I felt the pager on my belt vibrate, and I knew instantly what was happening. My wife was pregnant, and the pager was letting me know it was time to go to the hospital. This was not my first experience with childbirth, but it was the first one for my wife, and we had anxiously been waiting for this day to arrive. I told my co-workers what was happening, and they all wished me good luck and told me to hit the road.
As I climbed into my car and began the drive from the airport to my house in Gastonia, I thought to myself, “Finally.” It was September 19, 1998, and it had been a particularly hot summer, especially for a woman carrying a child in her womb. Nikki had had a rough pregnancy. It was hard to say what was making her the most miserable: her swollen joints, the rash she had developed as a result of the pregnancy, or her skin stretched out like the cover on a drum.
We knew from the ultrasound performed months earlier that we were expecting a little girl. This was especially good news for me because I already had two sons from a previous marriage, and my new wife desperately wanted a daughter. I had been informed, under no uncertain terms, that had this been another boy we would have been trying again. The ultrasound confirmed that we had achieved the desired results and, despite all my wife’s suffering, this made her very eager and excited.
I picked up my wife and we proceeded to the hospital. We were admitted and placed in a room. The maternity ward is probably the happiest, cheeriest place in the whole building. Storks, sheep, teddy bears, and ribbons adorned the walls all around us. Everyone smiled as new mothers passed by in the halls, cradling their bundles of joy. Soon, I thought, we would be joining their ranks, and all the torment my wife and myself had suffered would be made worthwhile.
Hospitals are not my favorite places. There is a certain smell about them: a very clean smell, but somehow twanged with a somber indifference. Then there are the noises: cries of newborns and the beeps and squawks of machines and monitors permeate the air. The chatter of doctors and nurses, as well as barking televisions, fill the halls and reach your ears, no matter where you go. Our room had those sounds present in it, all except for the crying newborn. My wife’s condition was constantly being checked. The nurse informed us that all was going well. Her cervix was dilating, as it needed to, and when it reached a ten we could expect that final sound to be present in our room. I looked at my wife as she lie in the hospital bed, sweating, experiencing contractions that were getting stronger and more painful by the minute. She wanted to hear and hold that baby right then.
A couple of hours passed, and she was dilated to an eight. Right on schedule, I said to myself. Suddenly the door to our room burst open, and doctors and nurses rushed in. They seemed to swarm around us like bees, but with purpose. Nikki, they explained as they prepped her and adorned me with scrubs and foot coverings, had begun to run a slight fever. We were told that this could be a sign of infection and, to avoid any risk to the baby, the doctor wanted to perform an emergency caesarian section. Taken aback, our nurse assured us that everything would be fine as they raced us down the hall to an operating room.
Now I get queasy and weak in the knees at the sight of blood, but there was no way I could not be present in that operating room. I sat at my wife’s head with my back to her feet.
They placed a snow-white sheet like a curtain between her head and where they were performing the surgery. I held the hand of my laboring wife and stroked her soft black hair to try and soothe her. The doctors and nurses worked frantically, and the extreme urgency of their actions brought about the realization that something was wrong. Although I could not see behind the sheet, nor did I want to, the sharp snappy tone of the doctors’ voices, coupled with the rush of movement, seemed to confirm the suspicions forming in my mind. Small crimson droplets of my wife’s blood splattered against the sheet, none of them any larger than the head of a finishing nail, yet still enough to turn my stomach. I could not let it show, though; I had to be strong for my beloved.
The sinking feelings that had begun only moments earlier in my thoughts were now verified as a branch of the medical team that was ours sped past us with the baby, a scene I will never forget. Every new mother cannot wait to behold the loveliness of the child that has lived inside of her for the term of her pregnancy, and Nikki was no different. She had waited for months to see this guest her body had sheltered and nourished. That first glimpse lets her know that everything she suffered through has been worth it, for at that moment what was anguish and pain are transformed instantly into beauty and joy. Newborn babies are pink, a very fleshy pink. Our baby girl was gray, a pale, ghostly gray color that sent a lump into my throat. “Oh yeah, something is bad wrong” echoed through my subconscious. The fact that they paused a fraction of a second for my wife to view her contribution to the world gave me further proof that this was not a normal procedure.
“Do you want to stay with your wife or come with the baby?” asked one of our nurses.
“Honey, you go with the baby,” said Nikki. “I’ll be fine. Let me know what color her eyes are.”
“Okay baby. I love you,” I whispered back.
She did not recognize that something was wrong. I rose to follow the group that had shifted their focus from my wife to my baby girl. The feverish pace they had worked on my wife with they now applied to our daughter. They huddled around the tiny gray shape like the offense of a football team calling their next play. We were in a different room than my wife at this point, and all the composure that I had to summon in front of her left me in a flash. A new doctor had joined the group, a pediatrician, I would later learn. I circled the group trying to figure out what they were doing. What looked like a clear plastic cake carrier covered my little girl’s head as they hooked her up to monitors and stuck needles in her teeny arms and legs.
“Is she going to be all right?” I could hear my voice crack as I spoke. This was like a bad dream, a nightmare, only I was awake. Tears welled up in my eyes, and the lump in my throat grew from a golf ball to a grapefruit as I posed the question again. Again, no one acknowledged me. Oh my God no, I thought, please don’t let her die. Tears were now streaming down my cheeks as I asked again, desperately wanting to hear everything was going to be okay, but knowing that was not the answer I was going to get.
Finally one of the nurses turned and addressed me. “Sir, we are doing everything we can. I know this is hard, but please be calm and Dr. Addo will speak to you in just a moment.”
A few moments later the work slowed, and Dr. Addo approached me. The tiny shape lay still under the cake cover. Monitors beeped and flashed, as nurses transitioned from what they had been doing to now just watching the screens. The air in the room was freezing, and my nostrils were full of the hospital smell. Dr. Addo began to explain to me what had happened. I stood there, numb, cold, listening to him describe how my daughter’s lungs had filled up with meconium. Apparently she had gone into distress when Nikki’s temperature rose, and the result was her having a bowel movement while still in the womb. The meconium is like tar, and when the baby’s lungs filled with it she could not breathe. The lack of oxygen was why she was gray, not pink. Dr. Addo told me that they had done everything possible, and now it was up to her. He said her chance of survival was fifty-fifty. Her condition would either improve or decline.
I walked outside the hospital and cried. What was I going to do? I could not go and face my wife and tell her our baby might not live. I prayed and chain-smoked. This could not be happening. I wanted to trade places with my little girl. Please Lord, I prayed, don’t let this precious little one pass from our lives like this. After some time I was able to gather myself up again. Now I had to go face Nikki.
When I finally returned to Nikki’s side she had been moved back into her room. She asked me if everything was all right, and she knew I was lying the moment I spoke. I held her hand and re-told what Dr. Addo had told me. She sobbed as I spoke, and my own tears returned. I squeezed her hand tightly and tried to comfort her. That was the longest night of our lives.
Several hours went by, and finally Dr. Addo entered our room. We were both terrified when he appeared, not knowing whether his presence was going to yield the news we wanted, or the news we had dreaded the possibility of hearing all night. As he spoke he told us our little girl was improving. “Quite the fighter,” he told us, and although it would be a day or two before we could leave, her condition should continue to improve, and she should be fine. The tears we had both shed through the long hours of the night were back, only now they were tears of joy. Victoria Marie McLean was no longer a tiny, gray shape; she was now a pink, little newborn baby girl with jet-black hair. In that instant I realized what a wonderful, fragile gift life is. I realize it again every day when I look at Tori, or hold her hand, or read her a book. She is my Tori bug, and I thank the Lord that He put her in my life.