A High Country Child-Birth

Vail, Colorado, October 10, 1986

I figured I was an old hand at childbirth this time around. I could afford to slough off in the Lamaze class. I didn’t have to work hard remembering breathing techniques. I certainly didn’t re-read the book. When our second baby got around to being born, it would be dealing with seasoned parents.

But the weather concerned me. Instead of a seven minute drive to the Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, we would have to cross 10,000 foot Vail Pass to reach competent medical help. In good weather the drive to Vail takes 35 minutes, which is less time than it takes most babies to come out. But if the weather is bad enough, Vail pass closes. Or if it doesn’t close altogether, driving conditions can be so poor as to triple the travel time. Lamaze classes don’t teach you how to deliver a baby in a snowstorm.

October is not usually a month of severe weather. But two years ago Vail pass closed in a mid-October snowstorm, and it could happen again. Our last baby was three weeks late and if this one followed a similar timetable it would be born well into November. At that time of year, each passing week increases the chance of heavy blizzards.

In anticipation, we had contingency plans for handling bad weather. Our Toyota Land Cruiser was kept gassed up, and the Land Cruiser can get through anything. The Land Cruiser could probably get to Vail without a road.

We also kept an ample supply of blankets, snow boots, survival rations, and diaper wipes in the trunk, just in case we had to deliver the baby by the side of the highway.

So on the night of October 9th, when Derry woke me up from a deep sleep and informed me hesitatingly that she thought her water had broken, my first reaction was to look out the window and check the weather. In that one glance all the concern of the last nine months vanished, for the sky was sparkling with a million stars and the night was still.

One never knows what to worry about with childbirth, and this was a good example. Our contingency plans had been unnecessary. Instead of the wild dash through snowdrifts I had envisioned, while Derry tried to postpone the baby’s arrival, there was now no need to hurry. Water breaking means labor will probably start within a few hours so going to the hospital is necessary, but not urgent.

In a way I was disappointed. I had been working on my high speed driving skills for the last few months, and was looking forward to a situation which required me to perform like a Formula One racer, but it was not to be. In fact, while I hurried around trying to decide what to do, in the classic role of the nervous father, Derry informed me she was going to take a shower and put on some makeup. Had it not been for my childbirth training classes I would have objected to this, but one of the primary points we had been schooled in was letting the woman do whatever she wants to, as long as it’s not holding her breath. If she wants to scream, let her scream. If she wants to dig her fingernails in to your arm, let her dig her fingernails into your arm. If she wants to listen to Bach, let her listen to Bach, etc.

I figured that a shower and makeup came under this heading of strange things a woman may want to do, so I made no objection. My sister Cassie arrived and promptly took charge of two-and-a-half-year-old Erik, who was sensibly asleep. When Derry was finally ready we set off for Vail. It was almost midnight, and we realized that our next child would probably have October 10th as its birthday. This dispensed with another fear: that our child would be born on Halloween and look like a monster.  Of course it might still look like a monster, but at least there would be nothing funny about it.

I have always enjoyed the drive through Ten Mile Canyon on the approach to Vail Pass. Towering spires of rock create a moonscape appearance. Driving through it now, with no other traffic on the road and the subtle light cast by the stars providing faint shadows, the experience seemed dreamlike. We passed silent Copper Mountain which is slightly less than a town and slightly more than a ski area. Copper Mountain in early October is lifeless and did nothing to add realism to the scene.

The road now began its upward climb. The car started missing slightly, and I cursed my procrastination at not getting it tuned up. It wasn’t serious, and Derry hadn’t noticed it. I expected the car could make it to the top, and if necessary could coast from there, so I kept this worry to myself. I think I needed the worry. Everything else was progressing too smoothly. Water breaking is the best way to start labor because it gives you all the time you need to get to the hospital. The weather was obviously perfect. We were within six days of the due date, which was fine. In fact everything was fine, and Derry was feeling wonderful. I nursed my slight worry over the engine as a cow might chew its cud. It helped me relax.

