Leonardo’s Birth Story: A First Time Father’s Perspective

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The baby was due on 10 January 2018. I had been hoping, for sentimental reasons, that he would arrive on 7 January, the anniversary of my own father’s passing – but that day came and went, and on the morning of Thursday 10th January, I drove to Winchester for an all-day team meeting with my work colleagues. That evening, I drove to Southampton where I spent the following day at another team meeting, the first part of which was held in a converted church, the second part of which was an Escape Room activity. I asked for, and received, an exemption to take my mobile phone into the escape room. It was a long and tiring day and there was some tension in the air at the team meeting. I remember driving back to Oxford along the A34, feeling completely exhausted. I arrived home at around 19:00 and kissed my heavily pregnant wife. I went straight to bed, waking up at 04:00 on 12 January having slept for nine hours straight. I felt refreshed and ready for what might be to come.

My wife started to ‘feel something’ in the early hours of the morning. I had planned to meet two friends, James and Gary, for coffee that morning. My wife suggested that I honour both of these appointments and that she would call me if I were needed at home. Well, by 05:00 it was obvious that I would not be meeting my friends for coffee and I messaged them both to say that I was required at home that day. Andrea was puffing and panting and called the hospital to let them know that she thought that the baby was arriving. They advised her to stay at home for a few more hours and to call them before heading to the hospital later that morning. Andrea then went to have shower in case she was not able to have one later and I went downstairs, packed the car and made sure that all Andrea’s things were ready.

Things then started to happen very quickly. I showered and then came downstairs to find my wife lying on a green exercise mat in our kitchen, moaning in pain and discomfort. The contractions had started and were overwhelming her to the point of leaving her in a state of incapacitation. When the contractions passed, all she wanted to do was lie down and rest. She seemed to have lost her mind and was unable to focus. My wife is one of the most focused and determined souls that I have ever met, so seeing her in a state of mental incapacitation was quite shocking. At that point I was relieved that this situation had not occurred the previous day when I was in Southampton.

All Andrea wanted to do was continue lying on the green exercise mat in our kitchen. I realised that I would have to take charge of the situation and knelt down besides my wife. I said to her: ‘When the contractions next pass, I need you to stand up, put your shoes and coat on – and then we’re going out to the car. All your things are ready. We cannot stay here any longer, we need to get you to the hospital’. The contractions passed and I helped her to the sofa where I put her shoes on as she was sitting down. I wanted her in the car before the contractions intensified again so I stood her up and helped her with her coat. I remember feeling incredibly protective towards my beautiful, pregnant wife. Normally so strong, she was, at that moment, extremely weak and unable to look after herself. I would look after her. 

We got in the car and drove to the John Radcliffe hospital. It was early Saturday morning and the streets were deserted. Driving my pregnant wife to the hospital was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I remember thinking: ‘There is literally no other place on Earth that you are supposed to be right now, Jules. There are no phone calls to make, no emails to send, no clients to call. Nothing, The only thing that you are supposed to be doing is what you are doing: helping your wife to bring your baby into the world.’ I felt useful. I felt like I was aligned with God’s will, living my destiny and I again remember feeling grateful that my wife and I had found each other and were sharing this experience. We arrived at the JR and parked in the unusually empty car park. The time on the parking ticket said 07:02.

We entered the Women’s Centre and made our way to the Maternity Unit. We received a frosty welcome from the staff on reception on account of our having forgotten to phone a second time to confirm our arrival time. That sparked off an uncomfortable and at times frightening hour of feeling as though we had been abandoned by the hospital staff. We were led to a sterile, grey room which looked like a prison cell (I work in a prison and therefore feel qualified to make the comparison) and Andrea’s waters broke properly leaking bloody liquid onto the floor. Andrea was in a great deal of pain and now wailing constantly. She wanted an epidural and she wanted it now. We had been left alone in the grey room and I left my distressed wife to go and find out what the plan was from the hospital staff. I again received short shrift from the nurses on duty. It was the hour of the day when shifts were ending and new turns were starting and it seemed that nobody there was willing to help us. I heard my poor wife wailing from down the corridor and my blood boiled. I was furious and it took a not inconsiderable amount of self-control for me to go full John Rambo. I was extremely conscious that I ran the risk of metamorphosing into that clichéd dad, at best admonishing, at worst abusing NHS staff. More important, I knew that I would not be helping my wife’s case if I were to lose my head. Not for the first time that day, I felt grateful to have had nine hours sleep, finding it easier to control my emotions when well rested. I was still furious though. And a bit frightened.

I went back to the little room and my wife begged me to help her, to do something to relieve her pain. It was heart-breaking to see her in so much discomfort. She again begged for an epidural: ‘Aiiee, ayudami, por favour!’ I also remember her futile yet noble attempts to cling on to her dignity by trying not to avoid flashing her private bits when she went to the bathroom. She told me off for not folding her garments as I placed them on the chair. I said to my wife gently something along the lines of: ‘Listen, love, this is going to get messy, so don’t worry too much about keeping up appearances’.

I went out to the office which housed the hospital staff, trying to secure assistance for my wife. I could hear her wailing as I spoke to the seemingly indifferent nurses. I was concerned that the hospital might refuse my wife an epidural and persistently kept inquiring as to the whereabouts and availability of the anesthesiologist. I had no idea how many other women were in the hospital giving birth at that moment and I had no idea how many anesthesiologists were on duty at that time.

