurses. It was amazing how polite the nurses were when the doula was around!

    • Beth Anderson

      I’m sorry you’ve had such negative experiences, too, but that’s awesome that your sister’s doula was so helpful!

      I’m about 90% sure there won’t be a next time for me, but if there were, I would definitely have a doula (and a midwife, and a home birth).

    • Hannah

      I had a good doula, and my experience was still close to Andria’s (except I pushed for THREE hours straight…with no one in the room but my doula, mother, and a 18 year old nursing student attending her first live birth.) Doctor’s are still all-powerful, and even doula’s can’t force them to care about you if they really don’t believe your concerns. Your best bet if you want the most control over your birth experience is to look into a birthing center or a home birth. Hospitals are driven by money and you will be treated as a piece of meat on a conveyor belt. I had no choice as my husband was in the military and a hospital birth was the only option covered by our government insurance (surprise.)

    • Brittany

      How long ago was that? Tricare Prime covers birthing centers now and they cover certified midwives as well. :)

  • Andria

    My first birth experience was great. The nurses were wonderful and helped my every step of the way.
    Total opposite experience with my second child being born in the same hospital just 2 years later.
    My water broke 6 weeks early and the doctor (not my doctor) told me that it wasn’t amniotic fluid. I asked him what all the fluid running down my legs was and he said it was discharge although I’m pretty sure he really just thought it was urine. I walked around for 2 days still leaking until I started getting contractions about 20 minutes apart. I called my doctors office and got the on call doctor (not my doctor) who seemed annoyed that she was going to have to meet me at the hospital at 7pm. I get to the hospital and the nurses don’t believe I’m having contractions and they practically send me home. Luckily a kind nurse checked to see if I was dialated and I was about 3 and she said my water definetly had broke. My contractions slowed down so they said they would wait till morning to see if my labor progressed on its own. I sent my husband home to get a good nights rest. Big mistake. The nurses changed shifts at 11pm and I got a new nurse who was not too pleasant. Around 11:45pm my contractions started to pick up and I was in pain and was being vocal about it and the nurse came in and said “what’s the matter with you”. She then told me my contractions weren’t showing up on the monitor and then she left. She was in and out of the room and at one point came back and told me she can now see that my contractions were 5 minutes apart. She told me to call my husband because there was a good chance I was having the baby tonight and maybe I could get an epidural soon. She wouldn’t help me use the phone to call my husband as I repeatedly dialed out wrong and again she snapped at me to call my husband. She then left the room again at which time my body started pushing out the baby without me even putting in any effort. I knew what was happening but because I was in so much pain I could barely comprehend what was happening and then I realized it was too late for an epidural. The nurse came back and told another nurse to check to see if I had dialated any further and the nurse said “oh, the heads right there”. So what did they do? They left me alone of course. So by the time the docotor got to my room it was too late. The baby came out on to the bed. No doctor or nurse to catch her and my husband missed the whole thing. She was born at 1:30am and weighed just 4lbs 2oz. Luckily for everyone she was healthy and she only spent one week in the ICU.

    • Beth Anderson

      Wow, I can’t believe that they totally ignored you like that. I’m so sorry to hear how you were treated and that your husband missed the whole thing.

      It’s surprising to hear about two completely different labor experiences in the same hospital, but I’ve heard many similar stories. Dedicated, professional, caring doctors and nurses can help make a hospital birth a great experience; it’s a shame that coin has two sides.