We crested the pass at midnight and began the long descent into Vail Valley. We would reach the hospital in ten minutes, and the car’s engine had shown no further signs of misbehaving. But slowly I became aware of a much more serious and unexpected problem. I wasn’t waking up. It had always been my contention when discussing The Event with Derry, that if things started in the middle of the night, we would easily wake up from sheet excitement, I had polished off a large cup of coffee to help with the excitement while Derry had been taking her shower. My body is so sensitive to caffeine that if I even get near a coffee can after six pm I don’t go to sleep until three in the morning. Drinking an entire cup of coffee, at this time of night, should have brought me awake in seconds.

Yet it had been an hour since I had gotten out of bed and I still wasn’t awake. A big help I’d be to Derry when labor started if I’d suddenly developed an immunity to coffee.

Arriving at Vail Medical Center, I dropped Derry off at the emergency room door, while I parked the car. Becoming more sleepy by the minute, I navigated my way back to the maternity ward and located Derry’s room. Vail’s hospital must be one of the few in the world where you can see signs over the corridors saying “NO SKI BOOTS PAST THIS POINT.”

Pouring a second cup of coffee I sat down wearily by Derry’s bed. My parents were there. They had followed us over the mountain to make sure we arrived safely, which had been part of the contingency plan. And Perrin Rudder was there, a friend from Summit County who works as a maternity room nurse in Vail. That was a nice touch, seeing a familiar face when everything else had a sense of unreality to it. I chugged a third cup of coffee.

It was 2:00 am. Derry’s contractions hadn’t started yet. Perrin was about to go off duty, and my parents decided they should go home, so it was now just me and Derry. Having reached the hospital safely there was nothing to contribute the long-awaited dose of adrenaline, and despite the coffee I still felt more asleep than awake. A nurse came in and told me I could and should go lie down in one of their unused rooms, which I did.

As soon as my head touched the pillow the three cups of coffee took effect. Knowing the fruitlessness of trying to go to sleep under such conditions, I pulled out the paperback novel I’d brought along and began reading. This seemed a silly thing to be doing while my wife was in another room about to go into labor but I had little choice. An hour and a half later I did succeed in getting to sleep, but thirty minutes after that the nurse came and woke me up. It was 4:30 am, Derry’s contractions had stared an hour ago, and they were now less than five minutes apart. This was the real thing.

I stumbled into her room. The lights were low and her breathing was relaxed, but my earlier confidence had vanished. I couldn’t remember any of the breathing exercises, I’d forgotten all of the comforting little things I was supposed to be doing for Derry, and I knew that this time around I was going to be a complete failure as a coach. I wasn’t even alert! Fortunately Derry was handling everything well by herself, and my presence seemed superfluous. I did remember that one of the most important things for the coach to do is simply to sit by the side of the bed and “be there.”  That I could do.

A fetal monitor had been hooked up, which displayed the baby’s heart beat in digital fashion. There is a large body of opinion which says that high heart beats mean girls, and low heart beats mean boys. Over the last several months our baby had hovered right around 140, which is the midpoint, and which therefore was inconclusive. I watched the monitor closely now, and saw heartbeats of up to 149 and down to 131. They seemed to be averaging about 138 which cast the evidence slightly towards a boy.

We were hoping for a girl. I can admit that now. Beforehand it seemed crass and insensitive to care about the gender. “Just as long as it’s healthy” is the axiom one is supposed to cling to, and that’s sensible. But it was hard not to care, and to ourselves we admitted we were hoping for a girl. In any case there was nothing that could be done at this point. It was just curiosity, and at last a growing sense of excitement, that was making me watch the monitor.

I did have time to observe the room itself, and the differences between this experience and the similar one two and a half years ago in Connecticut. Danbury was a big hospital. There are six labor rooms and two delivery rooms. They have an entire wing set aside for the maternity patients, and the nursery usually contains fifteen or twenty newborns. By contrast Vail has only two labor rooms and both are used for delivery. At the present time there were only three other maternity patents in the hospital, and no one was in the labor rooms. Derry’s earlier labor had been induced, and that meant wires and IV’s connected all over her, yielding a medical “high tech” effect This time everything was more natural, and her contractions seemed easier. She was continuing to breathe normally and deliberately.