I returned to the room to be greeted by the man who would become our Ángel Custodio for the next three hours. His name was Aaron, he was Spanish and he was our midwife. He was kind, sympathetic to our cause – and the fact that he spoke Spanish  was an added bonus, seeing as though my wife is Argentinian. We were taken to a much nicer room and assured that Andrea would be given an epidural when it was safe to do so. In the meantime, she was given plenty of gas and air, greedily gulping the mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide.

Whilst the gas and air had helped, Andrea was still in considerable discomfort and we were relieved when the anesthesiologist finally arrived.

“I understand that the following, among others, are possible complications or risks of the epidural and that while they are uncommon, they have been reported in the medical literature: Failure to relieve labour pain. Hypotension (low blood pressure). Back pain. Temporary nausea and vomiting. Breakage of needles, catheters, etc. possibly requiring surgery. Infection. Hematoma (blood clot) possibly requiring surgery. Postdural puncture (spinal) headache which may require medical therapy. Persistent area of numbness and/or weakness of the lower extremities (legs).Temporary nausea and vomiting. Rapid absorption of local anesthetics causing dizziness and seizures. Temporary total spinal anesthesia (requiring life support systems).Respiratory and/or cardiac arrest (requiring life support systems). Fetal distress resulting from one of the above complications.”

Andrea yelped ‘YES’ after the doctor had listed the inventory of unpleasant possibilities. Andrea later told me that at that point she had been in so much pain that she would have taken her chances with a 50/50 live or die probability. She can clearly remember thinking: ‘There is nothing you can say that will change my decision to have an epidural.’

Another doctor came and did some checks and we were told that the baby would probably not arrive until later that day. We were advised to settle down, relax and allow nature to take its course. We calmed down and I went down to the WH Smith at the hospital’s main entrance in order to pick up some supplies. For posterity I bought a copy of The Times, which happened to feature extended coverage of Andy Murray’s retirement (my wife loves tennis) and treated myself to a copy of Guitarist magazine which still, to this day, remains unread. I went back to the room and we settled down for what we thought would be quite a long day. 

I had brought along a bluetooth speaker and put on the playlist from our wedding which had taken place the previous year. What a difference an hour makes. Andrea was now doped up, having upgraded from sucking heartily on the Entonox to happily pressing the button which controlled the delivery of medication into the epidural space. She was chatting in Spanish with Aaron, whilst I was bouncing around the room listening to Oasis and Stornoway. This was great! It was going to be a celebration of life and love and everything in between. It was like that Peter Fonda scene from The Wild Angels (later sampled by Andrew Weatherall for his remix of Primal Scream’s Loaded) ‘We’re gonna have a good time, we’re gonna have a party!’

Everything was wonderful until it wasn’t. About half an hour had passed and we were still in party mode. I noticed that Aaron was frequently stealing sideways glancing at the cardiotocograph machine. ‘Todo bien?’ I asked. Aaron’s expression told me that all was not bien. He said that he was worried because the baby’s heart rate was dropping. He explained that in a healthy labour and delivery, the baby’s heart rate will drop slightly during a contraction, and then quickly return to normal once the contraction is over. However, whilst some variability in heart rate was to be expected, our baby’s heart rate had dropped to an alarmingly low rate. Aaron called for assistance and suddenly our room filled up with several staff members, including a doctor.

I still don’t fully understand what the issue was. The next hour was a blur. What I do know is that I was told that my wife would have to be taken to an operating room and the baby would be brought out using forceps. I was to don a surgical gown and mask and to wait in an adjacent room whilst Andrea was given an anaesthetic and prepared to give birth. Up until that point I had conducted myself in a calm and steadfast manner. But saying goodbye to my wife as she was wheeled into the operating room was just too much. I found myself choking back tears as I said to her: ‘You just shout my name if you need me, love, and I’ll be in that room in five seconds flat’.

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I waited anxiously until I was told I could enter the delivery room. Forceps would be used to bring out the baby. They looked like a medieval contraption and I couldn’t quite believe that they would be used to yank my son out of his mother. I positioned myself by Andrea’s head, we had agreed previously that I would not monitor ‘the business end’ of proceedings. Dispensing what must be typical marital pre-birth platitudes, I noted with immense pride my wife’s look of focus and concentration. I can’t remember much of what followed. What I do remember, is Andrea being told to push and my absolute horror as the doctor yanked the forceps, dragging my wife’s body down the bed by several inches. This was horrific. Surely if the force exerted was sufficient to move my wife’s body then it must be doing severe damage to the baby’s fragile skull? I was already in a state of panic as my wife continued to push and the doctor continued to pull. ‘He’s coming’ I heard, and after nine long months of incubation in utero, Leonardo burst out into the fresh air. It was 12:15. I could see him but I could hear nothing. ‘Is he alive?’ I thought? ‘Did his little heart stop?’ ‘Have the forceps mangled his skull?’ Silence.

And then he started to cry.

Nothing will every compare to the joy and relief I felt at that moment. It was incomparable. ‘He’s fine’ the doctor reassured us, before bundling Leo into his mother’s arms. Andrea and I were both in tears. ‘Fue increíble’ Andrea bawled. ‘Fue increíble’

I cut the umbilical chord and Aaron, lovely Aaron, took Leo from his mother, weighed him and helped me to apply his first nappy.

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I stayed in the hospital until they kicked me out at 22:00. I held in my hand the parking ticket which I had drawn at 07:02 that morning, a lifetime ago. As I drove past the Summertown shops, the streetlights burned brighter than they ever had before. 

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