By 6:00 am things finally started getting painful. I remembered the earlier stages of labor in Danbury when the doctor had said “I’d feel better if you felt worse.” Derry was feeling worse now. “Transition” had started, which is the hardest part of the process. At this point in Danbury Derry had given up her determination to have no medication and had reached the “Give me everything you’ve got” level, although the Doctor gave her only a mild relaxant, in Danbury I had been constantly at work keeping her breathing steadily, and forcing her to concentrate. This time I had nothing to do. She wasn’t asking for medication, she was breathing fine, and she didn’t need me to do anything. This was obviously going to be an easier labor.

The first few seconds after Erik’s birth had been scary for me. I had never seen a freshly born baby and I didn’t know how they are supposed to look. When Erik came out he wasn’t breathing, his eyes were closed, and he was blue. I thought he might even be dead although the doctor wasn’t concerned which was a good sign. This time I knew what to expect, and I braced myself for it. The head was going to appear in a few minutes.

Sure enough, here it came! But it wasn’t what I was expecting. This head had its eyes wide open, it was looking around, it was crying mildly, and it was certainly breathing. This was a wide awake baby! A few moments later the rest of it came out, and the doctor and nurses screamed “It’s a girl!” Being a modern-day American man I don’t cry easily, but when I heart “it’s a girl?” some hormone kicked in that wouldn’t be quenched and my eyes clouded right up. No one looks at the father at a time like that, fortunately. Everyone was looking at the new baby girl. I was looking at her myself, thinking “Well, so it was Kristen after all.” We’d had a terrible time coming up with a boy’s name, but Kristen had been our unanimous choice for a girl from the beginning.

Derry simply couldn’t believe it. She kept asking “It’s a girl? Really? Are you sure? Are you positive? It’s really a girl?” The doctor thought it was funny she wouldn’t believe him, so he pretended to check the baby all over, looking for traces of a boy, and then reported back “No, the evidence is pretty compelling. It’s a girl.” The doctor asked me if I wanted to cut the cord, which was something I wasn’t sure about, but I thought I should accept. It turned out not to be difficult and it was wonderful for my ego. It isn’t every day one can be all dressed up in scrubs and have a doctor handing over surgical instruments with great solemnity while nurses scurry about. I refused to take the scrubs off afterwards, in fact I kept them on the entire day. I find I get more respect around a hospital when I look like a surgeon.

Again unlike Erik who hadn’t been sure what to do when it came to nursing just after being born, Kristen knew exactly what it was all about. She attacked Derry’s breast with a vengeance when she was only five minutes old, which says a lot about instinct.

Pretty soon Derry was wheeled into one of the recovery rooms where she spent the next two days watching television, seeing friends, and staring at Kristen. It had been an amazingly easy delivery. Only three hours and forty-five minutes from start to finish. It had been painful, but the extent of that can be understood by Derry’s statement ten minutes after giving birth: “That wasn’t so bad. I wouldn’t mind doing that again.”

Erik came into the room several hours later. He had been prepped for months that there was a baby growing in mommy’s tummy that was going to come out pretty soon. He had been waiting as eagerly as the rest of us. Now he stood in the doorway, looking at his mommy, and at the little bundle she was holding. I was expecting the shyness and coyness so typical of his age, but he showed neither. A big smile spread across his face and his large blue eyes opened wide. He walked slowly to the bed, climbed awkwardly onto it, took the baby in his arms, leaned down, kissed the forehead, and then said “Hi, Kristen.”

I thought it was s the nicest greeting a little girl could have.

That night a blizzard hit Vail pass and slowed traffic to a crawl. A week later (On Derry’s due date) Vail pass, Loveland pass, and the Eisenhower tunnel closed entirely, and Summit County residents were trapped. But by then Kristen and the rest of the family were home by a roaring fire.

As I looked at the rapidly accumulating snow my only concern was where I could find ski boots small enough for those tiny feet.


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